Saudi Arabia opened its first movie theater on Wednesday in a historic launch at the King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh, bringing an end to a 35-year ban on cinemas over fears that they distort Islamic morality.
The launch, held by the Chinese-owned AMC Entertainment, featured the screening of the latest Hollywood blockbuster Black Panther. Authorities allowed both men and women at the event.
“The return of cinema to Saudi Arabia marks an important moment in the Kingdom’s modern day history and cultural life, as well as in the development of the Kingdom’s entertainment industry,” said Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Culture and Information, Dr. Awwad Alawwad, following the launch.
“Today, we mark a major step in fulfilling our commitment to improving the lives of all in the Kingdom, a key pillar of Vision 2030,” he continued. “Cinema has always played an important role in bringing cultures together and Saudi Arabia is ready to play its part.”
— Al Arabiya English (@AlArabiya_Eng) April 18, 2018
Under the latest plans, the country will open around 350 cinemas and 2,500 screens by 2030, which they estimate will generate $1 billion in box office revenues every year and add around 30,000 jobs to the economy, thus turning Saudi Arabia into one of the world’s largest film markets.
The opening of commercial movie theaters is just one of the many reforms taking place under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman as part of his “Vision 2030″ economic program.
Recent reforms include expanding of women’s rights so that they will soon be allowed to drive cars, participate in various sports, and even find employment in the country’s ministry of justice. Some powerful religious voices still oppose the opening. Saudi Arabia’s highest-ranking cleric warned last year of the “depravity” of cinemas while urging the government “not to open doors for evil.”
“At the beginning, they would assign areas for women, but then both men and women will end up in one area,” said Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al Sheikh last January. “This corrupts morals and destroys values.”
Many view the move as necessary given people’s widespread access to online streaming services such as YouTube and Netflix and a growing demand for access to movie theaters nationwide.
Films screened in Saudi theaters will still be subject to approval by government authorities, as is done in other Muslim countries. Typically, scenes involving nudity, sex, or homosexual activity are censored, while violence is typically allowed.