Saudi Arabia Lifts its 35-Year Ban on Movie Theaters
In 1979, religious leaders in Saudi Arabia voiced a strong disapproval of both Western movies and many Arabic-language films made in Egypt, citing that they did not harmonize with the teachings of Islam. It was at this point in history that the clerics also banned commercial movie theaters in Saudi Arabia altogether.
Now, over 35 years later, the nation’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has announced that he will bring this restriction to an end, the New York Times reported Monday.
Computers and mobile devices already make it possible for many Saudis to watch the movies they want, but the lifting of the ban indicates the waning power of conservative clerics.
The ban eradication is just one of several steps bin Salam, 32, has taken to not only modernize Saudi Arabia, but to broaden its economy by attempting to lessen its dependence on oil. A more moderate form of Islam could also attract foreign investment.
In September, it was announced that women in the country would be given the right to drive, and on December 6, Lebanese singer Hiba Tawaji gave the first public concert by a female performer on Saudi Arabian soil.
Islamic law will govern the films that are chosen to be screened, according to a statement by the Culture and Information Ministry.
“The content of the shows will be subjected to censorship based on the media policy of the kingdom,” the statement said. “The shows will be in line with the values and principles, and will include enriching content that is not contrary to Shariah laws and ethical values of the kingdom.”
Jane Kinninmont, a scholar at the British research organization Chatham House, believes that censorship might be as negative as its depicted. “Maybe there will be some jobs created in a new agency to censor the movies,” she said. The Culture and Information Ministry also hopes that by developing the country’s culture and media sector, up to 30,000 new jobs will be created by 2030.
Although the specifics of any censorship that will take place are not yet known, Kinninmont says that one can get an idea of what it might entail by looking at the kinds of films Saudi Arabia’s national airline already shows on its flights.
The airline does not show films with sex or nudity, nor bottles and glasses of alcohol. Displays of flesh, such as shoulders, are commonly pixelated. While romance is avoided, there does not seem to be an objection to showing violence and gore.
Another question about the future of cinemas arises the possible theatre seating arrangements. Restaurants and coffee shops are still segregated according to gender. But the answer could come in fewer than 90 days, when the government begins licensing movie theaters to open.