Riyadh by night. Picture: GETTY IMAGES
Riyadh by night. Picture: GETTY IMAGES

Riyadh — Saudi Arabia has lifted a decades-long ban on cinemas, part of a series of social reforms by the powerful crown prince that are shaking up the ultra-conservative kingdom.

The government said it would begin licensing cinemas immediately. The first movie theatres are expected to open in March 2018, in a decision that could boost the kingdom’s nascent film industry.

Reviving cinemas would represent a paradigm shift in the kingdom, which is promoting entertainment as part of a sweeping reform plan for a post-oil era, despite opposition from conservatives, who have long vilified movie theatres as vulgar and sinful.

"Commercial cinemas will be allowed to operate in the kingdom as of early 2018, for the first time in more than 35 years," the culture and information ministry said in a statement.

"This marks a watershed moment in the development of the cultural economy in the kingdom," the statement quoted Information Minister Awwad Alawwad as saying.

Like most public spaces in the kingdom, cinema halls are expected to be segregated by gender or have a separate section for families.

Religious hardliners, who see cinemas as a threat to cultural and religious identity, were instrumental in shutting them down in the 1980s.

Saudi Arabia’s highest-ranking cleric warned in January of the "depravity" of cinemas, saying they would corrupt morals.

But authorities appear to be shrugging off the threat, with some comparing Saudi Arabia’s reform drive to a fast-moving bus — either people get on board or risk being left behind.

In recent months Saudi Arabia has organised music concerts, a Comic-Con festival and a mixed-gender national day celebration that had people dancing in the streets.

Saudis themselves appear quietly astounded by the torrid pace of change, including the decision allowing women to drive from June 2018.

The social transformation chimes with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent pledge to return Saudi Arabia to an "open, moderate Islam" and destroy extremist ideologies.

Saudi film makers have long argued that a ban on cinemas does not make sense in the age of YouTube.

Saudi films have been making waves abroad, using the internet to circumvent distribution channels.

"It is a beautiful day in #SaudiArabia! Saudi Arabia says cinemas to get licences in early 2018," female director Haifaa al-Mansour wrote on Twitter. Her film Wadjda made history in 2013 when it became Saudi Arabia’s first Academy Award entry. The film depicts the dream of a 10-year-old girl to get a bicycle just like the boys in her conservative neighbourhood.

In 2017 the country is again vying for an Oscar with Barakah Meets Barakah, the kingdom’s first romantic comedy, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival.

"Now our young men and women will show the world possibilities and stories worth seeing," Saudi film maker Aymen Tarek Jamal said on Twitter.


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