Saudi Arabia Lifts 35-Year-Old Cinema Ban

First commercial movie theaters expected to open in early 2018

UPDATED With MPAA statement: A 35-year-old ban on cinemas in Saudi Arabia has been overturned as the socially conservative kingdom’s efforts to liberalize gain pace, with commercial movie theaters expected to open as soon as next March. A resolution allowing the Culture Ministry to license commercial cinemas has been passed, and the licensing process started for new theaters.

Cinemas were banned in the 1980s as they were considered a threat to religious and cultural identity. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (pictured) has been driving a program of social and economic reforms under the Vision 2030 banner, and rescinding the cinema ban is part of that drive. Saudi authorities were bullish on the long-term prospects for the cinema business in in the kingdom and said they anticipated 300 movie theaters opening, and there being 2,000 screens by 2030.

Culture Minister Awwad Alawwad said the process of licensing cinemas was already underway, describing it as a “watershed moment” in terms of Saudi Arabia’s cultural sector. “Opening cinemas will act as a catalyst for economic growth and diversification. By developing the broader cultural sector, we will create new employment and training opportunities, as well as enriching the kingdom’s entertainment options,” Alawwad said in a statement.

MPAA chairman-CEO Charles Rivkin issued a statement, saying, “The MPAA applauds the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – under the leadership of HRH Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman – for its decision to end the prohibition on movie theaters. This is a positive step for the development of Saudi Arabia’s local creative economy and for moviegoers throughout the Middle East region. We firmly believe that film has the power to build bridges, across borders and between cultures, in every corner of the world.

“I traveled to Saudi Arabia while serving as Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs and saw firsthand how members of the Saudi business community and entrepreneurs are engaging with their international counterparts. I am confident that the global film and television industry will be enriched by the participation of Saudi Arabia’s storytellers and film enthusiasts.”

The industry welcomed the move. “I think over the next few months there will be quite a few changes [in Saudi Arabia], lots of exciting things coming up,” said Dubai Film Festival general manager Shivani Pandya. “Everybody is excited because it’s expected to open up a huge market,” she added.

“It’s a huge population that basically has nothing to do,” said Karim Atassi, who handles business development for Middle East exhibition chain Cinemacity, which is currently in talks to develop several sites in several Saudi malls. “Everyone on the exhibition side is racing to get their foot in….The most important thing is who gets there first.”

Atassi specified that the sites they plan to build will have separate seating sections for men and for women and children.

Nick Vivarelli contributed to this report.

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