RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — For the first time in three decades, Saudis in the nation’s capital did something that most Westerners take for granted — they went to the movies. But it wasn’t exactly date night. No women were allowed.
Saturday’s screening of the Saudi film, “Menahi,” brought a taste of the moviegoing experience to Riyadh more than 30 years after the government began shutting down theaters — a move driven by religious conservatives who view cultural activities such as movie screenings and concerts with concern because they could lead to mixing of the sexes and violate Islamic values.
Men and children, including girls up to 10, were allowed to attend Saturday’s show at a government-run cultural center. Young male organizers of the event manned a checkpoint on the road leading to the gated center so no women could reach the theater.
And in a sign of the challenges that face every small step toward reform, a group of conservative men gathered outside the entrance to the center to try to discourage the moviegoers from going in. People largely ignored them, savoring the chance to munch popcorn and enjoy the cinema.
“It was just beautiful to see people look so animated and happy,” said Misfir al-Sibai, a 21-year-old Saudi businessman who attended the screening. “That was the best part of the evening.”
Despite the exclusion of half of Riyadh’s population, the decision to show the film, produced by a company owned by royal tycoon Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, was a daring step. It followed a trend in opening up the kingdom, culturally and in other ways, that began when King Abdullah came to power in 2005.
That has angered conservatives, who have issued edicts against such cultural events. One of them, Youssef al-Ahmed, has even accused Alwaleed and another Saudi businessman of being as dangerous as drug dealers because the TV channels they own broadcast movies.
Inside the center on Saturday, the atmosphere was lively as the moviegoers bought popcorn and posed for pictures with the film’s cast.
Two Saudi men tried — but failed — to disrupt the evening. One of them stood up after evening prayers at the mosque attached to the cultural center and urged worshippers not to take the few steps to the theater, said al-Sibai.
Shortly after the film began, the viewers could hear another man shout that they should refrain from spending their money on such decadent pursuits, said al-Sibai. He was led away by security.
Al-Sibai said the disturbances didn’t dampen people’s mood, and the film — a comedy about a Bedouin who has a difficult time adapting to life in Dubai — was shown in its entirety to an almost full house.
Saudi movie directors and aficionados have tried to revive cinema in Saudi Arabia in the past few years, encouraged by the more open environment in the kingdom.
There has been an upsurge in Saudi-produced movies, some of which have taken part in international film festivals. The kingdom held its first Saudi film festival last year in the city of Dammam. The event was attended by the information minister in a clear sign of official approval.
Alwaleed, a nephew of King Abdullah and the world’s 13th-richest person as ranked by Forbes magazine, has been outspoken about the need for movie theaters, saying in February he is certain that one day there will be cinemas in Saudi Arabia.
Although there are no theaters in the country, Saudis can watch movies at home on television. Some hold informal screenings in their living rooms or travel to nearby Bahrain to catch the latest releases. There are also numerous video stores that stock the latest films after kisses and other such scenes have been cut. Several Saudi newspapers even have a weekly movie page.
“Menahi” was shown to a mixed audience in the more open western seaport city of Jiddah and the resort of Taif a few months ago. According to a statement by Rotana, which produced “Menahi,” 25,000 viewers watched the movie, including 9,000 women.
Ibrahim Badi, Rotana spokesman, said the company could not get permission from authorities for women to attend in more conservative Riyadh.
Publicity for the film in Riyadh was discreet, apparently out of fear opponents would gather en masse to stop the screening. A couple of newspapers reported the coming event Saturday and listed the few places where tickets could be bought. Three more shows are expected in the coming days.
Talal Saleh, a 25-year-old who attended the screening, said it’s better to keep women away at the beginning.
“This is a conservative society that’s not used to mixing,” said Saleh. “Change should happen gradually.”