First public cinema opens in Saudi Arabia in 35 years

Clay Curtis
April 19, 2018

To serve a population of more than 32 million, most of whom are under the age of 30, authorities plan to set up around 350 cinemas with over 2,500 screens by 2030, which they hope will attract almost $1 billion in annual ticket sales.

Al-Zahrani pointed out that there are available spaces in commercial complexes that can be converted to movie theatres after requirements are fulfilled.

The experience marks the opening of important opportunities for the pioneers of the Project, said Minister of Culture, Awwad Alawwad. The social push by the 32-year-old heir to the throne is part of his so-called Vision 2030, a blueprint for the country that aims to boost local spending and create jobs amid sustained lower oil prices.

The kingdom banned cinemas in early 1979.

Over the past several years, Saudi Arabia has gradually loosened restrictions on movie screenings, with local film festivals and screenings in makeshift theaters.

In particular, the country has at long last allowed women to drive and serve in the army as well as limiting the overwhelming powers of the religious police.

Saudi writer and dissident Jamal Khashoggi describes the theaters of the 1970s as being "like American drive-ins, except much more informal". Despite the cinema ban, Hollywood films and television series are widely watched at home, and private film screenings have been largely tolerated for years.

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Access to streaming services, such as Netflix, and satellite TV steadily eroded attempts by the government to censor what the Saudi public could view.

However, women in Saudi Arabia still have limited rights.

According to the ministry, it was the first time for Qatar to take part in military drills alongside Saudi Arabia since the latter cut ties with Doha last summer.

The cinema will be operated by US-based firm AMC, which signed a deal with Riyadh earlier this month, stating that AMC will open 30 to 40 movie theatres in 15 cities across the kingdom within five years.

A woman eats popcorn during the test screening of Black Panther at the AMC cinema in Riyadh.

The Public Investment Fund (PIF) announced earlier this month that the wholly-owned Development and Investment Entertainment Company has signed an agreement with USA giant AMC Entertainment to manage its cinemas in Saudi Arabia.

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