Movie Theaters Will Be Legal in Saudi Arabia Again After 35 Years

‘Black Panther’ will be the first movie to be screened to mark the reopening of the country’s cinemas

Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther” will usher in the return of cinema in Saudi Arabia Marvel

Update, April 18, 2018: Saudi Arabia will end its ban on movie theaters this Wednesday. "We are showing Black Panther, the third most successful movie of all time in the United States and it will air about 19 hours from now," AMC Entertainment CEO Adam Aron announced in an exclusive interview with CNN earlier today. Watch the full conversation over at CNN and read our story from December 2017 about the decision to reopen the country's cinemas below.

This week, Saudi Arabia announced that it will soon allow its citizens to go to the movies for the first time in 35 years. Scott Neuman at NPR reports that the government has already begun issuing cinema licenses and that the first movie theaters will open in March 2018.

The move is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 program, an effort to liberalize the culture of the religiously conservative kingdom and diversify its economy away from energy development. “This marks a watershed moment in the development of the cultural economy in the kingdom,” information minister Awwad Alawwad said in a statement.

Alan Cowell and David D. Kirkpatrick at The New York Times report that though the statement does not give details on exactly what movies will be allowed in the cinemas, they will be subject to government restrictions. “The content of the shows will be subjected to censorship based on the media policy of the kingdom,” the statement says. “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 senior research fellow of the Middle East and North Africa at the Chatham House think tank, tells the Times that she suspects the movies shown will be similar to those available to passengers on the national airline Saudia. Films that contain sex or nudity are not shown on those flights and any images of alcohol or bare flesh are reportedly pixelated. Violence and gore, however, have been tolerated.

According to Agence France-Presse, the American movie chain AMC has already signed a memorandum of understanding with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund to build and operate theaters throughout the country. The Dubai-based cinema chain VOX has also indicated interest in expanding into Saudi Arabia. In total, the culture minister says he believes the country will support 300 theaters and 2,000 screens by 2030.

Alexandra Zavis and David Ng at the Los Angeles Times report that movie theaters were banned in Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s as ultraconservative religious doctrines began to be strictly enforced throughout the kingdom. But the three decade edict hasn't totally stomped out an appreciation for film among the country's populace. Many citizens travel to neighboring nations to see first-run films and rent or stream movies to watch at home.

While the move is likely to be popular among younger Saudis, the religious authorities are likely to be upset by the lifting of the ban. Zavis and Ng report that the grand mufti, the religious authority in the country, has called movies theaters depraved and a threat to public morals.

This is not the only recent cultural reform in Saudi Arabia. In September, women were granted the right to drive. Women were also allowed into a sports stadium for the first time. The changes are likely being driven by the 32-year-old crown prince Mohammed, who has consolidated power over the last two years and many observers believe is driving most of the policy in the nation.

While observers in the West generally support the liberalization of the repressive Saudi society, it’s hard to know what direction the crown prince will take the nation. In November, for instance, the crown prince imprisoned 500 Saudi royals and billionaires in a five-star hotel. The move, which made international headlines, was hailed by proponents as an important step in ridding the country of corruption, but seen by critic as a means for the crown prince to consolidate power.