Less than a week after news broke that women in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to drive in the Kingdom, Saudi Gazette reported that cinemas — currently banned in the country — are expected to open before the end of 2017.
Former chairman of the Saudi Cinema Committee Fahd Al-Tamimi stressed that there is nothing in the Ministry of Culture and Information laws that prevent [opening of] cinema halls, the newspaper reported.
Ahmed Al-Khatib, the chairman of the General Entertainment Authority (GEA), had told Reuters in April that cinemas would come to Saudi Arabia eventually, but this would happen as per official measures that the Kingdom adopts when dealing with developmental projects.
His goal, he had said, was to create entertainment that “will be like 99 percent of what is going on in London and New York,” although he had noted that after decades of cultural conservatism such change could not be rapid.
“I believe we are winning the argument,” he had said. A few Saudis were liberal, a few conservative, but “the majority are moderate.”
GEA’s approach is based on enabling the private sector to improve entertainment in a way that harmonizes with Saudi values that depend on the tolerant teachings of Islam, Al-Khatib had elaborated.
He had noted that 10,000 more people than could be accommodated showed up for Comic-Con, a comic book convention held in Jeddah in February.
“The demand is massive. And it is normal – the demographic is young in Saudi Arabia and we have a higher disposable income than other countries.”
The Kingdom’s most ambitious leisure project to date is a giant entertainment city being planned for outside the capital Riyadh, which would aim to draw regional visitors with resorts, golf courses, car racing tracks and a Six Flags theme park, according to Saudi Gazette.
The country had some cinemas in the 1970s, but have been banned since. Concerts have started to be held this year as the government has promised a shake-up of the cultural scene with a set of “Vision 2030” reforms conceived by powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
With more than half the country aged under 25, Prince Mohammed, the architect of Vision 2030, is seen as catering to the aspiration of the youth with an array of entertainment options and promoting more women in the workforce.
The prince, however, could face opposition from religious hardliners as well as a conservative society that is fundamentally opposed to cultural reforms such as women driving and cinema halls.
In January, Saudi Arabia’s top religious authority had called cinemas and singing concerts harmful and corrupting. The comments by Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, published on his website, said that cinemas and round-the-clock entertainment could open the door to “atheistic or rotten” foreign films and encourage the mixing of the sexes.
Saudi Arabia’s clerics offer legitimacy and public support to a king who styles himself the guardian of Islam’s holiest sites. Traditionally, they have been known to retain control of the justice system, leaving most other matters of governance to him so long as his edicts do not contradict their interpretation of Islamic law.