Saudi Arabia to lift 35-year ban on movie theaters

Saudi Arabia to lift 35-year ban on movie theaters
Saudi women attend the "Short Film Competition 2" festival on Oct. 20 at King Fahad Culture Center in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Culture and Information said the kingdom will lift a 35-year ban on movie theaters, starting in March. (Favez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

Theatergoers in Saudi Arabia have a lot of catching up to do — the last time they could go to a public cinema, the box office hits were “E.T.,” “Tootsie,” and “Conan the Barbarian.”

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture and Information, Awwad Alawwad, announced Monday that the kingdom will lift a 35-year ban on movie theaters, starting in March.

“This marks a watershed moment in the development of the cultural economy in the kingdom,” Alawwad said. “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.”

Why was the ban in place?

Saudi Arabia adheres to Shariah (Islamic law), and Saudi Arabia’s clerics have long considered movies sinful, especially those from the U.S. and Europe.

In January, the head of the government’s General Authority for Entertainment, Amr al-Madani, condemned the planned lifting of the ban.

“I hope those in charge of the Entertainment Authority are guided to turn it from bad to good and not to open doors to evil,” Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh said. “Motion pictures may broadcast shameless, immoral, atheistic or rotten films.”

He added: “The Mufti also stressed that there is nothing good in song parties, for entertainment day and night and opening of movie houses at all times is an invitation to mixing of sexes.”

What caused the dramatic change?

The measure is the latest social reform by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has advocated for reform in the Islamic kingdom as part of his Vision 2030 plan. An 85-page mission statement outlines the reforms and government programs that the Saudi government will enact over the next 22 years, promising “a vibrant society, a thriving economy, and an ambitious nation.”

The plan will also remove the ban on women driving.

Bin Salman, 32, has disrupted the social norms of the Saudi kingdom. During a speech in October at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, bin Salman denounced the kingdom’s “extremist ideologies.”

“Seventy percent of the Saudi population is under the age of 30,” bin Salman said. “In all honesty, we will not spend 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideologies. We will destroy them today and immediately.”

“Saudi was not like this before ’79. Saudi Arabia and the entire region went through a revival after ’79,” he continued, adding, “All we’re doing is going back to what we were: a moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world and to all traditions and people.”