Saudi Arabia announced on Monday that it would allow commercial movie theaters to open for the first time in more than 35 years.
The moves to allow access by early 2018, part of a broad campaign by the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to transform Saudi society, followed measures that would give women the right to drive and to attend soccer games, and that would allow concerts and other forms of public entertainment.
Although satellite television and video downloads have made the ban on commercial theaters all but irrelevant, the announcement highlights the transformation dynamics of the Saudi society moving in the direction of moderate Islam.
The social overhauls are part of a broad plan to open up the kingdom’s economy and to reduce its near-total dependence on oil. To that same end, the crown prince has simultaneously embarked on a broad crackdown against corruption, holding members of the Saudi elite in a luxury hotel, in what has been described as an effort to force them to repay billions of dollars diverted into personal coffers from other transactions.
In a statement, the Culture and Information Ministry said the government would begin within 90 days licensing movie houses to open. It did not indicate what kind of movies the government might allow to be screened, but made clear that films would be governed by Islamic law.
“The content of the shows will be subjected to censorship based on the media policy of the kingdom,” the statement said. “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.”
The ministry hoped the move would “encourage economic growth by developing the culture and media sector, and offer new employment opportunities,” including 30,000 full-time jobs by 2030.
Saudi Arabia began closing movie theaters soon after it adopted ultraconservative religious standards in 1979. Saudi clerics denounced Western movies, and even the many Arabic-language films made in Egypt, as contrary to the teachings of Islam.
In 2013, the film “Wadjda” became the first Saudi entry for the Academy Awards. It told the story of a 10-year-old misfit girl who yearns for a particular green bicycle so she can compete with boys. But acquiring the bicycle means breaking several taboos. The film had a female director, Haifaa al-Mansour, and was filmed exclusively in Saudi Arabia.
“Barakah Meets Barakah,” described as Saudi Arabia’s first romantic comedy and directed by Mahmoud Sabbagh, was also entered for the Academy Awards. It premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2016.