After more than 35 years of lockdown, Saudis will finally be able to participate in an everyday social activity the rest of the world takes for granted – going to the movies.
The first cinema, launched by American chain AMC Theatres, will open in the nation’s capital, Riyadh. As is with most projects in the Middle East, this theatre is bold and ambitious. The main theater will have about 500 leather seats, orchestra and balcony levels and marble bathrooms, with three more screens being added by mid-summer. AMC Chief Executive Adam Aron speaks highly of the project: “We think it’s going to be the prettiest movie theater in the world, it’s a dramatic building.” However, the theatres aren’t for just the elite – the Kingdom plans to set up around 350 cinemas with over 2,500 screens by 2030, allowing all citizens of society an opportunity to access this form of modern culture.
Saudi Arabia had some cinemas in the 1970s but its powerful clerics closed them, reflecting rising Islamist influence throughout the Arab region at the time. The move is a huge blow to the country’s religious establishment, who had historically been influencing the nation to embrace an extremely conservative interpretation of Islam. Saudi Arabia’s highest-ranking religious authority, Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh, warned against the “depravity” of commercial theaters in January, and has publicly opposed their opening. Of course going completely against the traditions of Islam would be too drastic a change for the traditional population to handle, hence the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information has promised that the movies will be censored and edited to ensure that they don’t “contradict the Sharia laws and the moral values of the Kingdom.” Though a large proportion of the young Saudi population through travel and the internet is already exposed to modern culture, this is a huge step in modernizing the society of the most powerful Arab nation.
The first film which will premiere is, Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’, the movie famous for embracing African culture (seehttps://newsexplain.com/panther.html). Entertainment is an extremely potent tool in influencing people and bringing about social change. Viewers of films are exposed to new and different lifestyles, resulting in inspiration and new ways of thinking. Allowing Western films to be publicly broadcasted could perhaps lead the way to the opening of new social opportunities.
Importantly, movie theatres will not be segregated by gender like most other places are. The theatres will be a liberating setting where women will have the same opportunities as men, another empowering move towards equality after the nation announced that women would be able to drive legally from 2018. Allowing women these rights engenders them to join the work force, leading to increased women’s involvement in society and the economy. The question which arises is after decades of conservative tradition, why the sudden reform?
Turns out the move has more to do with the economy than social change. Analysts say it was finance, rather than a realization of the atrocities of institutionalized patriarchy, that motivated the ruling family to make the move. Saudi Arabia has long been dependent on the oil industry to fuel its riches, however after the recent plunges in oil prices beginning in 2014, the government is attempting to diversify its economy by focusing more on other secondary and tertiary sectors such as technology, entertainment and finance. The project, named ‘Vision 2030’, was ideated by the young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who is adamant on carrying out the social and economic reform at break-neck speed. The Crown Prince who has been touring the United States seeking investment opportunities, is hoping that the social reform will attract foreign businesses into the nation, further aiding in boosting the economy into a sustainable one. According to the Minister of Culture and Information, the opening of the cinema industry will enhance the local economy by increasing household spending on entertainment while creating numerous jobs. With the right to drive and the cinema industry, women will have more disposable income which can in turn be spent on cinema tickets and services which surround the cinema such as food and drinks.
Although the changes in Saudi Arabia are made with the economy in mind, the outcomes are seen on a much larger scale. It isn’t just the amount of money in citizens’ wallets which is increasing, it’s their cultural openness too. Social and economic development go hand in hand, they compliment each other. We’ve seen it happen in Saudi’s Middle Eastern counterparts such as UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait, but with such a strong religious authority in Kingdom, it won’t be an easy task. Within the next decade we may not think of Saudi Arabia as the oil-dependent, oppressive and hyper-conservative Kingdom, but a powerful nation with a modernized population.