Saudi Arabia is known as one of the most conservative countries in the world. But the Middle Eastern kingdom is slowly changing. On December 11th, the country announced it will allow movie theaters to open after 35 years.
The government announced that 300 cinemas with a total of 2,000 screens will be built by 2030. Despite the previous lack of public theaters, Saudi Arabians have been able to watch films via streaming services or satellite TV.
Saudi Arabian prince Mohammed bin Salman has been focused on slowly making his country more progressive. In September, he announced that women will gain the right to drive and attend soccer games in Saudi Arabia starting in 2018. And bin Salman has also worked to legalize other forms of entertainment, like concerts. Movie theaters will be able to open starting in early 2018.
Religious officials in Saudi Arabia have opposed cinemas for years, and the grand mufti, the highest religious authority in the country, referred to movies as a form of “depravity” a few months ago. Movie theaters have been banned in Saudi Arabia since the 1980s, when the country adopted a super-conservative version of Islam. At the time, religious officials frowned upon public entertainment and men and women interacting with each other in public.
The government’s liberalization comes as an attempt to expand its economy and decrease its dependence on oil.
But Saudi Arabians won’t be able to see every movie. The government said any movies shown in the country would be censored, in order to appease religious conservatives. Officials did not announce how extensive the censorship will be, or what it will include, only promising that it will ensure the country remains in line with Sharia Law.
Given the country’s strict gender segregation and restrictions on women’s behavior, it’s possible that men and women will have to attend separate movie theaters. It’s also unclear whether international films will be screened in the new theaters.
Opening movie theaters may not seem like a huge step toward progress, but for Saudi Arabia, this decision is a big deal. We applaud bin Salman for working to bring progress to his country. And we’re excited for all the Saudi Arabians who will soon be able to enjoy their favorite movies on the big screen.