Middle East

Saudi Arabia launches new cinema, ending a nearly 40-year ban

'Black Panther' was shown in Riyadh at a special screening on Wednesday (Reuters)

Saudi Arabia launched its first commercial movie theatre on Wednesday, ending a nearly 40-year ban on cinemas.

A red carpet invitation-only gala event attracted senior government officials, foreign dignitaries and select industry figures to watch Marvel's superhero movie "Black Panther" on a 45-foot screen at a converted symphony concert hall in Riyadh.

Tickets will go on sale on Thursday for the first public viewings on Friday, according to Adam Aron, chief executive of operator AMC Entertainment Holdings.

"Saudis now are going to be able to go to a beautiful theatre and watch movies the way they're supposed to be watched: on a big screen," he told Reuters ahead of the screening.

Confetti rained down through the multi-storey atrium as he and the Saudi information minister announced the official launch of the theatre and proceeded into the 450-seat movie hall.

The opening marks another sign for changes spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to open the country culturally and diversify the economy. Saudi Arabia is the world's top oil exporter.

The prince, 32, has already eased restrictions in the last two years including on public concerts, women driving and gender mixing.

The kingdom banned cinemas in the early 1980s under pressure from religious scholars as Saudi society embraced an ultraconservative form of Islam.

Yet Saudis have been avid consumers of Western media and culture. Despite the cinema ban, Hollywood films and television series are widely watched at home and private film screenings have been largely tolerated for years.

In 2017, the government said it would lift the ban as part of reforms that aim to keep money in the country that Saudis currently spend on entertainment in trips to Dubai, Bahrain and elsewhere.

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To serve a population of more than 32 million, most of whom are under the age of 30, the authorities plan to set up around 350 cinemas with over 2,500 screens by 2030, which they hope will attract nearly $1 billion in annual ticket sales.

A source familiar with the matter said last month theatres would not be segregated by gender like most other public places. Information Minister Awwad al-Awwad told Reuters on Wednesday that they would be similar to cinemas around the world.

Initial screenings are likely to be for families with some occasional ones for bachelors. The extent of censorship was not clear but a Saudi official said the same versions of films shown in Dubai or Kuwait will be suitable for Saudi Arabia.

Bin Salman sought entertainment deals and met Hollywood celebrities in his trip to the US earlier this month.

Many Saudis rejoiced in anticipation of the opening, sharing praise and pictures of bin Salman on social media.

Others expressed confusion at what they called the government's about-face on cinemas' permissibility, with one tweeting: "Remember you will stand in front of God … and you will bear the sins of all those who watched the movies."

Despite his proclaimed push for modernisation, bin Salman has been criticised by rights groups for his crackdown on dissent and the ongoing Saudi-led war in Yemen.

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