For the last thirty-five years, movie theaters have been banned throughout most of Saudi Arabia. The country’s grand mufti, or highest-ranking religious official, leaned conservative and declared that movies caused “depravity.” This ruling was recently overturned by Saudi Arabia’s progressive Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In addition to loosening other conservative laws, such as granting women the right to drive, the Saudi government allowed movie theaters to be opened for the first time in decades.

Exceptions to Every Rule

Faced with Saudi Arabia’s ban, citizens refused to live in a movie-less bubble. Saudis keep up with the latest media by watching television with a satellite dish or downloading from the Internet. They also go to great lengths just to visit a theater. For those in the capital Riyadh, this involves taking a five-hour road trip to Bahrain, an island nation in the Persian Gulf.

The ban never even applied to residents working for major oil company Saudi Aramco in the city of Dhahran. The city has embraced modern practices more so than everywhere else in the country. The Aramco theater opened seventy years ago for American families of employees and hasn’t closed since. While native Saudis must abide by conservative religious practices, foreigners residing in the country have always been exempt. As a result Saudi Aramco provides modern recreation for its employees.

saudi arabia movie theaters

A Theatrical Renaissance

Reversing ban means a whole new industry for Saudi Arabia. Culture Minister Awwad Alawwad confirmed hopes that the ban reversal would lead to a stronger local economy. To get the ball rolling, United States cinema chain AMC agreed to a deal that would bring 40 theaters to cities across the country within the next five years. This deal includes a grand theater built in the financial district in Riyadh. Visitors will be treated to 500 leather seats, marble bathrooms and two-level screening rooms. The Saudi government wants to see 300 new theaters, both AMC and otherwise, by 2030.

In January the city of Jeddah held a week-long movie festival in its cultural center since they didn’t have a theater yet. U.S. titles were prominent among films shown, including 2017 children’s movies “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” and “The Emoji Movie.” While not exactly Oscar contenders, they fit the Saudi government’s strict censorship laws. Approved movies won’t include much romance as all sex and nudity are off-limits. Taboo content like alcohol or bare skin (such as exposed shoulders) will be blurred out.

At least Saudis can look forward to the latest Marvel hit. “Black Panther” has received the honor of being the first movie to air in an official Saudi Arabian theater, courtesy of the AMC deal.

The return of movie theaters will create more support for movies made in Saudi Arabia, not only imported titles. A 2012 film “Wadjda” (about a 10-year-old girl who breaks social restrictions by acquiring a bicycle), was the first Saudi film sent to the Academy Awards. The first Saudi romantic comedy, 2016 film “Barakah Meets Barakah,” was also submitted to the Academy Awards and aired in the Berlin International Film Festival.