Cinemas set to reopen in Saudi Arabia after 35-year ban


The first movie theatre in Saudi Arabia can open in March, the Ministry of Culture and Information said Monday, lifting a 35-year-old ban on cinemas in the country. 

The Board of the General Commission for Audiovisual Media, the kingdom's regulator, agreed to grant licences to cinemas, in the latest decision by the world's top oil exporter this year to diversify the economy and introduce social reforms.

The move is part of the kingdom's Vision 2030 plan, launched by Saudi Arabia's powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which aims at opening the country to investments and decrease its reliance on oil revenues. The ministry expects 300 cinemas will be opened by 2030, with more than 2,000 screens. 

Shortly after the decision was announced, the hashtag "The Cinema In Saudi Arabia" was trending worldwide on Twitter, with many users celebrating the news.

"What is coming will be even better," wrote one person, while another said that 2017 has been "a historic year for the kingdom", after lifting a ban on women driving and allowing females into sports stadiums.

"May we see churches in Saudi Arabia. Live and let others live," one Twitter user wrote.

There are no places of worship in the Gulf kingdom other than mosques, though Christians are allowed to work in the country.

Others used the hashtag to express disapproving opinions, with one writing: "Increasing sins will have a dangerous impact on the society as whole."

This is the first time cinemas will be licensed since their ban in the early 1980s.

After the 1979 unrest, which saw more than 20 people killed as the Shia minority's demonstrations against the Sunni rulers turned violent, the ruling Al Saud family gave religious hard-line clerics greater space to influence public life, which led to a ban on cinema among many tight rules on the social life.

Since then, Saudis used satellite channels or video tapes to watch films on foreign channels. Many of them also go to movie theatres in neighbouring Gulf state such as Bahrain.

The move comes as the crown prince, appointed in June, vowed that the kingdom will return to "moderate Islam" as he works on reducing the influence of the hard-line religious establishment in the country.

Several music concerts have also been held in Saudi Arabia this year.

Mohammed, 32, is believed to have championed lifting the ban on women driving, a move that will go into effect in June. But he is also seen as spearheading what Riyadh describes as an anti-corruption drive in which dozens of high-profile royals and  former state officials have been arrested.

Some see the recent clampdown as a way to consolidate the crown prince's authority in the country.

Saudi Arabia is dominated by the puritanical Wahhabi school of Islam, but the kingdom has been introducing slow-paced change, allowing foreign investments and loosening some laws.    (dpa)

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