World News

Saudi Arabia to Allow Movie Theaters After 35-Year Ban

Posted December 11, 2017 8:41 p.m. EST

LONDON — In the latest in a series of gestures toward modernization that would once have seemed improbable, Saudi Arabia announced Monday that it would allow commercial movie theaters to open for the first time in more than 35 years.

The moves to allow access by early 2018, part of a broad campaign by the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to transform Saudi society, followed measures that would give women the right to drive and to attend soccer games, and that would allow concerts and other forms of public entertainment.

Although satellite television and video downloads have made the ban on commercial theaters all but irrelevant, the announcement highlights the diminishing power of the kingdom’s conservative clerics. The grand mufti, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, publicly called commercial films a source of “depravity” and opposed the opening of movie theaters as recently as a few months ago.

And opening the door to such changes raises suspenseful questions about how far they will go, beginning with the issue of what movies will be shown and how they may be censored.

Taken together, the loosening of the restrictions is “very real and quite significant,” said Jane Kinninmont, a scholar at the British research organization Chatham House who studies Saudi Arabia, adding that “maybe there will be some jobs created in a new agency to censor the movies” along the way.

Mohammed, the 32-year-old favorite son of King Salman, 81, has amassed a degree of personal power without precedent in Saudi Arabia, and he has indicated no interest in political reforms to parallel his program of opening up the economy and social rules.

The prince has promised that he will use his power to move Saudi Arabia toward a more tolerant form of Islam than its religious establishment has promoted in the kingdom and around the world for decades.

In a statement, the Culture and Information Ministry said the government would begin within 90 days licensing movie houses to open. It did not indicate what kind of movies the government might allow to be screened, but made clear that films would be governed by Islamic law.