It is time to celebrate progress!! The ultraconservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia is opening for the first time in more than 35 years public cinema! This major event is taking place in Riyadh in less than 4 days and the theater will not be segregated by gender as most of the public spaces in Riyadh.
As I mention in my previous post Saudi from the eyes of an expat (part I) Saudi Arabia is undergoing a massive transformation since the rise of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known in the western world as MBS and among the diplomatic community as Mr. Everything due to his unusually power and determination for such a young prince and office holder. He is indeed the face of this massive transformation in Saudi.
Among the major reform strategy set by the Crown Prince, known as vision 2030, developing the entertainment industry is probably the most striving one. The Crown prince, also President of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs and Minister of Defense, is aiming to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy in order to reduce its dependence on the oil industry.
The reason beyond the nonexistence of cinema in Saudi
As a result of the embracement of an extremely conservative version of Islam in 1970’s cinemas have been banned.
As we know, religion shapes the Law of Saudi Arabia. And what is not religiously acceptable many times is also taken as politically illegal. But where does this relation comes from?
There are two highly influential families controlling the kingdom. The Royal family Al Saud, known as the House of Saud, and the Al ash-Sheikh family, known as the clerics or the religious family. 300 years ago a power sharing agreement, which lasts to this day, was formed between the two families. This agreement establish that Al Saud upholds the Al ash-Sheikh’s authority in religious matters and the Al ash-Sheikh supports the Al Saud’s political power. Which basically means that although they operate in different aspects of the society, they work together and are mutually influenced by each other. As a result of this relation, the clerics were able to ban the cinema industry.
Considering this relationship this new entertainment reform has been the subject of a long debate by the clerics. Despite of a controversy of opinions between the more and less extreme clerics, Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh (Legal authority figure for religious decisions) did not opposed to it. Rather he appeals to those in charge of this matter to bring positive and educative changes to the country ensuring that it goes in line with the Sharia law and the moral values of the kingdom. The Ministry of Culture and information has assured that movies will be subjected to censorship and edited in order to follow the code of the country.
What does it mean for Saudis?
Although this strategy was defined in order to spur the economy of the country, it does come along with a massive positive social impact for the whole population.
Saudis will be able for the first time in more than 3 decades to have access to what we take as guaranteed in the rest of the world. The exposition to entertainment as well as the desegregation of gender in the theater reflects the openness of the society and shows how the government is willing to reverse long-standing social rules for the best interest of its country.
As per their primary goal, this industry will fuel the economy, encouraging its citizens to spend money ‘’inside borders’’; create more jobs which will reduce the high unemployment rate of the country and consequently lift people out of poverty in such a wealth country with wide economic disparities.
This fast pattern of transformation of the identity of the country driven by a new economy is shaking the cultural traditions of an ultraconservative country. Although it seems to please many, it is yet to know how people will react to this new Saudi way of life!
Personally I am very excited to be part of this massive historical moment and I will be going with some of my amazing colleagues to experience it. I will be posting some pictures and perhaps a feedback of our experience. Can’t wait for it!!