The fall and rise of Saudi Arabian cinema 

The tides might be turning in Saudi Arabia. Gender segregation at restaurants has been eased up, music concerts are becoming more accepted, women enjoying greater freedom on the job market, and a 35-year ban on cinemas has been lifted. Since Mohammed Bin Salman´s entrance into power there has been a focus on modernizing the country, especially within Saudi Arabia´s cultural sector and women’s rights. Due to the ultra-conservative ideology in the country the cultural sphere, as well as other factors, in Saudi society have been hindered from development. But with Mohammed bin Salman´s Vision 2030 programme, a change for the better might be on the horizon.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, 2019 (Photo: US Department of State/Wikimedia Commons)

One of the reforms in Vision 2030, as mentioned, was the reintroduction of cinemas in 2018 which were banned since the early 80s. This reform was highly celebrated by Saudi filmmakers who have been harassed by authorities due to the belief that their profession was immoral. The reintroduction of cinema is part of a much larger effort as the Saudi royal family hopes that by opening the entertainment industry, more Saudis will spend money within the country instead of travelling to Saudi Arabia’s neighbours.

To understand the context of cinemas being banned and reintroduced, and their importance to the future of the kingdom, we need to go back to 1979. It was in this year that Saudi extremists besieged the grand mosque Kaaba in Mecca, believing that Saudi royals had lost their way by transforming the oil rich country into a consumer society. This siege of the holiest place in Islam shook the Muslim world to its core and led to an ultra-conservative turn within Saudi government.

Bird’s-eye view of Kaaba, Mecca, Saudi Arabia in 1910. (Photo: US Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

After the siege Saudi citizens saw the introduction of harsh gender segregation policies as well as a closing up of the cultural sphere. Due to the ultra-conservative turn, hard-line clerics banned cinema from the country in the early 80s as it was deemed immoral. Within a decade however, the debate about reintroducing cinema emerged due to the introduction of satellite television in Saudi Arabia during the 90s. 

However, it was not until the mid-2000s when the discussions accelerated. During this time young Saudi film enthusiasts started to travel to neighbouring countries to watch films at the cinemas, which would become known as cinema tourism. This was followed by Saudi press becoming vocal about introducing cinema to the country. In the years that followed, universities started teaching film making as the taste for films among the Saudis had grown. The Saudi government had changed their minds about cinema in 2018 the ban was lifted, and the first cinema opened. For this historic moment they showed the film Black Panther for an invitation only crowd.

The reintroduction of cinema in 2018 was part of vision 2030 with the plan of having 2000 film screens before 2030. The goal of this reform was to make the kingdom the regional hub for cinema. It is expected that the Saudi cinema market will be worth 1.3 billion US dollars by 2030 and contribute around 90 billion Riyals, roughly 24 billion USD, to the Saudi economy. This is a significant contribution to transforming the economy to be less dependent on oil.

The Covid-19 pandemic that struck the world has halted the global cinema industry, and has resulted in an estimated 80% loss in box office revenue globally. The outlier in this crisis is Saudi Arabia. The country’s cinema industry has grown since 2019 and is now the top grossing country in the middle east when it comes to box office revenue. According to the CEO of VOX cinema in Saudi Arabia, the country’s cinemas was the only market in the world to expand this year.

Not only have Saudi cinemas gone against the rest of the world and grown this year but they have also for the 4th time ever submitted one of their films to the Oscars to try to be nominated for best international film. The film, Scales, offers an interesting change in views when it comes to women’s role in the country even though it is still a very contentious issue. This drama/mystery is both written and directed by female director Shahad Ameen. In the movie we follow a young woman who goes against tradition and refuses to be sacrificed by her fishing village to the monstrous mermaids in the sea. The fact that a film with a progressive message, shot by a female director, has been submitted to the Oscars is as not surprising as it may seem. Out of the 3 Saudi submissions that came before this film, 2 were directed by Haifaa al-Mansour, the first female director in Saudi Arabia. Al-Mansour is known for being an outspoken feminist as well as making films covering taboo subjects in the country.

Haifaa al-Mansour, 2011 (Photo: Haylie Niemann/Wikimedia Commons)

Even though there is still a strict censorship when it comes to filmmaking in Saudi Arabia, the fact that these filmmakers and films are being nominated by the Saudi regime can be seen as a sign of what is to come and what the Saudi authorities are starting to indirectly support. Although the regime is sending mixed messages because in December 2020, they jailed Loujain al-Hathloul, a feminist activist, for 5 years under the pretext of her harming national interests and advancing a foreign agenda. The fact that feminist activists still face these challenges makes Bin Salman and the authorities contradictory at best when it comes to what’s acceptable in Saudi society. One can thus not be sure about the motivation behind the nomination and how genuine Saudi leadership are with their intentions.  

In summary, the cinema and the film industry in Saudi Arabia seem to take a leading role in the country’s cultural transformation. Together the cinema and film industry will offer thousands of new jobs and will offer a look at new ideas on the big screen, to a population where most are under 30 years old. This will allow the younger generation to put their mark on society through a medium that is on the rise in the kingdom. And one can only wait with great anticipation to see how this will shape the future of Saudi society.

Christopher Fletcher Sandersjöö