Saudi movie buffs finally have somewhere to go

After decades of absence, commercial cinema returns to Saudi Arabia; sociology professor "surprised" at "mixing of sexes in the cinema."

November 29, 2010 11:33
3 minute read.
A young Saudi man holds a movie ticket

Saudi movie ticket 311. (photo credit: The Media Line)

For the first time in decades, Saudis will be able to enjoy action flicks and cartoons on the silver screen.

A new cinema complex opened earlier this month in a shopping mall in Dammam, the capital of Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province and the Kingdom's third largest city. The cinema will feature cartoons and action movies, with separate screenings for men, women, and families.

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In a country where women are barred from driving a car and are only allowed to visit public places accompanied by a male guardian, the new cinema may symbolize a new liberal trend in the conservative desert kingdom.

"Saudis already have access to Western film," Eman Al-Nafjan, a blogger based in the capital Riyadh, told The Media Line. "They download movies from the internet, there are rental stores, and many people have satellite dishes where they get all the movie channels."

Nafjan added that weekend excursions to the cinema in neighboring countries such as Bahrain and the Emirates are common pastime among middle-class Saudi families.

"There are also private cinemas in Saudi Arabia, but they are limited to staff of hospitals or other organizations. There is one cinema I know of in a hotel, but only women and children are allowed in," Nafjan added.

Saudi Arabia has no official laws against cinema, but commercial screenings were pretty much killed off during the 1970s and 1980s, as Saudi Arabia's clerics gained political ground. Under this pressure, movie theatres never returned, until now.

"We wish to draw all age groups, except children under the age of six," Omar Mustafa, the cinema's manager, told the Arab daily Al-Hayat, admitting that his films were subjected to government censorship. 

The annual Jeddah Film Festival which began in 2006 was abruptly cancelled in 2009 after authorities intervened. Commentators viewed the cancellation as a reactionary move by Saudi prince Khaled bin Talal against his more liberal brother, billionaire prince Al-Waleed, owner of Rotana Group, the largest entertainment company in the Arab World. 

In 2009, the Jeddah festival for the first time boldly changed its description from “a visual exhibition” to a full-fledged “film festival.” It also was to host for the first time non-Saudi films.

Private television cannot operate from Saudi soil, but the country is a major market for pan-Arab satellite channels, many of them owned by Saudi media moguls.

Dr. Fawzia Al-Bakr, a sociology professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, said she was surprised the opening of the cinema didn't get more media coverage, and didn't spark more objections from religious conservatives.

"I think this is a change," she told The Media Line. "I'm surprised they allowed what they call 'family screenings' which would entail mixing of sexes in the cinema."

Bakr regarded the new cinema as part of a wider cultural relaxation since King Abdullah came to power in 2005. She said that during the recent holiday of Eid Al-Adha cartoons were screened free of charge for women and children at the King Fahd Cultural Center in Riyadh. 

"Things are moving, even in Riyadh," she said. "The fact that movies were free (also) shows that the government is actually encouraging this."

Nafjan, the blogger, said that Dammam and Jeddah, cities located on the Saudi coasts, were more liberal than landlocked cities such as Riyadh, Mecca or Medina, located in the Saudi Arabian heartland.

"Dammam is more liberal because Saudi Aramco (the state-owned national oil company) is based there, and residents also mix with outside cultures from the UAE and Bahrain," she told The Media Line. "The central region is a desert, surrounded by mountains, with the same people living together for centuries."

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