Once upon a time, Saudi Arabia had commercial movie theaters. Hardline Islamic clerics shut them down in the 1970s while rolling out ultraconservative religious laws. This month, the cinema ban will come to an end after more than 35 years.
US-based AMC Entertainment, the world’s biggest cinema chain, will open a theater in the capital Riyadh on April 18 showing Marvel’s superhero blockbuster Black Panther, which has been the most popular movie globally this year. The company, owned by China’s Dalian Wanda, plans to open up to 40 cinemas in more than a dozen Saudi cities over the next five years, and many more after that. Saudi Arabia’s population exceeds 32 million, so there is plenty of room to grow.
Saudis are no strangers to Hollywood movies. It’s just that they’ve grown accustomed to watching them in the privacy of their homes (or, perhaps, in foreign theaters while traveling abroad). But being a “moviegoer” within Saudi Arabia will be a novelty for many. While some showtimes might be exclusive for women or men, cinemas won’t initially be segregated by gender.
Decided upon last December, the ban reversal comes amid other social and economic changes being pushed by reformist crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. The 32-year-old aims to return the conservative kingdom to “moderate Islam.” In June, the kingdom will allow women to obtain driver’s licenses. Earlier this year, it nixed a ban keeping women out of sports stadiums.
The prince also wants to attract international investments and lessen the nation’s dependence on oil. To that end, he has been touring the US, pitching opportunities to the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Apple CEO Tim Cook. Recently he signed a memorandum of understanding with Japan’s SoftBank to build a 200 GW solar-power plant by 2030 at a cost of $200 billion.
As for the choice of Black Panther, it makes sense: While the movie is groundbreaking in important ways—notably race—it’s light on sexual and religious themes. Conservative Saudis will not likely take offense. Whether that holds true for future releases remains to be seen.