It’s not widely known that as recently as the 1970s there were cinemas in Saudi Arabia but the ultra-conservative clerical establishment persuaded the authorities to close them, reflecting rising Islamist influence throughout the Arab region at the time. However, in December of last year, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Culture and Information, Awwad Al-Awwad, announced that the 35-year old ban on cinemas would finally be lifted and that licenses for cinemas would be issued in early 2018 with the first theaters opening as early as March 2018. “This marks a watershed moment in the development of the cultural economy in the kingdom,” Al-Awwad said in a statement. “Opening cinemas will act as a catalyst for economic growth and diversification. By developing the broader cultural sector, we will create new employment and training opportunities, as well as enriching the kingdom’s entertainment options.” By 2030, the Saudi government hopes there will be as many as 2,000 cinema screens throughout the kingdom contributing $24 billion to the economy and creating 30,000 jobs.
While the news undoubtedly came as a shock to much of the world, it had apparently been widely expected by industry insiders. On the same day as the announcement, AMC Theatres revealed it had signed an agreement to explore building cinemas in a country it saw as a “lucrative business opportunity,” AMC, which owns the Odeon brand, is one of the largest movie exhibition companies in the world with about 1,000 theatres and 11,000 screens across the globe. And AMC is not alone. Novo Cinemas, owned by Gulf Film LLC headquartered in Dubai, operates in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain. Debbie Stanford-Kristiansen, chief executive at Novo Cinemas, told Arab News that Novo Cinemas was studying a number of options. “These are dynamic and exciting times for KSA, the region and our industry,” she said.