RIYADH • Saudi Arabia has lifted a 35-year-old ban on cinemas, prompting celebrations from film fans, directors and movie chains eyeing the last untapped mass market in the Middle East.
The first theatres could start showing films as early as March, the government said yesterday, part of a liberalising reform drive that has already opened the door to concerts, comedy shows and women drivers over the past year.
Cinemas were banned in the early 1980s under pressure from Islamists as Saudi society turned towards a particularly conservative form of the religion that discouraged public entertainment and public mixing between men and women.
But reforms led by 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have eased many of those restrictions, as the government tries to broaden the economy and lessen its dependence on oil.
"Opening cinemas will act as a catalyst for economic growth and diversification," said Minister of Culture and Information Awwad bin Saleh Alawwad. "By developing the broader cultural sector, we will create new employment and training opportunities, as well as enrich the country's entertainment options."
In a nod to conservatives, the government said the films would be censored to make sure they remain "in line with values and principles in place and do not contradict with syariah laws and moral values" in the country.
Details of that censorship were not announced but could be extensive in a country where images of women are often crossed out on advertisements.
There was no immediate reaction from the kingdom's Wahhabi clergy and conservative groups, who have responded to past suggestions about bringing back cinema with outraged social media campaigns.