Saudi Arabia: Why is going to the cinema suddenly OK?

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Saudi women attend a short-film festival in Riyadh on 20 October 2017Image source, AFP
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Saudis are avid consumers of Western films - but until recently had to watch in private

Saudi Arabia is about to open its first cinema for 35 years, showing the film Black Panther. After being banned for decades, why is it now OK to go to the movies?

Saudi Arabia's decision to end its ban on cinemas is part of a wider change across society.

In the 20th Century, its ruling Al Saud dynasty could rely on two sources of power: plentiful oil wealth and an informal pact with conservative religious clerics.

But now the country has to adapt to a 21st Century where oil wealth will not be enough to fund government spending and create jobs, and where the clerics have less influence than they once did with the new leaders of the royal family.

Like other Middle Eastern countries, Saudi Arabia is overwhelmingly young: most of its 32 million people are under 30.

King Salman has promoted one of his youngest sons, 32-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, to the elevated position of Crown Prince, partly to connect with this young majority.

But MBS, as he is known, has a difficult task.

Image source, Getty Images
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The Saudi film Wadjda won international awards

He needs to oversee a transition to a less oil-dependent economy where young Saudis will probably not enjoy the same standards of living that their parents did.

They won't be guaranteed public-sector jobs, and will have to work harder in the private sector.

The cost of housing is a frequent complaint, while healthcare and education are starting to be privatised.

Western observers have often thought that Saudi Arabia would eventually have to cut back on economic handouts to its population, and that this would result in pressure for more political rights.

But MBS seems to be offering a different model.

In effect, he is saying: "Work harder, don't criticise the system, but have more fun."

Like neighbouring Dubai, he is offering some degree of greater social freedom rather than greater political freedom.

Cinemas are part of this.

But do Saudis actually want a more liberal society?

For years, Saudi officials said the population was highly conservative; now they give the impression it is open, dynamic and tech-savvy.

In fact, social attitudes in Saudi Arabia are very diverse.

People are spread over a large territory with very different life experiences and income levels.

More than a million Saudis have now studied abroad, while others are immersed in very traditional culture.

Women's lives in particular vary greatly, as their ability to study, travel and work is decided by their male "guardian" - their father, or husband once married.

As the government has overturned the ban on women driving, and started to promote concerts and films that were banned for years, there is a debate about the pace of change and the types of culture the country should develop.

This is especially the case when it comes to women's rights.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Saudi women will be allowed to drive from June 2018

When it comes to film, however, technology had already made the cinema ban close to being an absurdity.

A 2014 survey suggested that two-thirds of Saudi internet users watched a film online every week. Nine out of 10 Saudis have smartphones.

People who take a budget flight to Bahrain or Dubai can go to cinemas there.

The state airline, Saudi Airways, shows in-flight films, although "inappropriate" images such as bare arms or bottles of wine are often pixelated out.

There are even film festivals using pop-up screens.

And a few Saudis have started making films, including the critically acclaimed Wadjda and a romantic comedy, Barakah Meets Barakah.

A government body estimated that in 2017 Saudis spent $30bn (£21bn) on entertainment and hospitality elsewhere in the Middle East.

That's close to 5% of Saudi gross domestic product (GDP), which is a measure of everything produced by the country in a year.

When oil wealth is down and the country is searching for new economic sectors to develop, there's an obvious economic argument for opening up the entertainment sector - and bringing that money back home where it can create jobs.

Indeed, the first cinemas opening in Saudi Arabia are in fact owned by the government's sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, in partnership with international chain AMC.

Image source, Getty Images

The government is not just permitting cinemas, but hoping to profit from them.

Instead of asking: "Why now?", the question might be: "Why has it taken so long?".

But the ban was never just about public opinion - conservative social policy was designed in part to appease influential clerics.

This informal bargain saw clerics mostly preach obedience to the ruler, gaining sweeping influence over social life and family law in return.

The political and social role of those clerics is now changing.

Yes, the state appointed clerics are still in place, voicing conservative views, but they defer to the decisions of political leaders.

In 2017, the grand mufti was quoted as saying that cinemas might broadcast "shameless and immoral" films and that cinemas would encourage the mixing of the sexes.

Once, this would have put paid to the debate. But no longer.

Since the founding of the country, clerics were seen as important opinion-formers who could help ensure social consent or deference to the rulers.

But the societal influence of clerics also meant that when clerics did dissent, they could move significant sections of the public with them.

The current leadership thinks that empowered clerics can be politically dangerous - whether they inspire Islamist extremists, or more peaceful demands for political power-sharing.

The government is signalling that they will have less power and influence than in the past.

Thus, this week's premiere in Riyadh shows that entertainment and leisure can reveal deep political, economic and social shifts.

About this piece

Jane Kinninmont is a senior research fellow and deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, which describes itself as an independent policy institute.

Follow her at @janekinninmont.

Edited by Duncan Walker