Reopening cinemas allows Saudis to see more of the world

By Shu Meng Source:Global Times Published: 2017/12/19 21:13:39

The Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information last week approved licenses for movie theaters and the first cinemas are expected to open as early as March next year. This marks a watershed moment as the country ends its 35-year ban on cinemas. The ban was introduced in the early 1980s in a belief that seeing movies in public places easily begets "moral crimes."

Lifting the prolonged ban comes as part of wider reforms to overhaul the Saudi economy, known as "Vision 2030." The country has given women the right to drive, enter sporting venues and even host concerts; it has arrested corrupt officials and now decided to open cinemas, all of which showcase the reforms are leading to liberalization of thought in the country.

For Saudi Arabians, reopening cinemas will provide them with one more recreational activity, but it has more significant implications.

The decision to reopen theaters will stimulate domestic spending and increase national revenue. Over the past 35 years, many Saudis were traveling to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to see films, triggering an outflow of cinema income. According to CNN, this bold move is expected to contribute more than 90 billion riyals ($24 billion) to the country's GDP and create some 30,000 jobs. Therefore, it is a big boost for economic diversification.

It will also cement the power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. That King Salman bin Abdulaziz named his son Mohammed bin Salman instead of his nephew as heir to the throne was in itself a challenge to the Saudi tradition.

Like the series of reform policies later, it has a negative impact on those with vested interests. As opposition parties are getting restless, the prince is eager to consolidate his power through the reform.

Around 90 percent of Saudis favor the opening of cinemas, which is very likely to bring the prince greater support in the kingdom's political tussles.

In addition, the decision also helps improve the accommodation of Saudi religions. Saudi Arabia is often associated with "Wahhabism" or "stringent Islamic teachings." Mohammed bin Salman pledged on various occasions to return Saudi Arabia to an "open, moderate Islam."

In the past, one of the reasons for not opening cinemas is the concern that movies might precipitate idol worship, which contradicts Islamic doctrine. Lifting the ban reflects Saudi Arabia's increasing accommodation of religion, hence promoting its national image.

It is fair to say that the decision opens a window for conservative Saudi society. However, it is worth noting that films are often used as a carrier for value output and cultural expansion apart from their recreational function. Therefore, reopening movie theaters means foreign values have found a new way into the country.

From another perspective, it puts to test the governance of the Saudi government. Currently, the central government seeks opening up to the outside world to stabilize political power. But these are risks and could give rise to adverse impact and even shake the foundation of the regime's legitimacy.

Compared with other measures, reopening theaters is not a heroic undertaking. Its movie industry has been in a decades-long stagnation, so reopening will not touch the substantial benefits of those with vested interests except attracting the attention of movie giants. But its long-term influence cannot afford to be underestimated.

After all, what Saudi Arabians see on the screens is not just a movie but the whole world.

The author is an assistant researcher at the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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