The lights dim. An excited audience erupts into applause. What’s the ruckus? The crowd of men and women is cheering Saudi Arabia’s first movie theater in more than 30 years. The private, invitation-only screening marks a clear moment of change for the Middle Eastern country.
“Things are changing; progress is happening,” says movie attendee Rahaf Alhendi. Since that first showing of Black Panther, another cinema has opened, as well as the kingdom’s first IMAX theater.
There may be a few hiccups before the popcorn flows freely, though. Saudi theaters will need to offer prayer rooms to accommodate daily Muslim prayer times. Movies will be approved by government censors: Violent scenes in Black Panther stayed, but a kiss got cut. Even family-friendly cartoon Ferdinand got cleaned up.
Then there’s the issue of gender segregation. In Saudi Arabia, unmarried women don’t work, eat, or enjoy entertainment in most spaces with men outside their immediate families. Christians understand God’s intention for mutual and respectful interaction of everyone made in God’s image—male or female, single or married. Timothy 5:2 instructs men to treat women with purity, as they would their mothers or sisters. Saudi Arabia and Islam don’t quite agree with the freedoms of biblical community.
Most Saudi restaurants and cafes have “family sections”—places for women and their male relatives—and “single sections” for male-only crowds. How will the theaters work? Experts say certain movies may be designated for families or males only. But most theaters won’t be gender divided.
Saudi Arabia started loosening restraints on films recently. For the most part, though, Saudis had to drive to nearby Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates for the theater experience. Public movie screenings have been banned since the 1980s.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants to satisfy the country’s young population. He also wants the nation to interact economically with more countries around the world. With support from his father, King Salman, the prince has introduced some major changes. Social reforms like allowing cinema are part of the prince’s so-called Vision 2030—a plan to boost spending and create Saudi jobs.
The Saudi government projects that opening movie theaters will contribute billions to the economy and create tens of thousands of jobs by 2030. Saudi Minister of Culture and Information Awwad Alawwad says the government aims to strike a balance between the country’s Islamic mandates and people’s movie experiences.
“We want to ensure the movies are in line with our culture and respect for values,” he says. Alawwad adds that the government also wants people to enjoy movies. Judging from theater attendance, Saudis are doing just that.