How reopening of cinemas in Saudi Arabia has proved a film-industry game-changer

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Stars of the film ‘Champions’ pose on the red carpet at the Red Sea International Film Festival. (Supplied)
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Prince Turki Al-Faisal attends the premiere of the Saudi remake of the Spanish box office hit ‘Campeones.’ (Supplied)
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Sara Al-Munef, a young film director whose short feature screened at the Saudi International Film Festival at Ithra in Dhahran last year. (Supplied)
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By  2030, the number of theaters in the Kingdom is expected to swell to 2,600. (AFP photo)
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A Saudi woman takes a "selfie" photo next to a sign showing the logo of the Red Sea Film Festival at the entrance of old Jeddah on Dec. 8, 2021. (Red Sea Film Festival / AFP)
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Young ones count among the growing number of movie fans in the Kingdom. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)
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Inside view of a packed cinema in Jeddah during the screening of the Champions. (Supplied)
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Updated 22 March 2022

How reopening of cinemas in Saudi Arabia has proved a film-industry game-changer

  • Ban on movie screening was lifted four years ago as part of reforms aimed at improving quality of life
  • The Kingdom has since become a major market for cinema chains and a potential hub of content creation

JEDDAH: When Saudi Arabia first announced it was lifting its 35-year ban on movie screening four years ago, few predicted the strides the Kingdom’s fledgling film industry would soon make.

Since April 18, 2018, Saudis have been free to visit local cinemas, a completely new experience for many.

“I watch a movie at least twice or three times a month and wouldn’t mind going more if not for my frequent travels,” Jawaher Abdullatif, a 35-year-old private sector worker from Riyadh, told Arab News.

“You’re transformed into the world of the film. It’s an amazing feeling and I love that I can finally do that in the comfort of a cinema nearby.” 

The change was announced in 2017 by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to improve quality of life in the Kingdom through entertainment.

For older generations who remember the days before the ban, the return of movie theaters was a heartening moment. Mostafa Zain, a retired engineer from Jeddah, recalls being captivated by cinema as a boy.

“I was good friends with the Jamjoums who established the first cinemas in the city,” Zain told Arab News.

“Even after the ban, I would always find the time to go watch a movie as I frequented Cairo a few times a year in the 1980s and ‘90s, and later on to the US. We’d always find the time for a movie. Today, I can wake up and check the movie listings and I book my film in no time. I don’t need to fly anywhere to watch a movie anymore.”


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The General Commission for Audiovisual Media, one of the governing authorities established to regulate and operate cinemas in the Kingdom, estimates there will be 2,600 movie screens in Saudi Arabia by 2030, in an industry worth around $1.2 billion. 

More than 50 movie theaters, operating some 430 screens, have been established across the Kingdom, managed by Vox Cinemas, Muvi, Cinepolis, AMC, and Empire. “It takes less than five minutes to book a seat at a movie theater today,” Zain added.

By  2030, the number of theaters in the Kingdom is expected to swell to 2,600. (AFP photo)

Saudi Arabia’s first cinemas appeared in the Eastern Province in the 1930s, established by Westerner oil workers. 

By the 1960s and ‘70s, cinemas had sprung up in major cities across the country. Films were screened in football clubs, backyards, courtyards and hotels. 

But in the early 1980s, in the aftermath of the 1979 terrorist attack on Makkah’s Grand Mosque, religious conservatism began to gain traction in the Kingdom, discouraging public entertainment including cinema-going. 

To get around the ban, many Saudis would regularly visit Bahrain or the UAE.

The opening of theaters in the Kingdom has been widely welcomed by the Saudis, who used to flock to Bahrain or Dubai to for entertainment. (Photo Courtesy: Red Sea Film Festival)

Nahar Al-Hamrani, a producer and managing director of AlMaha Films in Jeddah, would fly two-and-a-half-hours to Dubai to catch a film. 

“Sometimes I’d only go to watch a film, grab a bite to eat, and head back home again,” he told Arab News.

“As soon as cinemas opened in Saudi Arabia, everything changed. Even the experience changed. It’s fun, convenient, and, for some odd reason, there’s just something different about going to the cinemas here. It’s right in our backyard. 

“For many of us who traveled abroad during summer holidays, we’d have to wait for months just so we can go and experience the full movie experience. Now, it’s simply through a click on our screen and not part of our travel plans anymore.”

For a time, Western movies appeared on television via MBC2 or via direct satellite networks such as Orbit, which later merged with Showtime to become the Orbit Showtime Network. 

Most Saudis could only access Western movies on smuggled VHS. When DVDs appeared, they would watch blurry knock-offs bought from street-hawkers or from behind the counter at local stores.

Hollywood actor John Travolta attending a special event organized by the Kingdom's General Authority for Entertainment in Riyadh in 2017. (AFP)

Speaking at a special event at Riyadh’s Apex Convention Center in December 2017, organized by the General Authority for Entertainment to mark the lifting of the ban, Hollywood actor John Travolta hailed the historic move.

“I think it’s an important moment and history, because it’s my understanding that this is the only country in the world that doesn’t have cinema and the idea that it is now happening again after 35 years, I feel like I am part of a celebration of freedom that is connected to a beautiful thing in humanity, so that’s a good thing,” Travolta said.

Cinema giants have begun pouring into the country. 

Owned and operated by Majid Al-Futtaim Cinemas, VOX Cinemas is the cinema arm of Emirati retail and leisure giant Majid Al-Futtaim and one of the fastest growing in the region, operating 149 cinema screens in Saudi Arabia alone.  

Mohamed Al-Hashemi, country head of Majid Al-Futtaim Leisure, Entertainment, Cinemas and Lifestyle in Saudi Arabia, said: “Since the beginning, we have differentiated ourselves from our competitors with our holistic approach. 

“VOX Cinemas is a leisure and entertainment concept that seamlessly integrates state-of-the-art cinema, interactive attractions such as bowling and arcade games and signature food and beverage concepts into one enriched experience.”

Young ones count among the growing number of movie fans in the Kingdom. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)

Cinema’s return to Saudi Arabia has reinvigorated the domestic industry and inspired new festivals to showcase and celebrate it.

The industry saw theatrical box office market growth worth $238 million in 2021 — more than double the previous year’s takings of $122 million, dampened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The year was capped off by the Red Sea International Film Festival in December, which saw the big names of Arab cinema, Hollywood, and Bollywood grace the red carpet at Jeddah’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, Al-Balad.

Sara Al-Munef, a young film director whose short feature screened at the Saudi International Film Festival at Ithra in Dhahran last year. (Supplied)

There, on three big screens erected by VOX Cinemas, some 30,000 film fans enjoyed 138 films originating from 67 countries, including 48 Arab premieres and 27 Saudi films.

“Cinemas and content production offer enormous potential for economic growth,” said Al-Hashemi of Majid Al-Futtaim. “We recently announced ambitious plans to bring 25 local movies to the big screen in the next five years.

“Our goal to boost regional film production reiterates our commitment to realize the goals of Vision 2030 and is aligned with the Film Commission’s strategy to establish the Kingdom as a world-class film hub.” 

King Salman, Crown Prince congratulate King Abdullah II on Jordan’s national day

Updated 10 sec ago

King Salman, Crown Prince congratulate King Abdullah II on Jordan’s national day

RIYADH: King Salman sent a cable of congratulations to King Abdullah II of Jordan on the occasion of his country's independence day on Saturday, Saudi Press Agency reported.

King Salman wished King Abdullah continued good health and happiness, and the government and people of Jordan further progress and prosperity.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also sent a similar cable to the Jordanian king.

The messages from the Saudi leadership were among dozens sent by global leaders and heads of international organizations, including the speaker of the Arab Parliament.

Adel bin Abdulrahman Al-Asoumi wished Jordan and its people “more security, stability, and prosperity.”

He also praised the “civilizational achievements made by the kingdom under the leadership of King Abdullah II in all areas that have made the kingdom a leading regional and international model.”  

Saudi, Kosovo officials discuss parliamentary ties

Updated 25 May 2024

Saudi, Kosovo officials discuss parliamentary ties

RIYADH: The Saudi-Kosovo Parliamentary Friendship Committee, led by Khalid Al-Bawardi, the committee’s chairman and Saudi Shoura Council member, met with Kosovo’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Kreshnik Ahmeti and other officials in Pristina.

Discussions aimed to boost bilateral relations and parliamentary cooperation between the Shoura Council and Kosovo Parliament, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Saturday.

Faisal Hifzi, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Albania and non-resident ambassador to Kosovo, Montenegro, and North Macedonia, attended the meeting.

Additionally, the committee met with Podujeva’s Mayor Shpejtim Bulliqi and discussed cooperation in municipal affairs. The mayor praised Saudi Arabia’s environmental conservation efforts.

The Shoura Council delegation also engaged with local companies, reviewing Kosovo’s future projects and discussing opportunities for economic cooperation.

Saudi authorities arrest 17,030 illegals in one week

Updated 25 May 2024

Saudi authorities arrest 17,030 illegals in one week

RIYADH: Saudi authorities arrested 17,030 people in one week for breaching residency, work and border security regulations, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Saturday.

According to an official report, a total of 10,662 people were arrested for violations of residency laws, while 4,147 were held over illegal border crossing attempts, and a further 2,221 for labor-related issues.

The report showed that among the 1,119 people arrested for trying to enter the Kingdom illegally, 71 percent were Ethiopian, 27 percent Yemeni, and 2 percent were of other nationalities.

A further 65 people were caught trying to cross into neighboring countries, and 17 were held for involvement in transporting and harboring violators.

The Saudi Ministry of Interior said that anyone found to be facilitating illegal entry to the Kingdom, including providing transportation and shelter, could face imprisonment for a maximum of 15 years, a fine of up to SR1 million ($260,000), as well as confiscation of vehicles and property.

Suspected violations can be reported on the toll-free number 911 in the Makkah and Riyadh regions, and 999 or 996 in other regions of the Kingdom.

KSrelief continues aid projects in Sudan, Somalia, Lebanon and Yemen

Updated 25 May 2024

KSrelief continues aid projects in Sudan, Somalia, Lebanon and Yemen

RIYADH: The Kingdom’s aid agency KSrelief  continued its humanitarian projects in Sudan, Somalia, Lebanon and Yemen.
In Sudan, the agency distributed 950 personal hygiene kits to displaced and needy families in Kosti, benefiting 5,463 individuals. In Wad Sharifi, 330 food parcels were provided to displaced families, benefiting 1,710 individuals. 
Meanwhile in Lebanon, KSrelief continued its implementation of the Al-Amal Charitable Bakery Project in Akkar and Miniyeh. The project distributed 150,000 loaves of bread daily to Syrian and Palestinian refugee families, or about 62,500 individuals.
In Yemen, 897 food parcels were delivered in Al-Abr, benefiting 6,237 individuals, as part of the Kingdom’s humanitarian initiative.
in Somalia, KSrelief continued providing medical services in collaboration with the Kidney Dialysis Center at Banadir Hospital in Mogadishu. The center catered to a total of 384 patients and assisted dialysis, medical examination and emergency sessions.

12 arrested in qat smuggling attempt in Saudi Arabia

Updated 25 May 2024

12 arrested in qat smuggling attempt in Saudi Arabia

  • A separate smuggling attempt of 70kg of qat was thwarted in Jazan Region

RIYADH: Saudi authorities arrested 12 Yemeni nationals for attempting to smuggle 266kg of qat through the borders of Asir region, state news agency SPA reported.
The items were seized and handed over to the relevant authority, SPA said on Friday.
A separate smuggling attempt of 70kg of qat was thwarted in Jazan region. Border authorities said the suspects were arrested and the seized items were transferred to relevant authorities for further action.

Mostly chewed by users, Qat is a mild stimulant and illegal across most of the Arab world.

The government has urged citizens and residents to report any information they have regarding drug smuggling or sales to the General Directorate of Narcotics Control. Reports can be made by calling 911 for Makkah, Riyadh and the Eastern Province, and 999 for other regions. Alternatively, information can be emailed to [email protected]. All reports are treated confidentially.