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Does Saudi move to open cinemas herald new freedoms?

Analysts raise concerns over censorship as kingdom moves to end 35-year ban on theatres.

ban on cinemas

Saudi Arabia will lift a 35-year ban on cinemas and allow films to be screened as early as next year.

On Monday, the Ministry of Culture and Information approved licenses for those wishing to open cinemas in the kingdom.

Awwad bin Saleh Al-Awwad, the minister of culture, confirmed the development in a statement on Monday.

"The content of the offers will be subject to censorship according to the media policy of the kingdom," he said.

Saudi Arabia placed a complete ban on cinemas in the early 1980s. The first cinemas are expected to open in March 2018.

Critics questioned whether Monday's move signalled a new era of free speech.

"I don't think it ushers a new era for freedom of expression," said Joseph Fahim, an Egyptian film critic and programmer.

"There have been several films made in Saudi before, and TV production is established in there," he said. "There are concrete rules no Saudi filmmaker can transcend, namely anything related to the royal family."

The decision to reopen comes amid a series of reforms introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman as part of the government's "Vision2030" plan to revitalise and diversify Saudi Arabia's oil-dependent economy.

According to the culture ministry, the government is looking to cash in on the film industry and expects a contribution of 90bn riyals ($24bn) to GDP and the creation of more than 30,000 permanent jobs by 2030. 

Millions of people in the Gulf country already have digital access to movies through online streaming services such as Netflix.

"I think technology has essentially made the ban on movie theatres almost obsolete because Saudis can access whatever films they want to see on their mobile phones at any time of day," Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at the think-tank Chatham House in London, said. 

"It's not as though Saudis are not watching films already," she said. "All that will change is that they will get to go together in larger groups to watch films."

'Improving reputation without promising human rights'

Since replacing his cousin Mohammed Bin Nayef as the crown prince in June, Mohammed Bin Salman has made a number of policy changes, including an announcement in September that women will gain the right to drive in 2018.

"Where the government's PR has been quite successful is that by emphasising these social reforms and issues like women's driving, that is really improving the international reputation of the country without actually promising any kinds of reforms where political representation or human rights are concerned," said Kinninmont, of Chatham House.

Meanwhile, there are also fears that the Saudi move could alter the cinema landscape in the region. 

"It will affect the film industry in the region big time," said Fahim, the critic. "Many filmmakers will try to cater their films to the Saudi market, which could result in conservative filmmaking, similar to what happened in Egypt in the eighties."

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