For the first time in more than 35 years, Saudis will be able to do something the rest of the world takes for granted: go to the movies.
But it’s more than just a change for people looking for a fun night out. It’s also the latest example of how the government is willing to overturn long-held social rules as it searches for new ways to juice its stagnating economy.
Saudi Arabia began closing movie theaters after it embraced an extremely conservative interpretation of Islam in 1979. That makes the new move a blow to the country’s religious establishment: Saudi Arabia’s highest-ranking religious authority, Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh, warned against the “depravity” of commercial theaters in January, and opposed their opening at least as recently as a few months ago.
But hammered by the plunge in global oil prices that began in 2014, Saudi Arabia’s government is trying to diversify its economy by focusing more on technology and entertainment. That’s intensified under the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS, an ambitious 32-year-old slated to become the country’s next king.
Lifting the ban on movie theaters is designed to help spur new economic activity to fuel the economy: citizens will spend money at the theaters (and on services surrounding theaters, like restaurants and coffee shops), and the theaters themselves will create jobs.
Jane Kinninmont, a scholar at the British research organization Chatham House who studies Saudi Arabia, told the New York Times that it could even help create jobs by increasing demand for censors who edit content that the religious establishment deems offensive.
It certainly appears that they will be needed — Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture and information has promised that movies will be censored and edited to ensure that they don’t “contradict with Sharia laws and moral values in the Kingdom.”
Changing Saudi Arabia’s economy means changing its society
Allowing movie theaters to reopen is the latest sign of the Saudi Arabian government accepting cultural activities that are taken for granted in most other nations around the world. Saudi Arabia, for example, has relaxed restrictions on public musical concerts in the past year — American country music star Toby Keith performed before an (all-male) audience during President Donald Trump’s visit to the country in May.
The most sweeping step Saudi Arabia has taken is announcing in September that women would be able to drive legally beginning in 2018. Analysts say it was money, not a sudden awakening to the horrors of institutionalized patriarchy, that motivated the move by MBS and his father.
With the right to drive, more women can officially join the workforce — today only around 22 percent of Saudi Arabian women work. Families won’t need to spend as much money on drivers, many of whom are foreign and whose earnings are sent out of the country. They’ll also have more disposable income to spend on things like shopping, which should boost the domestic economy. Allowing women to drive makes Saudi more attractive to high-skilled foreign workers who are key to expanding into new industries.
Beyond allowing women drivers, MBS kicked off an anti-corruption campaign in November in which he arrested scores of the country’s most prominent officials and business titans. The move has allowed him to seize assets from those he’s detained to refill government coffers, and experts say that the money — which could theoretically amount to hundreds of billions of dollars — should allow him to accelerate his agenda to overhaul the country’s ailing economy.
MBS’s pattern of shaking up cultural traditions to help pave the way for a new economy could be the beginning of a sea change in Saudi Arabia’s way of life. But it’s not clear yet how people will actually take to the reforms after decades of ultra-conservative rule.
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