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

Special Saudis, young and old, attend a Red Carpet event during the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah last December. (Supplied)
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Stars of the film ‘Champions’ pose on the red carpet at the Red Sea International Film Festival. (Supplied)
Special Makkah Gov. Prince Khaled bin Faisal with movie fans in Jeddah. (Supplied/File photo)
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Prince Turki Al-Faisal attends the premiere of the Saudi remake of the Spanish box office hit ‘Campeones.’ (Supplied)
Special 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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Sara Al-Munef, a young film director whose short feature screened at the Saudi International Film Festival at Ithra in Dhahran last year. (Supplied)
Special By  2030, the number of theaters in the Kingdom is expected to swell to 2,600. (AFP photo)
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By  2030, the number of theaters in the Kingdom is expected to swell to 2,600. (AFP photo)
Special A Saudi woman takes a
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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)
Special Young ones count among the growing number of movie fans in the Kingdom. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)
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Young ones count among the growing number of movie fans in the Kingdom. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)
Special Inside view of a packed cinema in Jeddah during the screening of the Champions. (Supplied)
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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

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.” 


Saudi court jails 3 for 18 years for money laundering, fined $133,000

Saudi court jails 3 for 18 years for money laundering, fined $133,000
Updated 55 min 10 sec ago

Saudi court jails 3 for 18 years for money laundering, fined $133,000

Saudi court jails 3 for 18 years for money laundering, fined $133,000
  • The Saudi citizens had issued commercial registers for several entities and opened bank accounts

RIYADH: Two Saudi citizens and one resident have been sentenced to 18 years in jail and fined $133,000 for money laundering, the Saudi Public Prosecution said on Thursday.

Police investigations earlier revealed that the Saudi citizens had issued commercial registers for several entities and opened bank accounts.

The citizens then handed the resident the commercial registers and the bank accounts, through which they made financial transactions and transferred huge sums of money outside the Kingdom, reported the Saudi Press Agency (SPA).

The Public Prosecution said funds were generated through “illegal” means as the accused used the commercial registers as a cover to transfer the money abroad.

The court ruled confiscating a similar value of the funds transferred abroad and the proceeds of the crimes.

The resident will be deported after serving his jail term, read the Public Prosecution statement.


UNESCO adds Saudi Khawlani coffee, Camel Heda’a to intangible cultural heritage list

UNESCO adds Saudi Khawlani coffee, Camel Heda’a to intangible cultural heritage list
Updated 01 December 2022

UNESCO adds Saudi Khawlani coffee, Camel Heda’a to intangible cultural heritage list

UNESCO adds Saudi Khawlani coffee, Camel Heda’a to intangible cultural heritage list
  • 11 of Kingdom’s historical practices, items recognized
  • Arabic music, art, dance registered with world body

RIYADH: UNESCO on Wednesday added Saudi Khawlani coffee, and the skills and knowledge associated with its cultivation, and Camel Heda’a to this year’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

The decision was taken in Morocco during the annual meeting of the UN’s Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The Kingdom, in cooperation with Oman and the UAE, led the joint application to register Camel Heda’a, which is an oral tradition where herders communicate with their animals. The communication includes guiding camels to safety during sandstorms, instructing them to open their mouths to feed and having them drop onto their knees to be mounted.

The registration of Saudi Khawlani coffee involved the efforts of several bodies including the Heritage Commission, Ministry of Culture, the National Committee for Education, Science and Culture, the Permanent Saudi Delegation to UNESCO, the Culinary Authority, and the Saudi Society for the Preservation of Heritage.

Khawlani coffee is one of the most luxurious and famous types in the world and has been cultivated in the south of the Kingdom for more than eight centuries. It is associated with the customs, poetry and songs of the people of the region.

With these new additions, Saudi Arabia has now registered 11 cultural elements with UNESCO including the Majlis, Arabic coffee, the Najdi Ardah dance, the flute, falconry, the Asiri cat, the palm tree, the Sadu weaving craft and Arabic calligraphy.

This registration forms part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 that aims to document the nation’s rich heritage for future generations locally and abroad.


Saudi Program delivers 150 homes in Yemen

Saudi Program delivers 150 homes in Yemen
Updated 01 December 2022

Saudi Program delivers 150 homes in Yemen

Saudi Program delivers 150 homes in Yemen
  • The project also included the repair of 600 homes, benefiting over 4,000 beneficiaries in Aden

RIYADH: The Saudi Program for the Development and Reconstruction of Yemen (SDRPY) delivered 150 homes in Aden, Yemen, to improve the living conditions of low-income families.

The new residences were part of the ‘adequate housing’ project, carried out in partnership United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-HABITAT) and Alwaleed Philanthropies, reported the Saudi Press Agency (SPA).

The project also included the repair of 600 homes, benefiting over 4,000 beneficiaries in Aden.

It also provided vocational training for Yemeni construction workers in electricity, solar energy, photography, and painting, and upskilled 40 engineers in advanced geographical information systems, construction project management, specialized procurement and project cost calculation, and technical and economic feasibility studies.

Engineers from the Ministry of Public Works and Roads have also been trained in project management, according to SPA.

Ahmed Medkhali, SDRPY director in Aden, said the project was part of Saudi Arabia’s intensified effort to rehabilitate damaged homes and build safe residences that provide proper living conditions for the Yemeni people.


Saudi defense ministry, Spain’s Navantia sign combat ships agreement

Saudi defense ministry, Spain’s Navantia sign combat ships agreement
Updated 01 December 2022

Saudi defense ministry, Spain’s Navantia sign combat ships agreement

Saudi defense ministry, Spain’s Navantia sign combat ships agreement

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s defense ministry and Saudi General Authority for Military Industries signed an agreement with Spain’s Navantia company to acquire and build a number of multi-mission combat ships for the Royal Saudi Naval Forces, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Thursday.

The Kingdom’s Defense Minister Prince Khaled bin Salman and Spain’s Minister of Industry, Commerce, and Tourism María Reyes Maroto attended the agreement’s signing ceremony.

Prince Khaled said on Twitter that this agreement falls within Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s vision to strengthen the capabilities of the Saudi defense ministry.

“This MOU represents the latest effort to fulfill the vision of HRH the Crown Prince and Prime Minister to localize our military industry and empower and strengthen the capabilities of the ministry of defense, which will help provide security for our country and region,” he said.

The agreement aims to raise the level of readiness of the Royal Saudi Naval Forces to enhance maritime security in the region, protect the Kingdom’s vital and strategic interests, and support defense ministry’s  operational and tactical goals.

According to the agreement, Navantia will localize up to 100% of naval shipbuilding, integration of combat systems, and ship maintenance, in line with Saudi Vision 2030 objectives.

It also focuses on integrating combat systems into new ships, engineering and designing systems and hardware, and developing software.

Testing, systems verification, prototyping, simulation, as well as logistical support and training program design will also be within the scope of the agreement.


KSRelief chief meets UN assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs

KSRelief chief meets UN assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs
Updated 01 December 2022

KSRelief chief meets UN assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs

KSRelief chief meets UN assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs

RIYADH: Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah, the adviser at the Saudi Royal Court and general supervisor of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center, on Wednesday met with UN Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Joyce Msuya, in the capital, Riyadh, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

During the meeting, they discussed a number of issues of common interest related to relief and humanitarian affairs.

Msuya praised the Kingdom’s effective and influential international humanitarian role, noting the efforts of KSrelief in alleviating the suffering of refugees and needy groups around the world.