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.” 


KSRelief concludes voluntary program to combat blindness in Bangladesh

KSRelief concludes voluntary program to combat blindness in Bangladesh
Updated 04 October 2022

KSRelief concludes voluntary program to combat blindness in Bangladesh

KSRelief concludes voluntary program to combat blindness in Bangladesh

RIYADH: King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSRelief) concluded on Saturday the voluntary medical program to combat blindness and its diseases in Nawabganj Town, Bangladesh. 
The project came within ‘Noor Saudi Arabia’ voluntary program.
Since its beginning, the KSRelief’s voluntary medical team has medically examined 4,610 cases, distributed 1,616 glasses, and performed 519 successful cataract surgeries.
This campaign is part of the voluntary projects, implemented by the KSRelief in several countries, with the aim of providing treatment to people with limited income.


KSRelief distributed food baskets in Pakistan, Sudan and Lebanon

KSRelief distributed food baskets in Pakistan, Sudan and Lebanon
Updated 04 October 2022

KSRelief distributed food baskets in Pakistan, Sudan and Lebanon

KSRelief distributed food baskets in Pakistan, Sudan and Lebanon

RIYADH: The King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSRelief) continued to provide assistance to people in disaster-hit areas and refugee camps.
Various relief aid was distributed to those affected by the floods in Pakistan with as many as 1,360 food baskets distributed, which benefited 9,520 people.
These efforts come within the Saudi relief airlift operations that have been dispatched, under the directives of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman.
Similarly, KSRelief distributed 455 food baskets in Khartoum, Sudan – or translated to 2,503 individual recipients – as part of programmed efforts to help needy families in the country this year.
KSRelief also distributed on Saturday 675 food baskets in the Arsal region of Lebanon, which benefited 3,375 people under the food security effort for Palestinian and Syrian refugees as well the host community there.


SDRPY participates in Mahri Forum in Yemen

SDRPY participates in Mahri Forum in Yemen
Updated 04 October 2022

SDRPY participates in Mahri Forum in Yemen

SDRPY participates in Mahri Forum in Yemen
  • The purpose of the forum is to contribute to raising and developing awareness toward cultural heritage, as well as to protect it from extinction

Al-MAHRA, Yemen: On Mahri Language Day, the Mahri Forum was held at Qishn School, Al-Mahra governorate, with the participation of the Saudi Program for the Development and Reconstruction of Yemen.

The purpose of the forum is to contribute to raising and developing awareness toward cultural heritage, as well as to protect it from extinction.

The SDRPY participation comes with reference to strengthening ties between both countries, as well as supporting culture in Yemen.

“We wish Yemen all the best, and may it recover within a secure, prosperous, and stable environment. May Yemen be able to contribute to the projects and initiatives hosted by the SDRPY, which amounted to 224 programs and initiatives in total, including more than 50 projects in Al-Mahra, with the purpose of improving its daily life and raising the efficiency of infrastructure in various sectors,” said Abdullah Basilman, director of the SDRPY’s program office in Al-Mahra.

Mahri is a Semitic language like Soqotri and Shehri, among others. SDRPY aims to contribute to the revival of the Mahri language and avoid its extinction through its participation in the forum.


Tawqeer initiative launched for elderly pilgrims

Tawqeer initiative launched for elderly pilgrims
Updated 03 October 2022

Tawqeer initiative launched for elderly pilgrims

Tawqeer initiative launched for elderly pilgrims

MAKKAH: The General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques, represented by the social, voluntary and humanitarian services, has launched the “Tawqeer” (elderly care) initiative, through which several programs and services are provided for elderly people to enable them to perform rituals in ease and comfort, enriching their experience.

Two Holy Mosques chief Sheikh Abdulrahman Al-Sudais affirmed the presidency’s keenness to provide the best social, voluntary and humanitarian services to pilgrims while applying preventive measures, following health instructions and providing visitors with a safe and healthy environment in the Grand Mosque in Makkah.


Saudi Arabia’s children now have holistic sports program for skills development

Saudi Arabia’s children now have holistic sports program for skills development
Updated 04 October 2022

Saudi Arabia’s children now have holistic sports program for skills development

Saudi Arabia’s children now have holistic sports program for skills development
  • Focus on play and not competition, says agency designing programs
  • Multiple sports for ages 4-10 including dance, yoga, gymnastics

RIYADH: A local organization, Sports Hub KSA, is designing tailor-made sports programs for children that emphasize play and skills development rather than competition, and which encourages the involvement of parents.

Simon Muller, CEO and co-founder of Sports Hub KSA, said of the approach to programs: “We want to give children a chance to do sports differently than in a school environment. There’s no pressure, it’s not in 45 minutes the teacher doesn’t have to teach something specific … the children can play in the time frame that they are with us.”

Sports Hub KSA is a Saudi Arabia-based agency that specializes in creating and delivering sports programs for stakeholders such as Inspire Sports, schools, families, and individual children aged between four and 10.

This year, for example, Inspire Sports organized a summer camp program, one of the first in the Kingdom after COVID-19, allowing children to interact with others their age.

Unlike other sports programs, Inspire does not urge competition or being the best, it rather sets a foundation for children to develop their skills while enjoying multiple activities and sports in one session.

Sports Hub KSA is a Saudi Arabia-based agency that specializes in creating and delivering sports programs for stakeholders such as Inspire Sports, schools, families, and individual children aged between four and 10. (Supplied)

“It’s a mix of sports, multi-sport is the core of our concept, it isn’t one single sport, children always need to explore different things and one sport can get boring after four or five sessions,” Muller said.

Muller believes that it is important to play with children especially “those aged between four and 10, as it is way more important than specializing in one sport.”

There can be five to eight sports or games in a session such as athletics, dodgeball, basketball, football, gymnastics, dance and yoga. “We are more focused on the game rather than the sport. “It’s very interesting that the children are interested in many different things.”

Muller said that yoga, which was done at least once a week, was quite popular in the program.

The three-hour summer program only offered apples, bananas, and water. “We just want to set examples and offer something healthy during our sessions to influence other parents and see what we are offering. We are also using social media channels to promote healthy eating,” he said.

Muller said that inclusivity is a major aspect of their programs, so the role of parents is important and coaches encourage them to be involved and present during sessions.

“Inclusion is a very important aspect of what we are doing, we don’t want to exclude anyone. We try to have games for children of different levels and age and development stages to have fun together,” Muller said.

“We are totally aware that what we are doing is something new and we as a company are new and we also know that trust is the most important thing for parents when they decide to send their children to programs, especially when the children are so young,” he said.

“Inclusion is a very important aspect of what we are doing, we don’t want to exclude anyone. We try to have games for children of different levels and age and development stages to have fun together,” CEO and co-founder of Sports Hub KSA said. (Supplied)

“So, we have open days where families can come with their children and just try it and see what we are doing but we also invite the parents all the time. The doors are completely open so parents can come in and see what we are doing at any time of the program,” he said.

“Everything is important at a young age, between three and six it’s very clear in the scientific world that this is the most important age in developing certain behaviors and having a positive association with certain things,” Muller said.

“The ultimate goal is that the children are with us, especially in the age group of four to nine, are with us for two to three years, and not just summer. When they spend couple of hours with us every week, their fundamentals are way more developed than other children that don’t have that opportunity,” he said.

Muller believes it is important for children in their early years to try different things. After the initial first few years enrolled in the sports program, children will then be able to choose the sports that they love.