‘We’re going to develop local culture, local talent, build the emerging film industry of Saudi Arabia,’ says Hollywood producer Tarak Ben Ammar

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Updated 09 December 2023
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‘We’re going to develop local culture, local talent, build the emerging film industry of Saudi Arabia,’ says Hollywood producer Tarak Ben Ammar

‘We’re going to develop local culture, local talent, build the emerging film industry of Saudi Arabia,’ says Hollywood producer Tarak Ben Ammar
  • Arab producer who put Tunisia on Hollywood movie map tells The Mayman Show of plans to attract foreign films, develop local talent
  • Veteran filmmaker says creation of more foreign-language TV news channels will help bolster the Kingdom’s international image

RIYADH: For decades, Tunisian film producer Tarak Ben Ammar transported moviegoers into magical desert landscapes, from Tatooine in “Star Wars” to the shifting sands of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Now, the veteran filmmaker has set his sights on what he says could be one of the film world’s next big locales: Saudi Arabia.

With a filmography stretching back to the early 1970s, Ben Ammar has been a part of blockbusters such as “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” “Scream,” “Equalizer 3,” and “The Passion of the Christ.”

The dozens of films he worked on employed one million people, and established Tunisia as a player in the film industry.

Aside from film, Ben Ammar also managed Michael Jackson’s HIStory World Tour in the 1990s, has served as an adviser to Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi, and is the head of Italy’s top independent film distribution and production company Eagle Pictures.

Ben Ammar said he saw the potential of Saudi Arabia as a film hub on noticing the success of his movies, particularly “Equalizer 3,” in the Kingdom.

“I did the research on the box office of that movie,” he told The Mayman Show, the Arab News podcast that features personal conversations between my host and my guests.

“You had England, UK, Germany, France, Australia, and then Saudi Arabia. So outside of the US, Saudi Arabia is becoming the place to be for my industry.

“That’s why ... I will be involved. To attract, of course, foreign films to come into Saudi Arabia but also to develop local Saudi culture, to develop local Saudi talent.”




Tarak Ben Ammar told The Mayman Show host Hussam Al-Mayman how lessons learned through his work on some of the biggest films in cinematic history could be applied to Saudi Arabia. (AN Photo)

More specifically, Ben Ammar said: “If a ‘Star Wars’ comes here, we will help you with tax credits. You have to employ locals.

“I employed a million people in my country by imposing in every department a technician. So, when they leave, they leave behind their knowhow so that those young people will know what a big film is.”

Speaking of Saudi Arabia, he said the country “has 38 million people; it has its own market. It has a youth that is hungry to be entertained, to create. Because, you know, there was a moment when if you were a young 18-year-old girl or boy and you want to be a painter, a musician, a writer, a singer, a director, or an actor, what did you do? You had to go to London, to Paris, to America.”

He added: “You are blessed by having a young population. And that’s why I said to myself — wait, this is a great market. I have to come here and invest.

“Usually, people come to Saudi Arabia to take your money. I am coming to invest in your country. Invest my knowhow, my knowledge, my name, my credentials, and bringing with me people who say, ‘This is what we’re going to be doing.’ We’re going to build the emerging industry of Saudi Arabia.”

Though potential tax incentives and rebates for filmmakers are certainly a reason for its allure, Ben Ammar says his plans for the Saudi film industry may be different to what he has done in Tunisia or elsewhere.

“The rebates are not enough,” he said on the Arab News podcast The Mayman Show. “First and foremost, I am not obsessed with bringing Hollywood to Saudi Arabia. That’s a very small part.

He pointed out that in Saudi Arabia, and indeed the entire Middle East region, American and Egyptian movies dominate the market.

“Today, you have, let’s say, 50-50, American and Egyptian movies. If we can lower that and make it 40 percent American, 40 percent Egyptian and 20 percent Saudi, then you have new filmmakers, new actors, new musicians, new directors, new writers, that then will sell Saudi Arabia more than just to come here and make movies.”




Tarak Ben Ammar during a tour of the Arab News HQ in Riyadh. (AN Photo)

A burgeoning Saudi film industry may also address the issue of Arab representation in Hollywood, he said, explaining that at a certain point in film history, Arabs became classic villain archetypes.

“It was always the Arabs with the Palestinian keffiyeh. Well, of course, because of the Six-Day War, the ’73 War, and Hollywood being very pro-Israel — it still is — so the terrorist was an Arab,” he said.

“We are the ones that need to help films get made where the story is different. The narrative of my cousins, my Arab cousins and brothers, in stories should be different. But it’s happening. We’re seeing different stories about Arabs. I have made a few movies of that myself. So, I’m optimistic that we’re not in the category still of the bad guys, I think.

“And if we become partners in this market — you want to come to our market, you treat us well.”

Ben Ammar said that the creation of more foreign-language news channels, such as many other countries have done with Russia Today, BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera, will also help bolster the Kingdom’s international image.

“The Kingdom just won Expo and the World Cup,” he said, referring to the 2030 World Expo and the men’s football 2034 World Cup.

“Of course, you would want television to reflect why you won the Expo, why you won the World Cup. There’s people here that know what they’re doing and are selling the Kingdom and its culture and its evolution.”

Ben Ammar’s dream as a young, up-and-coming filmmaker has a personal and emotional connection to the Kingdom through his uncle, the first president of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba.

“And Tunisia owed a lot to Saudi Arabia, because when he was in exile and fighting the French for independence, the Kingdom’s founder Ibn Saud (King Abdulaziz) helped us; helped him. The Saudi culture was very much in my heart,” he said.

He said one of the first films he wanted to make was about King Abdulaziz.

“It was the early 1970s, and Saudi Arabia certainly was not the Saudi Arabia I had discovered, but the shock was starting in 2016 when I saw what it was becoming. I was privileged to have met the crown prince and to see the vision,” he said.




The dozens of films Tarak Ben Ammar worked on employed one million people, and established Tunisia as a player in the film industry. (AN Photo)

Ben Ammar’s determination to help further develop culture in the Middle East was sparked by an event in 2009, when he traveled to the Abu Dhabi Film Conference to be its keynote speaker.

“As I was landing, I read an article that disturbed me greatly. It said: ‘The Middle East will be acquiring hundreds of billions of dollars of armaments in the next 20 years.’”

He went on to give a speech, saying: “A nation without a culture is nothing more than a supermarket of consumers. A nation without a past really has no future.”

In 2018, Ben Ammar said, he was approached by Saudi Minister of Culture Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan, who asked him to lend his expertise to the strengthening of the Saudi film industry.

“In coming here, I saw the evolution of the multiplexes, the films, and last month I was here for a conference on the film commission,” he said.

Ben Ammar also spoke about his experience in bringing feature films such as “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” to his home country, and how that experience could be applied to Saudi Arabia.

“When I started my career in Tunisia, we didn’t have a market,” he said.

“You, here, have an advantage, if I may compare, the Saudi model should be exactly what South Korea did. Look at South Korea. They created their own business, their own music, their own directors, their own TV series. And then they started exporting because they trained their people.”

The Korean film industry has been increasingly successful in recent years, with series such as “Squid Game” becoming international smash hits. In 2019, the Korean film “Parasite” made history by being the first non-English language film to win an Oscar for Best Picture.

“It wasn’t made to be exported. It was a Korean movie, a beautiful one that conquered the world,” Ben Ammar said.

“Maybe in my lifetime I will see a Saudi movie do the same, to make us Arabs proud as the Koreans were proud of ‘Parasite.’”

 


Forces from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan conclude military exercise in Multan

Forces from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan conclude military exercise in Multan
Updated 13 sec ago
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Forces from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan conclude military exercise in Multan

Forces from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan conclude military exercise in Multan
  • Saudi Arabia and Pakistan enjoy strong defense ties and bilateral security cooperation

ISLAMABAD: The Royal Saudi Land Forces and the army in Pakistan have concluded a joint military training exercise in the eastern city of Multan that aimed at enhancing capabilities and exchanging expertise, the Pakistani military said on Tuesday.

The exercise in Pakistan took place from Jan. 15 to Feb. 26 with a view to fostering joint employment techniques while enabling both parties to benefit from the experience, according to the Inter-Services Public Relations, the Pakistani military’s media wing.

The ISPR said in a statement: “The training, which encompassed conventional as well as sub-conventional operations, culminated with (a) field maneuver and battle inoculation exercise, employing air and ground forces.”

The commander of Pakistan’s Multan Corps saw the exercise as chief guest and expressed his satisfaction over mutual understanding and the training standards achieved, according to the ISPR.

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan enjoy strong defense ties and bilateral security cooperation. The two nations regularly engage in joint air, ground, and sea military exercises, while several cadets from the Kingdom, along with counterparts from other Middle Eastern nations, annually visit Pakistan to undergo specialized military training.

The joint exercise in Multan further consolidated long-standing relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the ISPR added.

 


Yanbu festival honors King Salman, breaks world record

Yanbu festival honors King Salman, breaks world record
Updated 27 February 2024
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Yanbu festival honors King Salman, breaks world record

Yanbu festival honors King Salman, breaks world record
  • In honor of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, the record-breaking floral arrangement read ‘Salman’ made from 19,464 roses
  • Saudi calligrapher Hani Mehalawi: ‘I am delighted to be part of this work and set this new world record which honors our beloved king’

JEDDAH: Yanbu has set a new Guinness World Record for the largest flower word displayed at the Flower and Garden Festival 2024, which started recently and runs until March 9.

In honor of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, the record-breaking floral arrangement read “Salman” made from 19,464 roses.

In collaboration with Jubail and Yanbu Industrial Cities Services Co., the masterpiece, which was completed on Feb. 13 by Saudi calligrapher Hani Mehalawi, stood 16 meters wide and six meters tall and is a magnificent work of art.

The entire procedure was overseen by official adjudicators from Guinness World Records, who examined every part of the record attempt from beginning to end.

Mehalawi spoke to Arab News and expressed his joy and happiness in writing the largest flower word. “This feat showed our dedication to our King. With the message behind this initiative being especially close to our hearts, I am indeed delighted to be part of this huge work and set this new world record which honors our beloved king.”

He explained that it took over three days to complete the monumental task of assembling the world’s largest flower word.

“It was a very happy moment for me when the officials of the Flower and Garden Festival asked me to do the work in  short notice but I managed to finish it within few days. My part was to write the name and they filled it with flowers,” he added.

This year’s Flower and Garden Festival also featured the world’s largest flower basket, with 127,224 natural white and red petunia flowers, as well as the world’s largest illuminated flower garden, with a total of 250,000 illuminated flowers. The biennial celebration also featured the largest recyclable vehicle (a space rocket) with a total length of 30,364 meters.


Saudi crown prince receives Ukraine president in Riyadh

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman receives the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky in Riyadh on Tuesday. (SPA)
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman receives the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky in Riyadh on Tuesday. (SPA)
Updated 29 min 40 sec ago
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Saudi crown prince receives Ukraine president in Riyadh

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman receives the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky in Riyadh on Tuesday. (SPA)
  • Aspects of Saudi-Ukrainian relations were reviewed, and the latest developments in the Ukrainian-Russian war were discussed during the meeting

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman received the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky in Riyadh on Tuesday.

During the reception, aspects of Saudi-Ukrainian relations were reviewed, and the latest developments in the Ukrainian-Russian war were discussed, Saudi Press Agency reported. 

The crown prince stressed the Kingdom’s support for all international endeavors and efforts aimed at resolving the crisis and achieving peace, and continuing efforts to alleviate the humanitarian repercussions of the war. 

Zelensky wrote on social media platform X that he would discuss prisoners of war and deportees with the crown prince.

“The Kingdom’s leadership has already contributed to the release of our people. I am confident that this meeting will also yield results,” he wrote. 

The crown prince was involved in securing the release of 10 foreign prisoners captured in Ukraine in September 2022 which then enabled a major prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine.

The president added that he will discuss “promising areas of economic cooperation and Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Ukraine’s reconstruction” during his visit. 


KSrelief, UN officials hold talks on volunteer programs

KSrelief, UN officials hold talks on volunteer programs
Updated 27 February 2024
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KSrelief, UN officials hold talks on volunteer programs

KSrelief, UN officials hold talks on volunteer programs

RIYADH: Officials from Saudi Arabia’s aid agency, KSrelief, and the UN held talks on their respective volunteer programs in Riyadh on Tuesday.

Ali bin Saad Al-Qarni, director of volunteer programs at KSrelief, met with Niels Knudsen, who is the external communications chief for the UN Volunteers program. There were several UN officials present at the meeting.

Al-Qarni said KSrelief has 597 volunteer projects running in 40 countries across the world, which cover health, education, and vocational training.

The projects have benefited more than 1.5 million people.

Al-Qarni also highlighted KSrelief’s efforts in developing the skills of volunteers and humanitarian workers in needy countries around the globe.

Knudsen and Al-Qarni held discussions on future areas of cooperation.


Saudi source denies reports that commerce minister met Israeli counterpart

Saudi source denies reports that commerce minister met Israeli counterpart
Updated 27 February 2024
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Saudi source denies reports that commerce minister met Israeli counterpart

Saudi source denies reports that commerce minister met Israeli counterpart

RIYADH: An official Saudi source denied on Monday allegations circulating on social media platforms regarding a meeting between Majid Al-Qasabi, Minister of Commerce, and an Israeli occupation official, Saudi Press Agency reported.

The same source said in a statement carried by SPA that the video circulated was while Al-Qasabi was standing with his Nigerian counterpart, prior to the opening of the thirteenth Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization in Abu Dhabi.

“The individual shook (the Saudi minister’s) hand and then was introduced, without (Al-Qasabi’s) prior knowledge,” the source told SPA.

This was followed by Israeli media reports claiming that the two discussed peace between Saudi Arabia and Israel, with one Israeli outlet running a picture of the two under the heading: “Israeli minister and Saudi counterpart shake hands and discuss ‘making history together.’”

The source also affirmed to SPA Saudi Arabia’s firm position on the Palestinian issue and its steadfast support for the Palestinian people against Israeli aggression.