Why has Saudi Arabia suddenly decided cinema is OK?

From BBC - April 16, 2018

Saudi Arabia is about to open its first cinema for 35 years, showing the film Black Panther. After being banned for decades, why is it now OK to go to the movies?

Saudi Arabia's decision to end its ban on cinemas is part of a wider change across society.

In the 20th Century, its ruling Al Saud dynasty could rely on two sources of power: plentiful oil wealth and an informal pact with conservative religious clerics.

But now the country has to adapt to a 21st Century where oil wealth will not be enough to fund government spending and create jobs, and where the clerics have less influence than they once did with the new leaders of the royal family.

Like other Middle Eastern countries, Saudi Arabia is overwhelmingly young: most of its 32 million people are under 30.

King Salman has promoted one of his youngest sons, 32-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, to the elevated position of Crown Prince, partly to connect with this young majority.

But MBS, as he is known, has a difficult task.

He needs to oversee a transition to a less oil-dependent economy where young Saudis will probably not enjoy the same standards of living that their parents did.

They wo not be guaranteed public-sector jobs, and will have to work harder in the private sector.

The cost of housing is a frequent complaint, while healthcare and education are starting to be privatised.

Western observers have often thought that Saudi Arabia would eventually have to cut back on economic handouts to its population, and that this would result in pressure for more political rights.

But MBS seems to be offering a different model.

In effect, he is saying: "Work harder, do not criticise the system, but have more fun."

Like neighbouring Dubai, he is offering some degree of greater social freedom rather than greater political freedom.

Cinemas are part of this.

But do Saudis actually want a more liberal society?

For years, Saudi officials said the population was highly conservative; now they give the impression it is open, dynamic and tech-savvy.

In fact, social attitudes in Saudi Arabia are very diverse.

People are spread over a large territory with very different life experiences and income levels.

More than a million Saudis have now studied abroad, while others are immersed in very traditional culture.

Women's lives in particular vary greatly, as their ability to study, travel and work is decided by their male "guardian" - their father, or husband once married.

As the government has overturned the ban on women driving, and started to promote concerts and films that were banned for years, there is a debate about the pace of change and the types of culture the country should develop.

This is especially the case when it comes to women's rights.

When it comes to film, however, technology had already made the cinema ban close to being an absurdity.

A 2014 survey suggested that two-thirds of Saudi internet users watched a film online every week. Nine out of 10 Saudis have smartphones.

People who take a budget flight to Bahrain or Dubai can go to cinemas there.


Continue reading at BBC »