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Saudi Arabia lifts decades-long ban on cinemas

Saudi Arabia on Monday lifted a decades-long ban on cinemas, part of a series of social reforms by the powerful crown prince that are shaking up the ultra-conservative kingdom.

The government said it would begin licensing cinemas immediately and the first movie theatres are expected to open next March, in a decision that could boost the kingdom’s nascent film industry.

Reviving cinemas would represent a paradigm shift in the kingdom, which is promoting entertainment as part of a sweeping reform plan for a post-oil era, despite opposition from hardliners who have long vilified movie theatres as vulgar and sinful.

“Commercial cinemas will be allowed to operate in the Kingdom as of early 2018, for the first time in more than 35 years,” the culture and information ministry said in a statement.

“This marks a watershed moment in the development of the cultural economy in the kingdom,” the statement quoted information minister Awwad Alawwad as saying.

Saudi Arabia is expected to have more than 300 cinemas — with over 2,000 screens — all across the kingdom by 2030, the ministry said.

Like most public spaces in the kingdom, cinema halls are expected to be segregated by gender or have a separate section for families.

Hardliners, who see cinemas as a threat to cultural and religious identity, were instrumental in shutting them down in the 1980s.

Saudi Arabia’s highest-ranking cleric warned in January of the “depravity” of cinemas, saying they would corrupt morals.

But authorities appear to be shrugging off the threat, with some comparing Saudi Arabia’s reform drive to a fast-moving bus — either people get on board or risk being left behind. Saudis themselves appear astounded by the social change, which includes allowing women to drive from next June. Saudi in recent months has organised music concerts, a Comic-Con pop culture festival and a mixed-gender national day celebration that saw people dancing in the streets to thumping electronic music for the first time.

The social transformation chimes with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent pledge to return Saudi Arabia to an “open, moderate Islam” and destroy extremist ideologies.

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