Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Kingdom Council/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images(RIYADH, Saudi Arabia) — Saudi Arabia broke a 35-year ban on movie theaters Wednesday night with a special showing of the Disney blockbuster Black Panther in the Saudi capital that allowed men and women to sit together.
The invitation-only screening in Riyadh drew hundreds of VIP guests, including government ministers and officials, diplomats and various Saudi celebrities.
“It is just great to watch a superhero fighting for his kingdom, surrounded by women empowered as warriors, while the issues of race and colonialism were tackled,” said Suha, a 27-year-old political scientist who asked ABC News not to use her last name. “And all of this in Riyadh.”
Suha attended the screening with her best friend. “This is a historic moment,” she said. “We no longer need to travel to Bahrain or Abu Dhabi to watch Hollywood movies.”
The first public screening will take place Friday, with tickets available for $13, according to Italia Film, Disney’s Middle East distribution partner.
Cinemas are set to follow. The government struck a deal with U.S. company AMC Entertainment earlier this month to repurpose the concert hall in the King Abdullah Financial District and open theaters in 40 Saudi cities over the next five years, up to 100 cinemas by 2030.
Wednesday’s screening took place in conjunction with the glittering rededication of a space built two years ago as a symphony concert hall. The main theater has 620 leather seats, orchestra and balcony levels, and marble bathrooms. Three more movie screens, accommodating a combined 500 people, will be added by the summer.
As part of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s aggressive campaign to modernize Saudi Arabian society, the new Riyadh multiplex allowed men and women to sit together.
The new movie palaces are just one example of Saudi public space meant to make the country look stylish and modern, and more friendly to women, who now can drive cars and attend public concerts, speeches and soccer games.
The 32-year-old prince, known by his initials, MbS, has also been campaigning to modernize the national economy. His plans include reducing the country’s near-total reliance on oil revenue and diversifying into regional business and financial services and tourism. Both those sectors need the participation of women to succeed.
“The crown prince knows that Saudi Arabia has a problematic image in the Western world,” a Western diplomat in Riyadh, requesting anonymity, told ABC News recently. “What he wants to do is transform Saudi Arabia and its society in ways that will be very appealing to Westerners,” meaning Americans and Europeans.
The apparent losers in this cultural makeover are Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative clerics. The grand mufti, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, publicly called commercial films a source of “depravity” and opposed the opening of movie theaters as recently as last year.
So Wednesday’s grand opening signaled not just a bet on Hollywood, but royal family confidence that in today’s Islamic world, a country that shows movies to a mixed public can still draw millions of devout pilgrims to the annual Hajj in Mecca, the spiritual heart of Islam.
Whatever the outcome, movies shown in Saudi Arabia are unlikely to escape the kind of censorship that affects all films in the Middle East, experts say.
Censorship is toughest in Kuwait, for instance, a veteran executive at Italia Film told ABC News.
The most relaxed censorship, he said, is in the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon.
With Black Panther, Saudi censors followed the example of their counterparts in Kuwait, cutting two kisses and a curse from the film.
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