Saudi Arabia plans to end its 35-year ban on movie theaters early next year as part of a package of social reforms by the crown prince, according to Agence France-Presse.
“Commercial cinemas will be allowed to operate within the kingdom as of early 2018, for the first time in more than 35 years,” the culture and information ministry said in a statement Monday.
The goal is to have 2,000 screens in more than 300 cinemas by 2030, and the government promised to start licensing cinemas immediately.
The move represents a seismic shift in attitudes for the notoriously strict Muslim country. Saudi Arabia is embracing entertainment as part of a broad reform effort known as Vision 2030, which is built around three themes, according to the government’s website: a vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation.
“This marks a watershed moment in the development of the cultural economy in the kingdom,” said Information Minister Awwad Alawwad in a statement.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been overturning long-running social norms in the country since coming to power in 2015, including allowing women to drive cars. However, he has also arrested several clerics and activists, and detained senior princes and businessmen in what the government calls an anti-corruption campaign.
Saudi Arabia’s bold reforms have met opposition from hardliners, who believe movie theaters threaten the country’s religious and cultural identity. It was hardliners such as these who played a leading role in shutting down theaters in the 1980s. Adherents to the strict Wahhabi sect of Islam that dominates Saudi Arabia have typically disapproved of all non-religious forms of entertainment.
In January, the kingdom’s highest-ranking cleric blasted the “depravity” of movie theaters, saying they would corrupt morals. But the authorities appear to be ignoring the resistance.
Previously, Saudi filmmakers have used the Internet to evade state censors and distribute their films abroad. They argue it makes no sense to ban cinemas when movies today are readily available online.