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Saudi Arabia ends 35-year ban on movie theaters

Hours after Saudi Arabia lifted a 35-year ban on cinemas, the world's biggest movie theater chain jumped on the opportunity. AMC signed a memorandum of understanding with Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund to "explore a range of commercial opportunities for collaboration," according to a joint statement late Monday.

Saudis will soon be able to go to the movies for the first time in more than 35 years.

From early next year, commercial movie theaters will be granted licenses, said Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture and Information in a statement on Monday. It expects the first cinemas to open their doors in March.

“This marks a watershed moment in the development of the cultural economy in the Kingdom,” said Minister of Culture and Information Awwad Alawwad in the statement.

Saudi Arabia is undergoing an economic overhaul under Vision 2030 – a blueprint for what the economy could look like over the next decade to reduce its reliance on oil.

The government hopes opening movie theaters will act as a catalyst for economic growth and diversification, creating new employment opportunities and providing Saudis with a greater range of entertainment options.

There are currently very few entertainment attractions in the conservative society. Many Saudis visit neighboring countries for vacations and leisure time. The Saudi government wants more of them to spend their money at home.

And, there are signs some restrictions are already being relaxed under the country’s crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, who has vowed to destroy “extremist ideologies” and return to “a more moderate Islam.”

Women are being given the right to drive and, from next year, will be allowed to enter the country’s biggest sporting venues. Men and women have already been mixing at major conferences, and the kingdom also hosted music concerts this year.

People entering a concert hall in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on Dec. 4, 2017.
Credit: Fayez Nurelidine/AFP/Getty Images

The Ministry of Culture said it plans to have 300 cinemas with more than 2,000 screens by 2030. It was not immediately clear which movie genres will be shown and whether men and women will be allowed to sit together.

Saudi Arabia is likely to turn to regional cinema operators as movies need to be subtitled in Arabic and censored to remove scenes of nudity and a sexual nature.

Novo Cinemas, based in the United Arab Emirates, is already considering the opportunity.

“We are absolutely studying our options to enter the Saudi market… it’s an important market,” CEO Debbie Kristiansen told CNNMoney.

Another UAE-based operator, VOX Cinemas, said in a statement it was looking forward to “working with the government to introduce VOX Cinemas’ world class offering to Saudi Arabia in the months and years ahead.”

Vue International, which operates in Europe and Taiwan, described the chance to open theaters in Saudi Arabia as a “significant opportunity.”

Under Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia plans to pump billion of dollars into entertainment projects and rev up its tourism sector. The government hopes opening cinemas will contribute more than 90 billion riyals ($24 billion) to the economy and create tens of thousands of jobs.

Saudi Arabia has already announced plans to build resorts on about 100 miles of the Red Sea’s sandy coastline and wants to open a Six Flags theme park by 2022.