Saudi culture is undergoing seismic change: Women are now allowed to drive, music concerts have been held, and this week the kingdom announced it was lifting a 35-year ban on cinemas. The first ones are expected to open next March, and it’s a massive business opportunity.
Estimates say the Saudi industry could be worth as much as $25 billion.
“The Saudis are a predominantly very young population They are connected to the world, you have the highest Internet penetration, they want a modern lifestyle,” said Alain Bejjani, chief executive of Dubai-based company Majid Al Futtaim, which owns Vox Cinema.
Beijani said that Vox Cinema, a theater chain that operates in the Middle East, “is going to be an instrumental part in bringing this lifestyle to Saudi Arabia and deliver entertainment that is world class.”
Someone who’s the exact kind of person he’s talking about: 28-year-old Hajar al Naim, who happens to be a Saudi film maker. Hajar is in Dubai as well, screening her own feature, “Detained,” which is about Syrian refugees. Between showings, she told us how entertainment was frowned upon when she was growing up. Below is an edited transcript.
Hajar al-Naim: Our culture in general, especially religious people, they think that entertainment is something prohibited. We should just spend our time praying and it’s just something that God won’t like if we would just spend our time to entertain ourselves. And I don’t agree with that.
Anand: Hajar says under the ban, you have to work pretty hard at the moment to see a film.
al-Naim: A lot of people leave. If they want to watch films,they go to Bahrain, they travel to Qatar or something like that. We would just watch movies at home.
Anand: She describes how enterprising movie buffs cobbled together their own home cinemas. Hajar went to LA five years ago to do a masters in film production and that’s when she first set foot inside a movie theater.
al-Naim: When I went there and I watched Argo, it was amazing I didn’t know that that would be the experience. I was like, “OK, what film? OK, on a big screen? What is the difference?” I didn’t see the difference. But I loved it because of the reaction of the people around me. Like the laughter, the crying, the silence in the room is just an incredible, incredible experience. So, yes I can’t forget that day.
Anand: As for the prospect of having movie theaters at home for the first time in her life:
al-Naim: I’m so excited, by the way. I’m so, so excited. I think it will be controlled at the beginning, it should be and I agree with that. A lot of people agree with these changes in Saudi right now, but there are a lot of other people that don’t agree with it. So, making a change needs really patient, slow process and steps. And I don’t think even international films will be screened. Unless if it doesn’t have any, maybe, sexual scenes or if there is any sexual scenes, they will take it off. I’m so feminist and I really want to help other women to tell their voice, because as you might know, the discrimination in Hollywood with females — since we are starting this industry, we want to start strong. I want to help female Saudis to get the chance that I got in Hollywood. So, I think that now they’re gonna fund a lot of movies. That’s why I’m excited. It’s because I want to help women.
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