Saudi Arabia: Why is going to the cinema suddenly OK?

Saudis are avid consumers of Western films – but until recently had to watch in private AFP

Saudi Arabia is about to open its first cinema for 35 years, showing the film Black Panther. After being banned for decades, why is it now OK to go to the movies?

Saudi Arabia’s decision to end its ban on cinemas is part of a wider change across society.

In the 20th Century, its ruling Al Saud dynasty could rely on two sources of power: plentiful oil wealth and an informal pact with conservative religious clerics.

But now the country has to adapt to a 21st Century where oil wealth will not be enough to fund government spending and create jobs, and where the clerics have less influence than they once did with the new leaders of the royal family.

Like other Middle Eastern countries, Saudi Arabia is overwhelmingly young: most of its 32 million people are under 30.

King Salman has promoted one of his youngest sons, 32-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, to the elevated position of Crown Prince, partly to connect with this young majority.

But MBS, as he is known, has a difficult task.

Saudi Actress Waad Mohammed accepts the Muhr Arab Feature award (Best Actress) for her film Wadjda
The Saudi film Wadjda won international awards GETTY IMAGES

He needs to oversee a transition to a less oil-dependent economy where young Saudis will probably not enjoy the same standards of living that their parents did.

They won’t be guaranteed public-sector jobs, and will have to work harder in the private sector.

The cost of housing is a frequent complaint, while healthcare and education are starting to be privatised.

Western observers have often thought that Saudi Arabia would eventually have to cut back on economic handouts to its population, and that this would result in pressure for more political rights. More:

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