The social overhauls are part of a broad plan to open up the kingdom’s economy and to reduce its near-total dependence on oil. To that same end, the crown prince has simultaneously embarked on a broad crackdown against corruption, holding members of the Saudi elite in a luxury hotel, in what has been described as an effort to force them to repay billions of dollars diverted into personal coffers from other transactions.
Critics say the detentions were intended, in part, to neutralize potential challengers.
Prince Mohammed, the 32-year-old favorite son of King Salman, 81, has amassed a degree of personal power without precedent in Saudi Arabia, and he has indicated no interest in political reforms to parallel his program of opening up the economy and social rules. The most prominent cleric the crown prince has jailed, Salman al-Awda, was known for advocating loosening social rules while putting in place democratic political changes, and he appears to have been detained for the latter.
The prince has promised that he will use his power to move Saudi Arabia toward a more tolerant form of Islam than its religious establishment has promoted in the kingdom and around the world for decades.
In a statement, the Culture and Information Ministry said the government would begin within 90 days licensing movie houses to open. It did not indicate what kind of movies the government might allow to be screened, but made clear that films would be governed by Islamic law.
“The content of the shows will be subjected to censorship based on the media policy of the kingdom,” the statement said. “The shows will be in line with the values and principles, and will include enriching content that is not contrary to Shariah laws and ethical values of the kingdom.”
Ms. Kinninmont of Chatham House noted that Saudi Arabia’s national airline already shows commercial films on seat-back screens during flights, which may offer clues to the future standards for theaters. No films with sex or nudity are shown. Bottles or glasses of alcohol are obscured with pixels, as are bare shoulders or other displays of flesh.
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The movie selections, she said, avoid romance and tend toward gore, “since there does not seem to be a problem with showing things that are graphically violent.”
The website of the airline, Saudia, lists under in-flight entertainment a Spider-Man movie, “War for the Planet of the Apes,” “The Dark Tower” and “Cars 3.”
In practice, many Saudis already watch the films they want on their computers or mobile devices, so the opening of commercial theaters would add only a more public venue for viewing certain films.
It was unclear how movie theaters’ seating would be configured in a conservative kingdom that enforces gender segregation in most spheres of life. Restaurants and coffee shops are divided into different rooms, one for men and the other for families.
The ministry said it hoped the move would “encourage economic growth by developing the culture and media sector, and offer new employment opportunities,” including 30,000 full-time jobs by 2030.
Saudi Arabia began closing movie theaters soon after it adopted ultraconservative religious standards in 1979. Saudi clerics denounced Western movies, and even the many Arabic-language films made in Egypt, as contrary to the teachings of Islam.
Some of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors, notably the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have movie theaters that are regularly visited by Saudis. And even though it has outlawed cinemas, Saudi Arabia has actively encouraged filmmaking, showcasing Saudi films at a festival in the eastern city of Dhahran. In March, the fourth Dhahran film festival had 59 Saudi films on its program.
Saudi movies, some dealing with the delicate issue of gender separation, have also been screened at prestigious cinematic events outside the country.
In 2013, the film “Wadjda” became the first Saudi entry for the Academy Awards. It told the story of a 10-year-old misfit girl who yearns to have a particular green bicycle so that she can compete with boys. But acquiring the bicycle means breaking several taboos. The film had a female director, Haifaa al-Mansour, and was filmed exclusively in Saudi Arabia.
“Barakah Meets Barakah,” described as Saudi Arabia’s first romantic comedy and directed by Mahmoud Sabbagh, was also entered for the Academy Awards. It premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2016.