Saudi Arabia’s first permanent cinema is coming.
On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture and Information announced that U.S. chain AMC has won the country’s first cinema operating license. Black Panther will be the first movie to get a public screening since the ban.
AMC, the world’s largest movie exhibitor, plans to open the country’s first permanent cinema on April 18 in the capital of Riyadh. The kingdom could be home to nearly 350 cinemas, with over 2,500 screens, by 2030.
AMC will be working alongside the government’s Development and Investment Entertainment Company, a subsidiary of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth Public Investment Fund (PIF).
The cinema push is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s so-called Vision 2030, an ambitious package of social-economic reforms to lessen the conservative kingdom’s dependence on oil and return the kingdom to “moderate Islam.” This means encouraging domestic spending on entertainment, aiming to increase it from 2.9 percent to 6 percent per household by 2030.
As part of this plan, the kingdom’s Ministry of Culture and Information agreed to issue licenses for cinemas on Dec. 11, 2017. Cinemas have been banned in Saudi Arabia since the early 1980s, due to conservative Islamists wanting to discourage any form of entertainment or leisure activity that enables men and women to mingle in public — they were seen as a corrupting influence.
Conservative critics, including the head of Saudi Arabia’s religious authority, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, are staunchly against the cinema ban lift, calling motion pictures “shameless, immoral, atheistic.”
But with Saudi Arabia’s population sitting over 32 million, the largest in the Arabian Gulf region, and with the large majority under 30, the country’s cinema market is predicted to flourish, estimated to bring in around US$1 billion in annual box office sales.
“The granting of the first license marks the opening of very significant opportunities for exhibitors,” said Dr. Awwad Alawwad, Minister of Culture and Information in a press statement. “The Saudi market is very large, with the majority of the population under the age of 30 and eager to watch their favourite films here at home.”
“The aim of Saudi Vision 2030 is to improve the quality of life for Saudi families by providing an array of entertainment opportunities. The restoration of cinemas will also help boost the local economy by increasing household spending on entertainment while supporting job creation in the kingdom.”
Additional reporting by Gianluca Mezzofiore.
This article has been updated with information about Black Panther.