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Saudi Arabia to diversify economy with ambitious plan for entertainment industry

Bandar Al Jaloud, AFP | The first film screening in Saudi Arabia for 30 years took place at the AMC cinema in Riyadh on April 18.

Saudi Arabia held its first public screening of a film in 35 years on April 18 – showing the keenness of new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (nicknamed MBS) to develop a lucrative entertainment industry for his country.


With flashing lights and rows of popcorn boxes, the first public movie offering in Saudi Arabia since the 1980s was held with great fanfare – a way of showing the world that the Wahhabi kingdom is entering a new era. Several cinemas should be open to the public by early May.

This decision fits in with MBS’s “Vision 2030” programme, which he unveiled as Deputy Crown Prince in 2016, a year before he ascended to his current position. This series of proposals aims to diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy.

The 2014-15 plummet in oil prices changed the outlook for Saudi Arabia, leading the kingdom to try and develop new sources of wealth, particularly in two areas of as-yet unchartered territory: the tourism and entertainment industries. In May 2016, a General Entertainment Authority was formed.

Big government investment

“The goal is to recover some of the $22 billion (19.5 billion euros) that the Saudis spend abroad each year,” Stéphane Lacroix, Saudi Arabia specialist at Sciences Po, told FRANCE 24. Until now, Saudis have been going to such places as Bahrain and Qatar to sit in air-conditioned rooms and watch American blockbusters.

The Saudi government hopes that the entertainment sector will generate $20 billion (16.3 billion euros) for the country’s economy over the next 15 years. According to the government’s projections, the sector could generate as many as 30,000 jobs directly and more than 100,000 indirectly.

The General Entertainment Authority has been active in efforts to achieve this, with 2,000 sporting and cultural events organized in 2017, including car races, wrestling competitions, and theme parks...with 5,000 such events planned for 2018. Singers including American band Maroon 5 and tenor Andrea Boccelli are expected to perform in the country this year, while building work has begun on an opera house in the capital, Riyadh.

Ahmad bin Aqil al-Khatib, chairman of the General Entertainment Authority, says that Saudi Arabia plans to invest $64 billion in the country’s entertainment industry over the next 10 years. The authorities are also planning the construction of a massive “Entertainment City” to the south of Riyadh, covering a 334 km² area (that is to say, three times the size of Paris), with amusement parks, sports pitches, concert halls and even a safari.

Multinationals moving in

Big multinational corporations are rubbing their hands in anticipation, because – with half of its population under 25 – Saudi Arabia is a highly lucrative but thus-far untapped market. During his visit to the US in March, MBS met with big names in the US entertainment industry, including Disney CEO Bob Iger and executives from 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros and Universal. According to the Los Angeles Times, he also met with Ari Emanuel, managing director of the media agency William Morris Endeavour, in which the Saudi Public Investment Fund might be about to buy a 10 percent stake.

American company AMC Entertainment, the largest cinema operator in the US, was the first to enter the market, signing an agreement with the Saudi sovereign wealth fund in December to build and run cinemas across the country. Within 5 years, AMC will open 40 multiplexes in Saudi Arabia, and then another 100 before 2030.

MBS is not only making these changes for economic reasons – he is also attempting to create create an impression of liberalising social mores amongst young people who are eager for change. Cinemas in big cities like Riyadh and Jeddah could soon see men and women sitting alongside each other.

Meanwhile, the role of the Mutaween, the Islamic religious police, has seen its powers reduced and women’s rights have improved (women have gained the right to drive, to join the army and to start a business without being overseen by a male guardian). Saudi Arabia is following the examples of the UAE and Qatar, its increasingly Westernised neighbours.

Nevertheless, civil liberties in the Wahhabi kingdom are still very limited. One wonders if a sprinkling of Hollywood glitter will be enough to distract Saudi youth from their legitimate hopes for democracy.

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