Saudi Arabia to Open 'Immoral, Atheistic' Theater 35 Years After the Last One Was Shut Down

Saudi Arabia is planning to open its first permanent movie theater since they were banned 35 years ago, despite opposition from the country's powerful religious authorities who consider the move "immoral."

The Saudi Ministry of Culture announced Wednesday that U.S. chain AMC has won the license to operate the theater. It will open in the capital city Riyadh on April 18.

According to The Guardian, theaters will not be segregated by gender, and the first screening will be Marvel's superhero blockbuster Black Panther.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is spending big on Saudi Arabia's entertainment industry as part of his ambitious Vision 2030 project, committing $64 billion to the sector over the next 10 years. This will facilitate, among others things, as many as 350 theaters with over 2,500 screens by 2030.

Saudi cinema in Jeddah
A temporary, makeshift theater was set up at this cultural club in Jeddah to screen “The Emoji Movie”—the first film to be screened in Saudi Arabia since the 1980s—on January 13, 2018. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious Vision 2030 project will fund hundreds of new movie theaters across the country. REUTERS/Reem Baeshen

Vision 2030 has been launched to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil dependence and to create a more "vibrant society" with more entertainment for the country's youthful population. The project's mission statement says it will "reinvigorate social development."

The crown prince has defied the country's powerful religious leaders who have been hugely influential in Saudi Arabia's domestic policy since the late 1970s.

Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, the head of the country's religious organization, said motion pictures are "shameless, immoral, atheistic." He warned that allowing motion pictures could "open doors to evil," and said that establishing new theaters is "an invitation to mixing of sexes."

At the start of this year, residents of the Red Sea city of Jeddah flocked to a makeshift cinema to watch the first movie screened in the country since the 1980s. Thirty-five years of waiting was rewarded with The Emoji Movie, a film widely panned by critics that scored 9 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and 3.1 on IMDB. Nonetheless, many Saudis considered the message more important than the movie.

Salman hopes to increase domestic spending to 6 percent per household by 2030, from the current level of 2.9 percent. Previously, thousands of Saudis would travel to Bahrain or Dubai to spend money on entertainment, cash that the Saudi authorities now hope to keep inside their borders.

Vision 2030
A man walks past the logo of Vision 2030 after a news conference, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on June 7, 2016. The project aims to diversify the Saudi economy and promote a more “vibrant society.” REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser/File Photo

Saudi Arabia offers huge potential for theater companies. Its 32 million people, most of whom are under 30 years of age, mean the kingdom will be the largest market for theatergoers in the Arabian Gulf region, the announcement said. Estimated annual box office sales are as high at $1 billion.

"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 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."

MBS with Trump
President Donald Trump holds a defense sales chart with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House, on March 20. Salman is visiting the U.S. to build political and business ties between the two nations. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

The Saudi General Entertainment Authority (GEA) has also announced deals to bring shows from Cirque du Soleil, Feld Entertainment Inc. and National Geographic to the country, Bloomberg reported.

The GEA will stage more than 5,000 festivals and concerts in 2018, double the number held in 2017. The kingdom has already hosted several concerts, including a female-only event by Lebanon's Hiba Tawaji, who made history as the first woman to perform a public concert in the country. In December 2017, U.S. rapper Nelly performed at a men-only concert in Jeddah.

Salman is visiting the U.S. to meet with politicians and business leaders as he pursues his goal of a modernized country closely aligned with the U.S. Beginning his trip by meeting President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., the crown prince's two-week itinerary includes time in New York, Hollywood and Silicon Valley to court CEOs and investors.