Saudi Arabia Is Giving Women More Rights and Opening Movie Theaters Because Its Economy Is Collapsing

Saudi Arabia will allow commercial movie theaters to open for the first time in 35 years, part of a major push by Saudi leadership to promote a more moderate form of Islam and to boost the country's economy, the Saudi Culture and Information Ministry announced in a statement on Monday.

Saudi Arabia is undergoing a major economic shift known as Vision 2030 that is meant to move the country's economy away from its dependence on oil and reduce its nearly $80 billion deficit. As part of this major transformation, the country recently announced that it would soon allow women to drive. And last week, the country hosted its first public concert by a female artist, Hiba Tawaji.

Allowing commercial cinema in the kingdom will inject around $24 billion into the economy and create tens of thousands of jobs, according to the Saudi government.

"This marks a watershed moment in the development of the cultural economy in the Kingdom," Minister of Culture and Information Awwad Alawwad said in the statement, adding that the first cinemas would open in March.

It is a beautiful day in #SaudiArabia! 💚 🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia says cinemas to get licenses in early 2018 #Saudicinema

— Haifaa Al Mansour (@HaifaaMansour) December 11, 2017

Oil revenues account for about 90 percent of government revenues, and an era of low oil prices has left the Saudi economy in tatters. The need to shake up the economy is causing a major cultural shift in the conservative kingdom, which is relaxing its control over women to encourage their participation in the economy.

Saudi Arabia banned public cinemas in 1980 after adopting a strict form of Sunni Islam. But the country's film industry hasn't been completely dormant. Saudi films are often shown in international film festivals. In 2012, Haifaa al-Mansour became the first Saudi woman to direct a feature. Her movie, Wadjda, about a young girl who enters a Koran recitation competition, was celebrated in Saudi Arabia and abroad.

Technology has made it increasingly easy to access cinema at home, and the country has a major bootleg movie economy that allows people to access prohibited foreign films.

Letting people watch movies in a public cinema, however, is a major departure from the traditional religious laws that have been upheld in the country for 35 years.

Saudi Arabia to reopen the cinema in 2018. The ministry of culture and information said it would begin issuing licences immediately and that the first cinemas were expected to open in March 2018.

— د. شاكر الذيابي (@ShakerAlthiabi) December 11, 2017

Nevertheless, the theaters will be regulated to ensure that the movies are in line with Saudi religious standards. The precise guidelines have not been released, but movies depicting nudity, sex or alcohol consumption will likely be banned. It also is likely that women and men will be obligated to sit separately in cinemas.

"The content of the shows will be subjected to censorship based on the media policy of the kingdom," the statement read. "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."