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Not an Act: How Saudi Arabia’s Film Industry Embodies its Modernization Efforts

Over the past decade, Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in its entertainment sector, which holds a special place in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) “Vision 2030” economic plan. MBS and other Saudi officials recognize the vital importance of film in shaping societal attitudes and have launched a series of sweeping projects intended to ease the conservative laws of Wahhabism, spur the opening of Saudi society, and raise Riyadh’s global profile. The most significant project, “Film Saudi,” aims to encourage local, regional, and international film producers to base their creative projects in Saudi Arabia.

To incentivize production within the Kingdom, the Saudi Film Commission recently announced an astonishing 40% cash rebate on qualifying expenses during film production inside Saudi Arabia if certain conditions are met, such as the hiring of Saudi talent and the depiction of the Kingdom in a positive light. “Incentivizing film productions will enable us to tap into the potential of our growing film industry, showcase our unique and breathtaking landscapes, and attract a diverse range of productions to the kingdom,” said Abdullah Al Eyaf, chief executive of the Saudi Film Commission,.

In line with Vision 2030, Saudi cultural authorities have laid out a plan to become one of the top 20 film industries in the world over the next decade. The royal family intends to invest billions of dollars in the cinema and entertainment industry—a dramatic turnaround for the Saudi government, which banned theaters across the country as recently as 2018.

Economic and Social Liberalization

The overarching goal of the Vision 2030 plan is to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy away from oil and natural gas by establishing a services-based private sector that spans many independent industries. As part of this plan, the film and entertainment industry is considered a way to generate direct income, as well as a means to obtain investment and identify future economic opportunities.

The Development Investment Entertainment Company (DIEC) predicts that by investing 10 billion Saudi riyals ($2.67 billion), one billion riyals ($267 million) will be added to the Saudi GDP and 1,000 direct jobs will be created. DIEC plans to open between 50 and 100 cinemas throughout Saudi Arabia by 2030. It has also claimed that it will spend $533 million to open 600 screens, creating 3,000 new jobs over the next five years. As Saudi Arabia’s population grows, the Kingdom is expected to have the potential for up to 2,600 total screens. The increase in availability of theaters and film screens could also have a positive impact on the willingness of Saudi citizens to spend money; by 2030, the Saudi government hopes to double the share of household spending from 2.9% to 6% of GDP and develop a 30 billion riyal ($8 billion) market for recreational services.

In 2021, Saudi Arabia’s box office market was the 15th largest in the world, worth approximately $238 million according to figures from Comscore—a rise of nearly 95 percent over the market’s 2020 valuation. Saudi Arabia’s was the only cinema market that experienced box office gains in 2020, as the doubling of theater screens outpaced severe social restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Saudi Arabia’s film sector could also support its expanding tourism industry, another key pillar of the Vision 2030 economic plan. The newly-established Red Sea International Film Festival, which featured 138 films from more than 60 countries, played to thousands of attendees, many of whom were international guests. In this festival, it was promised to support the production of 100 cinema films. Through this festival and other entertainment programs such as the XP Music Conference and the Soundstorm festival, Riyadh has begun to establish itself as a leading music and cinema destination.

The social impact of the film industry in Saudi Arabia is important from both a domestic and an international standpoint. From an international point of view, the Saudi authorities realize the growing role of the film industry in shaping public opinion, promoting policies, and institutionalizing values. Riyadh also considers cinema a vehicle for transforming international perceptions of Saudi society. In particular, Riyadh seeks to foster an image of the Kingdom as a modern, progressive state while downplaying its past human rights abuses and extremist ideology.

Cinema Advances a Larger Agenda

For better or for worse, MBS is pushing for major social and political change within Saudi Arabia. These reforms are loosely organized around three themes: reducing the role of Wahhabism, degrading the role of Saudi princes with hereditary positions in Saudi politics, and shifting the country’s primary identity away from its religious fundamentalist roots toward a more conventional nationalist state.

The country’s leadership has already begun downplaying the role of Wahhabi teachings in schools and society. The 2017 detention of the Saudi princes at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh sent a clear signal to the rest of the country that the old consensus-based system, in which various branches of the House of Saud conferred until they reached agreement, had been replaced by an absolute monarchy controlled by MBS. Finally, the Saudi government has made great strides in recent years toward creating a new identity of Saudi nationalism that subsumes traditional ethnic, tribal, religious, and Pan-Arab loyalties under Saudi national identity.

The social atmosphere, which was limited by ultra-conservative religious teachings, was changed and social freedoms were offered to the youth through progressive signs. In this way, the Saudi authorities sought to attract young people and prevent the growth of widespread discontent among them.

MBS has also done his best to make these changes palatable by continuing to provide for the public. Saudi Arabia faces significant economic challenges, including rapidly rising costs of living and high levels of unemployment among its large youth population; the crown prince stands to benefit if the liberalizing policies he has introduced can help to address these issues. According to the Saudi General Authority for Statistics, 65% of the country’s population is under 40 years old, and 46.7% is less than 25. Internet-savvy Saudi youths have pushed for greater access to the modern world, and MBS has obliged, allowing culture, entertainment, cinema, music, and dance to enter the Kingdom after nearly four decades of prohibition.

The film industry in Saudi Arabia, through billions of investments, government subsidies, and the construction of new movie theaters, represents an opportunity for the Saudi leaders to display the modern, international face of the country and respond to the political demands of the people. It remains to be seen how the Saudi authorities will use cinema for these purposes and how useful their output will be to serve these purposes in the future.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Dr. Mohammad Salami holds a Ph.D. in International Relations. He is a specialist in Middle Eastern policy, particularly in Syria, Iran, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf region. His areas of expertise include politics and governance, security, and counterterrorism. He writes as an analyst and columnist in various media outlets. Follow him on Twitter: @moh_salami

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