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Saudi people attend the concert of composer Yanni in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Dec. 3. Photo by Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters

Saudi Arabia lifts the cinema ban after 35 years

The Saudi Arabian regime plans to open movie theaters to the public in early 2018, reversing a 35-year ban. It’s the next step in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 of economic and social reforms.

Minister of Culture and Information Awwad Alawwad said Monday lifting the ban is a “watershed moment” that will boost the country’s economy.

“By developing the broader cultural sector, we will create new employment and training opportunities, as well as enriching the kingdom’s entertainment options,” Alawaad said in a statement.

The Saudi government estimates the opening of movie theatres will contribute more than $24 billion to the economy and create more than 30,000 jobs by 2030.

The announcement was welcomed news for those in the Saudi film industry.

“It is a beautiful day in #SaudiArabia!” Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour wrote on Twitter.

“Now our young men and women will show the world possibilities and stories worth seeing,” Saudi filmmaker Aymen Tarek Jamal tweeted.

In the 1980s, authorities shut down cinemas because of religious objections. The issue has remained a controversial one in recent years.

Without cinemas, most Saudis watched films via satellite TV, DVDs or the internet. The Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts still hosted four film festivals, where Saudi filmmakers were able to show their work to the international community.

READ MORE: After shakeup, can Saudi Arabia’s crown prince deliver on promise of reform?

Religious objectors remain. Earlier this year, the grand mufti, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh railed on his weekly TV show against the possibility of opening movie theaters.

“Motion pictures may broadcast shameless, immoral, atheistic or rotten films,” al-Sheikh said according to the Guardian. “Opening of movie houses at all times is an invitation to mixing of sexes.”

Opening movie theaters is part of a larger cultural shift taking place in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has promised to return the country to “moderate Islam”– a move he says goes hand in hand with expanding global economic opportunities.

In September, the Saudi government announced it would lift a ban on women driving, allow women to attend sports events and permit cultural activities, such as concerts and comedy shows.

It is unclear if there will be separate sections for families and women in movie theaters, and whether Hollywood films will be screened.

The culture ministry did promise to censor films to ensure they are “enriching and purposeful” and do not violate sharia laws.

The Saudi government said it will begin issuing licenses to theaters as quickly as possible.

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