Saudi Arabia launched its first commercial movie theatre on Wednesday, ending a nearly 40-year ban on cinemas under a push by the crown prince to modernise the Muslim kingdom.
A red-carpet, invitation-only gala event attracted senior government officials, foreign dignitaries, and select industry figures to watch Marvel’s superhero movie Black Panther on a 45-foot screen at a converted symphony concert hall in Riyadh.
Tickets will go on sale on Thursday for the first public viewings on Friday, according to operator AMC Entertainment Holdings chief executive Adam Aron.
“Saudis now are going to be able to go to a beautiful theatre and watch movies the way they’re supposed to be watched: on a big screen,” he said ahead of the screening.
The smell of buttery popcorn filled the air as confetti rained down through the multi-story atrium where Aron and Saudi Minister of Culture and Information Awwad al-Awwad announced the launch and proceeded into the 450-seat hall.
The opening marks another milestone for reforms spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to open the country culturally and diversify the economy of the world’s top oil exporter.
The prince, 32, has already eased restrictions in the last two years, including on public concerts, women driving, and gender mixing. The kingdom held its first-ever fashion show last week with a women-only audience.
Many Saudis have rejoiced at the end of the cinema ban, sharing praise and pictures of Prince Mohammed on social media. Others expressed confusion at what they consider a government flip-flop.
There has been little apparent resistance to the social reforms, which seemed unthinkable just a few years ago, though the space for criticism is also limited. Several prominent clerics were arrested last year in an apparent bid to silence dissent.
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