Cinema Launch Ends Decades-old Saudi Ban

The first commercial movie theater opens under a push by the crown prince to modernize the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom

Mime actors sitting outside the AMC cinema in the capital Riyadh ahead of the first test film screening in over three decades in Saudi Arabia, April 18, 2018

Saudi Arabia launched its first commercial movie theater Wednesday, ending a nearly 40-year ban on cinemas under a push by the crown prince to modernize the deeply conservative 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 concert hall in Riyadh.

Tickets were to go on sale Thursday for the first public shows Friday.

“Saudis now are going to be able to go to a beautiful theater and watch movies the way they’re supposed to be watched: on a big screen,” Adam Aron, CEO of operator AMC Entertainment Holdings told Reuters ahead of the screening.

The smell of buttery popcorn filled the air as confetti rained down through the multistory atrium where Aron and Culture and Information Minister 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.

Many Saudis 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. One tweeted Wednesday: “Remember you will stand in front of God ... and you will bear the sins of all those who watched the movies.”