Saudi Arabia’s first cinema in over three decades will open on April 18 in Riyadh, authorities said on Wednesday, after a ban was lifted last year as part of a far-reaching liberalization drive.
AMC Entertainment has been granted the first license to operate cinemas, with Saudi state media saying the U.S. giant is expected to open 40 cinemas across 15 Saudi cities over the next five years. “AMC plans to open the kingdom’s first cinema theater in Riyadh on April 18,” the information ministry’s Center for International Communication said in a statement.
The news comes after AMC Entertainment signed a non-binding agreement in December with Saudi Arabia’s vast Public Investment Fund to build and operate cinemas across the kingdom. “The granting of the first license marks the opening of very significant opportunities for exhibitors,” Information Minister Awwad Alawwad was quoted as saying in the statement. “The Saudi market is very large, with the majority of the population… eager to watch their favorite films here at home.”
International theater chains have long eyed the kingdom as the Middle East’s last untapped mass market of more than 30 million people, the majority of whom are under 25. AMC will still face stiff competition from other heavyweights including Dubai-based VOX Cinemas, the leading operator in the Middle East.
The move to reopen cinemas is part of a modernization drive by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is seeking to balance unpopular subsidy cuts in an era of low oil prices with more entertainment options—despite opposition from religious hardliners.
Long known for its ultra-conservative mores, the kingdom has embarked on a wide-ranging program of social reforms that includes boosting sports and entertainment and allowing women to drive from June.
In February, Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority (GEA) announced it would stage more than 5,000 festivals and concerts in 2018, double the number of last year, and pump $64 billion in the sector in the coming decade. The reform stems partly from an economic motive to boost domestic spending on entertainment as the kingdom reels from an oil slump since 2014.
Saudis currently splurge billions of dollars annually to see films and visit amusement parks in neighboring tourist hubs like Dubai.