With its black superhero, black director, and predominantly black cast, Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther” made history before it ever hit movie theaters. But the wildly popular film is about to notch another notable achievement ― this time by being the first film in decades to be shown in a commercial movie theater in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia plans to lift a 35-year ban on cinemas in the country this month, as part of ambitious reforms pushed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. On Wednesday, the U.S.-based AMC Theatres announced that it had snagged a deal to open and operate the first movie theaters in the country.
AMC plans to open up to 40 theaters in about 15 Saudi Arabian cities over the next five years, with the goal of opening as many as 100 by 2030, according to The Washington Post.
Men and women in the audience will not be required to sit separately, unlike in other public places in the kingdom, Reuters reports.
HuffPost reached out to AMC and Walt Disney Studios for comment, but did not hear back at publication time.
“The Saudi market is very large, with the majority of the population under the age of 30 and eager to watch their favourite films here at home,” Dr. Awwad Alawwad, the country’s minister of culture and information, said in a statement.
“The restoration of cinemas will also help boost the local economy by increasing household spending on entertainment while supporting job creation in the Kingdom,” he added.
Saudi Arabians are already keen consumers of Western television and film, according to the BBC, but most people access these shows on their computers, phones or through satellite television at home. Many also visit movie theaters in nearby countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Saudi Arabia had a few movie theaters in the 1970s, but they closed soon after the country adopted ultraconservative Islamic standards in 1979, The New York Times reports.
The country’s powerful religious establishment has long held close ties to the country’s ruling family. Clerics in the country still claim that Western movies are not permissible according to their hardline interpretations of Islam.
This January, Saudi Arabia’s highest-ranking cleric, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, warned against the country’s plan to open cinemas, saying in an interview that theaters were a “depravity.”
But the 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed is pushing a series of economic and social reforms he’s calling “Vision 2030.” One of its goals is to increase citizens’ spending on cultural and entertainment activities from 2.9 percent to 6 percent by 2030.
In September, Saudi Arabia announced that it plans to lift its ban on women driving. Women can begin applying for licenses in June this year.
Another goal of the crown prince’s reform package is to increase the number of women in the workforce from 22 percent to 30 percent by 2030.
Women in the country are still restricted by guardianship laws that requires them to ask male relatives for permission to do things like travel abroad or get married.
Crown Prince Mohammed plans for reform are part of a broader scheme to attract new investors to the country and lessen its dependence on oil for revenue.