Saudi women attending a short-film festival at a cultural center in Riyadh in October.
Fayez Nureldine/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In the latest in a series of gestures toward modernization that would once have seemed improbable, Saudi Arabia announced on Monday that it would allow commercial movie theaters to open for the first time in more than 35 years.

The moves to allow access by early 2018, part of a broad campaign by the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to transform Saudi society, followed measures that would give women the right to drive and to attend soccer games, and that would allow concerts and other forms of public entertainment.

Although satellite television and video downloads have made the ban on commercial theaters all but irrelevant, the announcement highlights the diminishing power of the kingdom’s conservative clerics. The grand mufti, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, publicly called commercial films a source of “depravity” and opposed the opening of movie theaters as recently as a few months ago.

And opening the door to such changes raises suspenseful questions about how far they will go, beginning with the issue of what movies will be shown and how they may be censored.

Taken together, the loosening of the restrictions is “very real and quite significant,” said Jane Kinninmont, a scholar at the British research organization Chatham House who studies Saudi Arabia, adding that “maybe there will be some jobs created in a new agency to censor the movies” along the way.

The social overhauls are part of a broad plan to open up the kingdom’s economy and to reduce its near-total dependence on oil. To that same end, the crown prince has simultaneously embarked on a broad crackdown against corruption, holding members of the Saudi elite in a luxury hotel, in what has been described as an effort to force them to repay billions of dollars diverted into personal coffers from other transactions.

Critics say the detentions were intended, in part, to neutralize potential challengers.

Prince Mohammed, the 32-year-old favorite son of King Salman, 81, has amassed a degree of personal power without precedent in Saudi Arabia, and he has indicated no interest in political reforms to parallel his program of opening up the economy and social rules. The most prominent cleric the crown prince has jailed, Salman al-Awda, was known for advocating loosening social rules while putting in place democratic political changes, and he appears to have been detained for the latter.

The prince has promised that he will use his power to move Saudi Arabia toward a more tolerant form of Islam than its religious establishment has promoted in the kingdom and around the world for decades.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Alan Cowell and David D. Kirkpatrick

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