(Bloomberg) -- Saudis are getting to watch a superhero fighting for his kingdom, surrounded by women empowered as warriors as they tackle issues of race and colonialism.
Walt Disney Co.’s global blockbuster “Black Panther” opened in the kingdom on Wednesday, the first cinema screening in the country in more than 35 years. The themes in the movie, set in a fictional land, are notable as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman consolidates his power and tries to persuade the world that he is reshaping his country to be more open and modern.
Movies are part of the crown prince’s plans to let citizens have more fun in a place where the religious police traditionally shouted at women to cover up and where they are still usually segregated from men in public.
Of the 49 countries designated “Not Free” by Freedom House in 2018, Saudi Arabia ranked among the dozen worst, just above Syria and North Korea.
But things are changing even as Prince Mohammed cracks down all forms of dissent against his vision for a new Saudi Arabia. This month, the kingdom held a fashion week event, with a women-only audience, and there have been mixed-gender concerts.
AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., controlled by China’s Dalian Wanda, opened the theater, bringing an end to the ban on cinemas. AMC and the Development & Investment Entertainment Co., a subsidiary of Saudi Arabia’s investment fund, plan to open as many as 40 cinemas within five years.
By 2030, the kingdom expects to have 350 theaters. The industry is projected to contribute about $24 billion to the economy and add more than 30,000 permanent jobs.
Canapes and Popcorn
On Wednesday evening, a select group attended the premiere in the King Abdullah Financial District, a $10 billion, unfinished financial hub in Riyadh. The carefully choreographed event was a prelude to opening “Black Panther” to the wider Saudi audience, with details of how to get tickets to be announced on Friday.
The invited Saudi men and women mingled outside, eating canapes and listening to live jazz as they waited for the start of the movie. There were AMC automated box offices, one billboard with famous actors and one advertising the film and a Lexus LC 500 parked in front.
There has been celebration and criticism of the screening on social media, though the government heavily monitors posts.
“Praise god that we have arrived at cinema in Saudi Arabia, and no one will mourn the extremists,” Abdulaziz Al Mosa, a former official at the Mecca grand mosque, said on his verified Twitter account.
A portion of the responses mocked his enthusiasm or criticized his marginalization of the kingdom’s conservatives. Many religious clerics have either embraced the government’s social agenda or been too intimidated to criticize it.
The kingdom hasn’t had public cinemas since the early 1980s, when the U.S. box office was dominated by films including “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and the Star Wars movie “Return of the Jedi.” After militants besieged the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, most forms of public entertainment were banned and clerics were given more control over schools and social life.
Now it’s the turn of “Black Panther.” The Marvel comic tells the story of T’Challa, who fights for control of the kingdom of Wakanda after the death of his father. T’Challa is told he gets to decide “what kind of king” he will be.
— With assistance from Dana Khraiche and Vivian Nereim.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.