What can I do in Riyadh tonight

Saudi ArabiaA cinema in the "kingdom of boredom"

Juliane Reil: Any kind of pleasure distracts from belief. That is - in broad outline - the dogma of the clergy in the strictly Muslim kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman apparently thinks differently. He wants to liberalize the country. The country's first cinema since the 1980s opens in the capital, Riyadh. Cornelia Wegerhoff is culture correspondent for the Middle East. Ms. Wegerhoff, which film will be shown at the premiere today?

Cornelia Wegerhoff: Yes, the organizers are still making a big secret of this, especially about this whole event today in Riyadh. So far it is not even officially known what time the film will be shown. But it doesn't matter, because I'll say: Ahmed or Khaled Ordinary consumers with his family don't even come into the hall. Today's demonstration - and others to follow this month, are only for guests with a personal invitation, says AMC. This is the US cinema chain American Multi Cinemas, which operates this new cinema in Riyadh, and dozen more cinemas are to be opened there in the coming years.

Reil: Is the Crown Prince himself coming?

Wegerhoff: It is also unclear who is on the guest list. It may well be, but you don't know. There is supposed to be a big gala, at least that's leaked. And rumor has it that the Hollywood blockbuster "Black Panther" will be shown. It's been running for a long time with us. A science fiction action film with a political message has been dubbed the "Beacon of Hope for Africa". And anyone who looks at Saudi Arabia in the last few months has to say that there are now many hopes for a turnaround.

"It's also about economics"

Reil: But an interesting choice. Is it liberalization, would you say? Or is there actually more economic interest behind this cinema opening?

Wegerhoff: It is precisely these two things that should not be confused! We also have the lifting of the ban on women driving in the course of this year: great for the women who fought for years, but the guardian system still exists, for example. If a Saudi Arabian woman wants to see a doctor, she must first ask her male guardian for permission. So this is only a really tiny step towards female liberation. And that's exactly how it is here. The whole thing is based on the "Vision 2030" of this Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 32 years old - the really strong man in Saudi Arabia, one must say, behind his father King Salman, 82 years old. This is noticeable through its very aggressive foreign policy, the escalation of the Yemen war with more than 10,000 dead is due to him.

But at the same time he is also known as "Prince Charming": He questioned these strict clothing regulations for women and allowed the first music concerts. And this theatrical release.

Above all, the aim is to reorganize economically: the oil revenues, one would like to be less dependent, to build up new branches of the economy. And the spending of Saudi households on cultural and entertainment activities is to be doubled to six percent by 2030. And that would bring 30,000 new jobs. So it's really about economics too.

Reil: And how many new cinemas are planned there?

Wegerhoff: A whole lot! The Ministry of Culture in Riyadh assumes that more than 300 cinemas with 2000 screens will be opened by 2030. You have to say that Saudi Arabia makes a lot of money there, of course. Because one thing has to be said: I think most of the Saudi Arabian cinema fans have already seen the "Black Panther" film. They just go to the neighboring states, the Emirates, to watch films. And the money - that's supposed to be hundreds of millions of dollars - you'd rather earn yourself.

"The Kingdom of Boredom"

Reil: What would you say Is the film scene itself relatively lively there?

Wegerhoff: Absolutely. And most people don't know that. It's still a very young scene there, but one of the most important names is female. This is the director Haifaa al Mansour. She filmed the German-Saudi co-production "Das M├Ądchen Wadjda" about a defiant girl who doesn't want to adapt to the usual female role models, but rather rides a bike on the street. That came out in 2012. That was an absolute sensation at the Venice Film Festival, because it was the first feature film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. But at the locations it was actually the case that Haifaa Al Mansour had to seriously give her instructions from a minibus, from a van, via walkie-talkie. So she couldn't stand on the street and order the cameramen around, no woman in Saudi Arabia does that. She then sat in the bushes. And Haifaa al Mansour has now also commented on the theatrical release in Saudi Arabia:

"The country was often referred to as the kingdom of boredom because there is really nothing to do in Saudi Arabia. It's nice that you can watch movies now. And it's very important to distract from militant ideas and this conservative literature that are very dominant in this society. It is important that the young generation get the feeling that they are more part of the world and not against it. This theatrical release is great and I am really excited about the future of Saudi Arabia. "

And she will be a part of that. It was convened eleven days ago by the Saudi Arabian culture minister in a new body that is supposed to promote the country's cultural activities.

Reil: Will there be censorship in the cinema programs, how do you rate it?

Wegerhoff: That will have to be seen. There have been many sayings from young people in Saudi Arabia who have said: "Fifty Shades of Gray" will not exist here - maybe "Fifty Days of Pray" instead. And Haifaa al Mansour, the Saudi Arabian director, was of course also asked what about the censorship in the new cinemas:

"Of course there will be censorship. We are very conservative. It will be similar to the neighboring countries, such as the United Arab Emirates. I think it is important not to shock people at the beginning, but to give them films that entertain, who are fun, who do not question their values.It is very important to take up this medium first.

"Without the liberation of Raif Badawi, such reforms are not credible"

Reil: So today there is a big gala in Riyadh for the first public cinema evening in 35 years. But what about the artists who are in prison in Saudi Arabia? Is there for hope?

Wegerhoff: So, unfortunately, very little has happened so far. For example, yesterday marked the sixth anniversary of the imprisonment of Raif Badawi - this is this young Saudi blogger. He criticized the religious police and was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes. The first 50 were in 2015 when they were seriously injured. He's still in custody. And I asked the spokeswoman Raif Badawis in Europe for her opinion on this theatrical release, Elham Manea:

"I welcome this cultural opening, especially because the Saudi population has suffered a lot from the fundamentalist reading of Islam."

But Elham Manea warns: One cannot speak of a new cultural freedom in Saudi Arabia completely unreservedly. She recalls that he is only in jail, only being publicly flogged for writing blogs calling for more freedom:

"He has been very critical of the ban on cinemas and concerts. He has also demanded that the religious establishment cease to control society. Because of this, and with all due respect, I do not really see the current reforms in Saudi Arabia completely I believe that such reforms will not be credible without the liberation of Raif Badawi and other political prisoners. "

So, tonight it might be "canvas free" in Riyadh, but not freedom for all cultural workers in Saudi Arabia.

Reil: The culture journalist Cornelia Wegerhoff thinks. Thank you for this assessment.

Wegerhoff: Gladly.