In the newest in a series of actions toward modernization that would once have suggested improbable, Saudi Arabia announced on Monday that it would permit commercial movie theaters to open for the first time in more than 35 years.
The moves to permit access by early 2018, component of a broad campaign by the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to convert Saudi society, followed measures that would give women the right to drive and to visit soccer games, and that would permit concerts and other forms of public entertainment.
Although satellite television and video downloads have made the ban on commercial theaters all but unrelated, the announcement highlights the declining power of the kingdom’s timid clerics. The grand mufti, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, publicly called commercial films a source of “depravity” and disputed the opening of movie theaters as newly as a few months ago.
And opening the door to such changes raises suspenseful quarries about how far they will go, starting with the problem of what movies will be shown and how they may be deleted.
Taken together, the loosening of the conditions is “very real and quite important,” said Jane Kinninmont, a scholar at the British research organization Chatham House who studies Saudi Arabia, adding that “maybe there will be some jobs made in a new agency to censor the movies” along the way.
The social overhauls are component of a broad plan to open up the kingdom’s economy and to curtail its near-total dependence on oil. To that same end, the crown prince has together 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 deflected into personal coffers from other transactions.
Critics say the custodies 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 individual 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 outstanding 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 comes to have been detained for the latter.
The prince has agreed that he will use his power to move Saudi Arabia toward a more forgiving form of Islam than its religious establishment has promoted in the kingdom and around the world for decades.
In a statement, the Culture and Information Ministry said the government would start within 90 days licensing movie homes to open. It did not indicate what kind of movies the government might permit to be screened, but made clear that films would be governed by Islamic law.
“The content of the displays will be subjected to censorship based on the media policy of the kingdom,” the statement said. “The displays will be in line with the values and principles, and will include enriching content that is not adverse to Shariah laws and ethical values of the kingdom.”
Ms. Kinninmont of Chatham House noted that Saudi Arabia’s national airline already displays commercial films on seat-back screens during flights, which may offer clues to the future standards for theaters. No films with sex or nudity are shown. Bottles or glasses of alcohol are obscured with pixels, as are bare shoulders or other shows of flesh.
The movie selections, she said, neglect romance and tend toward gore, “since there does not seem to be an issue with displaying things that are graphically violent.”
The website of the airline, Saudia, lists under in-flight entertainment a Spider-Man movie, “War for the Planet of the Apes,” “The Dark Tower” and “Cars 3.”
In practice, many Saudis already watch the films they need on their computers or mobile devices, so the opening of commercial theaters would add only a more public venue for showing certain films.
It was unclear how movie theaters’ seating would be configured in a conservative kingdom that enforces gender partition in most spheres of life. Restaurants and coffee shops are divided into various rooms, one for men and the other for families.
The ministry hoped the move would “encourage economic advancement by developing the culture and media sector, and offer new employment opportunities,” including 30,000 full-time jobs by 2030.
Saudi Arabia started closing movie theaters soon after it adopted ultraconservative religious standards in 1979. Saudi clerics accused Western movies, and even the many Arabic-language films made in Egypt, as contrary to the teachings of Islam.
Some of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors, notably the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have movie theaters that are regularly visited by Saudis. And even though it has banned cinemas, Saudi Arabia has actively encouraged filmmaking, showcasing Saudi films at a festival in the eastern city of Dhahran. In March, the fourth Dhahran film festival had 59 Saudi films on its program.
Saudi movies, some dealing with the delicate problem of gender separation, have also been screened at important cinematic events outside the country.
In 2013, the film “Wadjda” became the first Saudi entry for the Academy Awards. It told the story of a 10-year-old misfit girl who yearns for an appropriate green bicycle so she can compete with boys. But achieving the bicycle means breaking several taboos. The film had a female director, Haifaa al-Mansour, and was filmed completely in Saudi Arabia.