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    Saudi Arabia lifts decades-long ban on movie theaters

    RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia announced on Monday it will allow movie theaters to open in the conservative kingdom next year, for the first time in more than 35 years, in the latest social push by the country’s young crown prince.

    It’s a stark reversal in a country where movie theaters were shut down in the 1980s during a wave of ultraconservatism in the country. Many of Saudi Arabia’s clerics view Western movies and even Arabic films made in Egypt and Lebanon as sinful.

    Despite decades of ultraconservative dogma, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has sought to push through a number of social reforms with support from his father, King Salman.


    The crown prince is behind measures such as lifting a ban on women driving next year and bringing back concerts and other forms of entertainment to satiate the desires of the country’s majority young population.

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    The 32-year-old heir to the throne’s social agenda is part of his so-called Vision 2030, a blueprint for the country that aims to boost local spending and create jobs amid sustained lower oil prices.

    The Saudi government said a resolution was passed Monday paving the way for licenses to be granted to commercial movie theaters, with the first cinemas expected to open in March.

    Many Saudis took to Twitter to express their joy at the news, posting images of buckets of movie theater popcorn and graphics of people dancing, fainting, and crying.

    ‘‘It’s spectacular news. We are in a state of shock,’’ said Saudi actor and producer Hisham Fageeh.


    Fageeh starred in and co-produced the Saudi film ‘‘Barakah Meets Barakah’’ by director Mahmoud Sabbagh, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. The movie, which has been called the kingdom’s first romantic comedy, tells the story of a civil servant who falls for a Saudi girl whose Instagram posts have made her a local celebrity.

    ‘‘We are essentially pioneers because we all took risks to work in this industry,’’ he said. ‘‘We were super lucky.’’

    Even with the long ban on movie theaters, Saudi filmmakers and movie buffs were able to circumvent traditional censors by streaming movies online and watching films on satellite TV. Many also traveled to neighboring countries like Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to go to movie theaters.

    One Saudi Twitter user posted a picture of the causeway linking Saudi Arabia with Bahrain, writing ‘‘Goodbye.’’

    It was not immediately clear if movie theaters would have family-only sections, segregating women and families from male-only audiences.


    But the Ministry of Culture and Information said movie content ‘‘will be subject to censorship’’ to ensure films do not contradict Islamic law, known as Shariah, or the kingdom’s moral values.