Saudi Arabia’s decades-long ban on cinemas only ended in 2018, but the desert kingdom already has Hollywood ambitions.
It’s investing $64 billion in its nascent entertainment industry as part of a broader effort to wean the economy off oil and transform itself into the Middle East’s premier movie hub.
The action flick Desert Warrior, starring Anthony Mackie (Marvel’s new Captain America), is being filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia, and Gerard Butler’s latest thriller Kandahar is starting principal photography in the Al-Ula region this month—a first for the UNESCO World Heritage Site opened last year as part of Saudi Arabia’s related push to introduce tourism.
“We’ve started from the beginning, no one was here before, and we have high ambitions to build up Al-Ula as an international film destination,“ said Stephen Strachan, film commissioner for the unspoilt region that boasts majestic pre-Islamic ruins neglected under decades of religious rule.
It’s a remarkable turnaround for Saudi Arabia, where only a few years ago women were prohibited from driving, restaurants were gender-segregated and most forms of entertainment, from music concerts to film screenings were banned as un-Islamic. Since taking day-to-day control in 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has loosened social restrictions and introduced the annual Riyadh Season extravaganza of concerts and events.
But there’s another side to the transformation; Prince Mohammed has jailed dissidents, silenced critics and is accused by the U.S. of ordering the murder of critical Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a charge Saudi Arabia denies.
Like the social media influencers that came before them, Hollywood stars arriving to shoot potential blockbusters are a coup for the government’s effort to rehabilitate its image, but could draw criticism from rights campaigners who say the glamor glosses over that darker political underbelly.
“I think people have the wrong impression of Saudi sometimes. It’s very much modernizing,” said Strachan. “Hollywood is looking to see what happens with Kandahar. People are interested in the cultural transformation in Saudi. ”
Kandahar is co-financed by Saudi-owned TV giant MBC, alongside Santa Monica, California-based Thunder Road. The film is set to feature Gerard Butler as an undercover CIA operative working in Afghanistan who has to fight his way out of hostile territory.“I liked the script, and Gerard Butler is a classic name,” said Peter Smith, head of MBC Studios. Smith was previously president of NBCUniversal International, and moved to MBC in 2018 to boost output in Saudi Arabia and the region.
Netflix sees opportunity as well. The streaming giant has signed an eight feature film deal with Saudi studio Telfaz11, as it looks to increase Middle East content.
But the kingdom faces stiff competition.
Morocco and Jordan have long served as desert locations, with Wadi Rum doubling as Mars in 2015 sci-fi film The Martian and alien landscapes in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
Saudi Arabia will also be competing with the neighboring United Arab Emirates, which has provided the backdrop to blockbusters like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Some film industry insiders also complain of problems obtaining visas or getting equipment through the airport, and decades without movies means its harder to source local talent than it is in Arab countries with more experience.As part of the push, the kingdom is launching its first international film festival.
The Red Sea Festival begins in December in the historic coastal city of Jeddah. The chairman is Saudi producer Mohammed Al Turki, who’s worked on films including the 2012 crime drama Arbitrage, starring Richard Gere.
Al Turki has been touring major festivals like Cannes, where Red Sea sponsored the amfAR Gala for AIDS research, with industry royalty like Spike Lee in attendance.
At the Venice Film Festival, Red Sea threw a women in film event that attracted stars like Demi Moore and Kate Hudson.
“We want to be the region’s destination for filming, and the creativity and potential here is immense,” said Al Turki.It’s personal for the 35-year-old. He left Saudi Arabia around a decade ago to become a film producer in the U.S., and remembers having to bring VHS tapes to his home or travel to neighboring Bahrain to visit the cinema. Now, he’s back to organize a homegrown film festival.
“People will be surprised by the festival and talent in Saudi,” he said. “We’re making this happen.”