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On Wednesday, April 19, the first Saudi Arabian movie theater in 35 years will be opening its doors. The lifting of the country’s cinema ban is only one of many sweeping cultural reforms introduced by Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It signifies a retreat from top-down moral policing, and an opportunity for Saudi citizens to engage in political, social, and moral dialogue, however, indirect.

Saudi Arabia has been notorious for its draconian social codes since the 1980s, when Wahhabi influence on the ruling family and the already ultraconservative King Fahad Abdulaziz, worked together to create policies like prohibiting concerts and instituting sex-segregation in all public spaces. In the first years of his reign, King Fahd established the ‘Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’, which administered everything from spontaneous cane beatings of inadequately veiled women, enforced haircuts for men whose hair was deemed too long, and, less frivolously, ordered whippings and imprisoned a blogger who wrote about religious oppression in the kingdom. In 2016, the Saudi cabinet issued a decree that severely curtailed the Committee’s powers, forbidding it from chasing or arresting suspects and ordering it to discharge its duties ‘in a gentle and humane way.’

As with the introduction of movie theaters, as well as the recent lifting of the driving ban on women, the relaxation of religious policing is largely attributed to the efforts of Mohammed bin Salman. Also attributed to M.B.S., as the heir apparent is sometimes known, are parallel developments that are decidedly illiberal. Critics have rightfully pointed to his authoritarian approach to political competition (namely, incarcerating approximately 200 high-ranking Saudis at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh and calling it an ‘anti-corruption drive’), his unsatisfactory proposals for an ailing economy, and the Saudi-led coalition’s merciless bombardment of Yemen. Professor Moustafa Bayoumi neatly summed up M.B.S.’s policies in the Guardian: “While Prince Mohammed’s limited reforms are fundamentally about liberalizing the social and economic realms of Saudi Arabia, the political realm remains completely off-limits.” This is unsurprising, as Bayoumi observes, since Saudi Arabia remains an absolute monarchy.

That Saudi’s current crown prince considers reforming the cultural sphere to be far less harmful than liberalizing the political sphere can also be read as an opportunity for Saudis to produce and engage with artistic and creative works that take an oblique approach to political, social, and moral critique and dialogue. The award-winning Saudi-directed 2017 film Wajda, for example, offered a subversive commentary on double standards regarding gender and constraining religious strictures. So, while the opening of Saudi’s first cinema may seem to be a distracting or banal maneuver, it also represents a chance for Saudi citizens to participate in producing their own political, social, and moral standards, for the first time in a long time.

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