Cinema makes low-key Saudi return, angers critics

RIYADH (Reuters) - Cinema has made a low-key return to Saudi Arabia after a three decade absence but a sharp reaction by the religious police chief shows efforts to relax Saudi’s strict Islamic laws face tough opposition.

A locally produced comedy, “Menahi,” premiered in two cultural centers in Jeddah and Taif this month before mixed-gender audiences, a taboo in Saudi Arabia whose strict Islamic rules ban unrelated men and women from mixing.

Turnout for the movie, produced by billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s media company Rotana, was so big the film had to be played eight times a day over a 10-day period, the organizers said.

It had to be stopped in Taif due to overcrowding in the hall, Rotana spokesman Ibrahim Badi said.

Showing the film was the latest attempt to introduce reforms by King Abdullah, who has said the world’s largest oil exporter cannot stand still while the world changes around it.

Political analysts say Alwaleed could not have gone ahead without the blessing of royals with key decision-making roles.

“We have obtained permission from the Information Ministry and from the governorate of Mecca to show the movie in Jeddah and Taif,” Badi said. The province of Mecca is governed by Prince Khaled al-Faisal, a pro-reform son of late King Faisal.

Badi could not immediately say if Rotana intended to show the movie in other provinces of the kingdom.

While the kingdom’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al al-Shaikh has not commented on the issue, the head of Saudi Arabia’s religious police condemned cinemas as a pernicious influence.

“Our position on this is clear -- ban it. That is because cinema is evil and we do not need it. We have enough evil already,” said Ibrahim al-Ghaith, the head of the religious police, whose official title is the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

Al-Ghaith is the kingdom’s second most influential cleric and his comments were widely carried by Saudi newspapers on Saturday. Local media have devoted little coverage to the film, a decision interpreted by some in Saudi Arabia as an attempt to avoid antagonizing the powerful religious establishment.

The religious police have wide powers to search for alcohol, drugs and prostitution, ensure shops are closed during prayer and maintain a strict system of sexual segregation in Saudi society, where women are even banned from driving.

“Menahi” stars new comedy sensation Fayez al-Maliki as a naive Bedouin entangled in a get-rich-quickly scheme in Dubai, the region’s tourism and trade hub where lifestyle is far less restricted.

Saudi Arabia had some movie theatres in the 1970s but the conservative clerical establishment managed to snuff out the industry. Saudi film buffs had to travel to neighbors like Bahrain to see movies in cinemas but a new generation of young Saudis has begun making films in recent years.

Additional reporting by Asma Alsharif in Jeddah; Editing by Jon Boyle