Cinemas and concerts: Small steps towards reform in Riyadh and Tehran

Cinemas and concerts: Small steps towards reform in Riyadh and Tehran
6 min read
22 December, 2017
Analysis: Saudi Arabia and Iran are both undertaking cultural reforms, but both face challenegs in shaking up society too quickly, writes Paul Iddon.
Iranian cinema has been censored since the 1979 revolution introduced conservative Islamic law [AFP]

This month was marked by two small, but hugely significant, cultural developments both in Iran and Saudi Arabia: the first pop concert in Iran in 39 years and the reintroduction of Saudi cinema after a 35-year ban. Given the strict, top-down conservative rule imposed over most cultural and societal facets of both countries for many decades, this is notable.

In the Saudi kingdom, the introduction of television - never mind cinema - had severe ramifications in the society in the 1960s and 1970s, and with fatal results. In Iran, an opera concert around the same time resulted in a serious backlash against the Shah's regime amid other rising political and socio-economic discontent in the immediate pre-revolutionary period in the country.

Therefore, the gradual reintroduction of both these forms of public entertainment has been a long time coming.

Saudi Arabia

As with Iran, 1979 was a year of turmoil for Saudi Arabia. The takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by a group of millenarians, and the bloody battle Riyadh had to wage to reclaim it, showed the vulnerability of the regime. The incident also sparked a series of governmental-imposed restraints on society, including the outright banning of cinemas.

This is set to change next March as part of the wide-ranging cultural and economic reforms Riyadh is attempting to impose, known as Vision 2030 - after the the year when they are all set to make some serious fundamental changes to the oil-dependent Saudi economy and conservative-ruled society.

Aside from discontinuing the ban on cinema, women will be permitted to drive in the kingdom for the first time from next year and concerts will also be permitted, although women are still not going to be allowed to attend.

The kingdom's powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has promised that the present day Saudi Arabia "was not like this before 1979" and that it will once more become "a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions, traditions and people".

Cinema in Saudi Arabia has been undergoing a steady but certain revival over the course of the past decade. In December 2008 the ban on cinema was briefly lifted for the screening of a Saudi-made comedy named Mennahi which was hugely popular. The exception to the otherwise strict ban was likely because Mennahi was made by the Rotana entertainment group, owned by Saudi tycoon Waleed bin Talal. Nevertheless, its popularity, as well as the eagerness of Saudis to enjoy cinema, demonstrated the unpopularity of the ban.

Furthermore, Crown Prince Mohammed has economic reasons to lift this ban. Many Saudis vacation in neighbouring Dubai and Bahrain where they can, among other things, enjoy watching a movie in public. Obviously if they could do so in their own country they would have one less reason to spend their money elsewhere.

While Prince Mohammed insists that pre-1979 Saudi was different in many ways, there was still significant backlash against the introduction of such mediums. The most salient and striking example was Saudi King Faisal's introduction of television to the kingdom in the mid-1960s, the ensuing backlash from which cost him his life.

The introduction of television was met with protest by conservative and religious elements who believed it would morally corrupt Saudi society. A protest against the kingdom's first television station resulted in the death of Prince Faisal bin Musaid in the mid-1960s.

He was the brother of Prince Khalid bin Musaid, the son of King Faisal's half-brother. Khalid bin Musaid was believed to have shot King Faisal dead on March 25, 1975, to avenge the death of his brother at that protest against the introduction of television to the kingdom.

The reintroduction of cinema in Saudi Arabia will likely be gradual to placate the powerful traditional elements in the kingdom, including the Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al al-Sheikh who insists that cinemas have a depraving influence on society. Also, censorship will likely continue to ensure that movies broadcast will not violate the Saudi clergy's strict interpretation of Wahhabism and Islamic law in general.

Many performers will doubtlessly remain banned from performing in Iran

In 2009 a cultural club was set alight by religious extremists in the kingdom to prevent a female poet from publicly reading her works. Cultural events like these have faced, and will most likely continue to face, concurrent opposition from conservative and religious extremists.

Nevertheless, lifting the ban on cinema overall is still a small and significant step in the direction of reform and progress.


Concerts, operas and other live performances in Iran were also banned after 1979, following the rise to power of the clerical regime led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini which has ruled Iran since that year's tumultuous revolution.

Iran, unlike Saudi Arabia, has had a flourishing movie industry which has won international acclaim and awards - although has also been subject to arbitrary censorship over the years.

Live performances, particularly music concerts, on the other hands have been widely banned. As with this month's announcement that cinema will be reintroduced across the Gulf in Saudi Arabia the first concert in Iran since 1979 commenced with five performances by Schiller, a German electronic band. And, like the broadcast of Mennahi in Saudi Arabia nearly a decade ago, it has been met with great enthuasism and sold-out performances. Upon arriving in Tehran, fans greeted the visiting performers with flowers.

Schiller is the first foreign band to get permission to perform in the Islamic Republic. As Deutsche Welle points out, the Irish singer Chris de Burgh was initially given permission to hold a concert in Tehran only to have the event canceled by Iran's clerical establishment after he had arrived in the Iranian capital.

During the much more secular rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, live passion plays and traditional theatre in Iran, held as part of arts festival in 1968, "proved controversial because some of its performances involved nudity and pornographic behaviour".

At the time it wasn't only the conservative and religious elements of Iranian society who found these performances offensive but even the more liberal leftist intellectuals of the day. Those circles perceived them as a ploy by "the regime to destroy Iranian culture and make young people apolitical" and accordingly opposed them.

For the foreseeable future, as with the lifting of the Saudi cinema ban, many performers will doubtlessly remain banned from performing in Iran, both locals and foreigners. Nevertheless, it too is a small step in the right direction. 

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.