Can Saudi Arabia’s Film Industry Take Off?

Big-budget thrillers are now being filmed in the kingdom, but culture clashes could hinder the industry’s success.

Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Anchal Vohra
By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
People stand behind a red barrier and take photos with their phones.
People stand behind a red barrier and take photos with their phones.
People in the audience take pictures with their phones as stars walk the red carpet at the first Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Dec. 15, 2021. Ammar Abd Rabbo/Red Sea Film Festival/AFP via Getty Images

In Takki, a Saudi web-turned-Netflix series, Saudi Arabia isn’t a land of hardened Islamists and wealthy sheikhs with gilded palaces. Instead, it’s one of potholed streets and paint peeling off the walls, where Saudi youth ride around on scooters and grapple with boredom and the need to look beyond their borders for a little bit of entertainment. “Ten days on vacation and we still didn’t have any fun,” Malek, the protagonist, says to his friends in one scene. “Let’s go to Dubai,” one of them answers.

A decade ago, Takki was a cult YouTube show. Now it is a hit on Netflix, which aired a new third season last year in an effort to tap into a largely ignored but massive audience in Saudi Arabia. In 2020, Telfaz11, the Saudi company that produced the show, signed an eight-film deal with the streaming service. The showrunners, who once had to dodge the mutawa, the country’s religious police, to film, have become a success story for aspiring filmmakers in Saudi Arabia and poster children of the country’s novice entertainment industry—one that the monarchy itself is working to expand, even as its cultural and religious values may impede its success.

The mutawa used to enforce a rigid moral code on Saudi youth and women, often harassing them on a whim. While shooting her 2012 film Wadjda on the streets of Riyadh, Haifaa al-Mansour, the first Saudi woman to direct a feature film, said she had to hide in vans and give directions to actors on the phone.

In Takki, a Saudi web-turned-Netflix series, Saudi Arabia isn’t a land of hardened Islamists and wealthy sheikhs with gilded palaces. Instead, it’s one of potholed streets and paint peeling off the walls, where Saudi youth ride around on scooters and grapple with boredom and the need to look beyond their borders for a little bit of entertainment. “Ten days on vacation and we still didn’t have any fun,” Malek, the protagonist, says to his friends in one scene. “Let’s go to Dubai,” one of them answers.

A decade ago, Takki was a cult YouTube show. Now it is a hit on Netflix, which aired a new third season last year in an effort to tap into a largely ignored but massive audience in Saudi Arabia. In 2020, Telfaz11, the Saudi company that produced the show, signed an eight-film deal with the streaming service. The showrunners, who once had to dodge the mutawa, the country’s religious police, to film, have become a success story for aspiring filmmakers in Saudi Arabia and poster children of the country’s novice entertainment industry—one that the monarchy itself is working to expand, even as its cultural and religious values may impede its success.

The mutawa used to enforce a rigid moral code on Saudi youth and women, often harassing them on a whim. While shooting her 2012 film Wadjda on the streets of Riyadh, Haifaa al-Mansour, the first Saudi woman to direct a feature film, said she had to hide in vans and give directions to actors on the phone.

Now, the country’s clerics stay mum when Hollywood actresses show up with plunging necklines at film festivals. Mazen Hayek, a media communications advisor and a former spokesman for MBC, the Arab world’s largest television network, described the changes in the media industry as nothing short of a “cultural revolution.”

“It’s a very important era in the filmmaking industry in Saudi, and I think it’s an even more important time for us as creative women,” Sarah Taibah, a Saudi-born filmmaker who studied fine arts in San Francisco, told Foreign Policy. “Our voices were overlooked for so long, and that ends now.”

The Saudi policy on entertainment and leisure changed in 2017 when Mohammed bin Salman was appointed crown prince and began promoting Vision 2030, the economic plan he had devised the previous year to reduce the kingdom’s economic dependence on fossil fuels by becoming a hub of tourism and entertainment, including filmmaking.

Although his government is known in the West for crushing dissent, ordering mass executions, and its connections to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Mohammed bin Salman is gaining positive publicity domestically for expanding the Saudi movie industry. Increasingly, young Saudis and industry experts in the Arab world have told me they’re impressed with the speed with which the movie industry has taken off.

This attention to the film industry may be a way to whitewash the monarchy’s reputation, particularly since it continues to be terrified of the youth-led Arab Spring. In short, Mohammed bin Salman is offering entertainment and a few more social freedoms rather than political rights.

It appears to be working: For many young Saudis, the crown prince is a man of the times—a royal who has curbed the clerics’ power and offered young Saudis something they’ve told me over the years they are more desperate for than political reforms.

Already, Saudi Arabia’s entertainment sector has grown exponentially. Four years ago, Mohammed bin Salman reopened the country’s movie theaters, which have seen massive profits, after a hiatus of more than 35 years that the government instated under pressure from religious conservatives. It’s clear there’s a large domestic appetite for them: Hundreds of movie theaters have sprung up in cities across the country, and revenues at movie theaters rose to $238 million in 2021.

The Saudi government has said it envisions 2,600 movie theaters by 2030, and it is funding local and regional filmmakers to make films on subjects Arabs can identify with. (Riyadh has said it is investing $64 billion total in the entertainment sector.) Saudi actors and filmmakers who fled the country are returning home to make films inside and about Saudi Arabia. Ahd Kamel, for instance, is preparing to shoot a film about her family’s driver, and Mona Khashoggi has returned to produce films in her home country after two decades in London.

Riyadh has also set a target of 100 movies to be filmed in Saudi Arabia by 2030, with the goal of making the country the most popular destination for shooting films in the region, replacing Morocco. Saudi ministers are meeting film executives in Bollywood and elsewhere, offering producers significant concessions and discounts if they shoot in Saudi Arabia and hire local talent.

In recent months, pro-government newspapers have been boasting about Kandahar, a spy thriller starring Gerard Butler, and historic epic Desert Warrior both being filmed in Al Ula, a region with a UNESCO World Heritage Site set amid miles of ochre desert.

Meanwhile, nearby Egyptian, Syrian, and Lebanese artists are hoping to benefit from Riyadh’s plans and secure Saudi funding they can’t receive at home. Last year, Saudi Arabia launched the Red Sea Fund to finance filmmakers, and it received hundreds of applicants from across the region. Of the nearly 100 projects that received funding, 60 were from the Arab region and 15 were by women.

Yet even as Riyadh is funding productions and flying in stars from around the world, its budding film industry faces considerable challenges.

Since the industry is still young, one major question is whether the local talent is up to the job. Meanwhile, the government wants to open filmmaking institutes for the youth—for instance, the Saudi Film Council has partnered with French film school La Fémis and the University of Southern California. But cultivating talent that’s ready for leading global productions takes time.

“You can’t suddenly expect to apply Western values to a society that had to go through nearly 40 years of ultraconservatism.”

Perhaps more importantly, politics and religion—as well as long-standing social taboos—may be barriers to international filmmakers taking Saudi Arabia seriously as an ally in filmmaking and as a cultural powerhouse in the Arab world.

Last month, Saudi Arabia blocked the release of Marvel’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness over a 12-second scene in which a lesbian character mentions her two mothers. Saudi Arabia asked Disney to cut the “LGBTQ references,” but Disney refused. Nawaf Alsabhan, Saudi Arabia’s general supervisor of cinema classification, said the movie wasn’t officially banned yet, but “being in the Middle East, it’s very tough to pass something like this.”

British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who starred as the titular character, said it was an “expected disappointment,” yet “truly out of step” with “where we’re at globally as a culture.”

Last year a similar scenario played out over Eternals, another Marvel film that features a gay couple; it did not end up screening in the country.

Hayek, the media communications advisor, believes it is unfair to compare the Saudi film industry to Hollywood or Bollywood.

“You can’t suddenly expect to apply Western values to a society that had to go through nearly 40 years of ultraconservatism,” he said. “The growth in the Saudi content industry will have a positive ripple effect across the MENA region.”

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.