Despite fundamentalist anger Saudis go to the movies for the first time in 30 years

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – For the first time in 30 years last Saturday was movie night in Riyadh. With angry Conservative protesters promising ‘God’s wrath’, more than 300 men crowded the King Fahd Cultural Centre for ‘Menahi’, a movie produced by the Rotana group, a regional entertainment giant owned by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a nephew of King Abdullah.

Outside the centre a bunch of religious radicals shouted slogans about the moral decay caused by movies, how small steps in favour of an open society were bringing disasters on the country, citing a recent series of minor earthquakes in western Saudi Arabia.

"God is punishing us," some protesters said, after failing to disrupt the screening.

Public cinemas were shut down in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, as the country's deeply conservative leaders feared they would lead to the mixing of the sexes, and undermine Islamic values.

However, in the last few years a few steps towards reform have been taken under King Abdullah, small for the outside world but giant leaps for Muhammad’s birthplace. This has breathed new life in the local entertainment industry.

Despite the lack of advertising Saudi men crowded the King Fahd Cultural Centre and welcomed the start of the movie with a loud round of applause.

The movie they came to see is a Saudi-made production titled ‘Menahi,’ a comedy about a naive Bedouin who lives the country to face the dangers of the big city

“This is the beginning of change,” said a university student, attending with his brother and cousin.

A businessman, who brought his two sons, was ecstatic, after being denied public cinema for some three decades.

“This is the first step in a peaceful revolution,” he said. “I don't want my two sons to grow up in the dark . . . . I told them that in the future they will talk about today like a joke,” he added.

Although careful not to inflame the conservatives, Rotana, the company that made the movie, plans to show ‘Menahi’ at least three more times over the coming weeks, and expects crowds to be larger and include women.

In past few weeks the movie was shown in Jeddah in a theatre where the sexes were separated, with men on the ground floor and women in the balcony.