Cinema makes low-key Saudi return, angers critics

Sat Dec 20, 2008 8:44am EST
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By Souhail Karam

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.   Continued...