190216 saudi cinema
Film fans at the opening of a VOX cinema in Riyadh last year. VOX cinemas is investing a further Dh1.96 billion to open 600 screens by 2023. Image Credit: Reuters


Saudi Arabia, which hosted a series of path-breaking concerts last month, is preparing to host a regional forum on cinema in April. The message is clear: The kingdom is opening up entertainment options for its citizens that even two years ago would have been unthinkable. Not just that, these projects could help develop propel entertainment as an economic factor in its own right. And in the short term, it will help reduce the country’s unemployment rates.

The sector “has a very low barrier of entry, and (most) job opportunities in entertainment doesn’t require sophisticated qualifications,” said Saudi economist Hussain Shobakshi.


Targeted jobs to be created in Saudi Arabia by 2022

“The entertainment sector has the ability to hire big numbers and swiftly. Fresh graduates can be hired, students can apply as part-timers. Cinemas, concerts and cultural festivals hire people in big numbers and even those with minimum qualifications.”

Unemployment among Saudis reached 12.8 per cent in the third quarter of 2018, according to media reports. The Saudi deputy minister of labour, in charge of labour policies, Ahmad Kattan, was quoted as saying the kingdom plans to create 1.2 million jobs by 2022 by focusing on the retail sector and reduce unemployment to 9 per cent.


Unemployment among Saudis in the third quarter of 2018

With the entertainment sector opening up, “you create an internal organic industry,” said Shobakshi. “There are three buzz words in Saudi Arabia: upbringing, education and culture.”

In the past, the three words were looked at “as if they were separated islands. Nowadays, education nourishes culture and culture feeds upbringing. Today, we are watching others’ productions. The next step is you make an industry to show yourself to others.”

The cinema sector is growing at a steady pace and opportunities available are enormous.

- Leila Masinaei, Managing Partner of Great Minds for Event Management and PR

During the eight-week Tantora Festival, a hologram-based concert was hosted for the Egyptian legend Oum Kalthoum, while the tenor Andrea Bocelli held his first-ever concert in the kingdom. Lebanese singer Majida Al Roumi also held a concert during the Tantora event, while American singer Mariah Carey took the stage in Jeddah.

Saudi Arabia’s decision to open up entertainment and culture is part of its Vision 2030 aspirations. It has drawn up multibillion dollar projects not only to entertain Saudis at home, but also create job opportunities. The target is to raise women’s participation in the workforce to 30 per cent from 22 per cent.

Leila Masinaei, Managing Partner of Great Minds for Event Management and PR, said the entertainment sector is “fairly developed” in the kingdom. “But it is the cinema sector that will catch up now and with a strong political will, the kingdom’s cinema sector will soon be one of the leaders in the region and globally, both in terms of box office revenues and innovation.

“The cinema sector is growing at a steady pace and opportunities available are enormous as it requires exhibitors, architectural firms, consultants, suppliers, contractors to build over 300 cinemas by 2030. These opportunities are up for grabs as the ease of doing business in Saudi Arabia has improved drastically.”

UAE-based Majid Al Futtaim group is among the top investors in the Saudi entertainment sector. It has more than Dh13.71 billion invested in “current and announced projects across retail, leisure and fashion, creating more than 114,000 direct and indirect job opportunities,” said Cameron Mitchell, CEO Majid Al Futtaim Leisure, Entertainment & Cinemas.

A subsidiary, VOX cinemas, is investing a further Dh1.96 billion to open 600 screens by 2023, of which 110 would start screening by the end of the year. “Majid Al Futtaim expects Saudi operations to form 50 per cent of its overall business, and anticipates that Saudi Arabia will be leading the region’s box office over the next five years.”

Other projects by the group includes a 10,000 square metre family entertainment centre under the Magic Planet branding in Riyadh, and the Kingdom’s first indoor snow destination — Ski Saudi — located in Mall of Saudi, also in Riyadh.

Conservative forces are weaker because the majority of the current population — up to 65 per cent — are below 35.

- Isam Arshad, Analyst at Euromonitor

So far, Saudi efforts to build a strong entertainment sector are in the right direction and welcomed by the Saudi society, said Isam Arshad, an analyst at Dubai-based Euromonitor. “They are taking small steps,” Arshad said, referencing the efforts made in allowing women to drive and lift the ban in cinemas city by city.

“Conservative forces are weaker because the majority of the current population — up to 65 per cent — are below 35,” said Arshad.

A vision that can be truly transformative

Why is Saudi Arabia focusing so much attention on opening up the entertainment sector?

“We are well aware that the cultural and entertainment opportunities currently available do not reflect the rising aspirations of our citizens and residents, nor are they in harmony with our prosperous economy,” the kingdom has said as part of its Vision 2030 objectives.

“It is why we will support the efforts of regions, governorates, non-profit and private sectors to organise cultural events. We intend to enhance the role of government funds, while also attracting local and international investors, creating partnerships with international entertainment corporations. Land suitable for cultural and entertainment projects will be provided and talented writers, authors, and directors will be carefully supported.”

Cinemas flourish in the kingdom

After not allowing cinemas for nearly three decades, Saudi Arabia reversed course in 2016 by opening up investments in cinemas and multiplexes.

The first cinema opened last November in Riyadh, with AMC Entertainment of the US getting the licence. It is expected to open 40 cinemas across 15 cities over the next five years.

The first multiplex cinema was opened by UAE’s Majid Al-Futtaim, in Jeddah last December. Its VOX Cinemas will have 600 screens in the kingdom over the next five years.

Saudi Arabia is projecting investments in the billions of dollars flowing into the entertainment space.

At the launch of the 2019 entertainment calendar, Turki Al Shaikh, chairman of the General Entertainment Authority (GEA), said: “This is a big door for tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of jobs and for tens of billions if not hundreds of billions” of riyals, Al Shaikh said the kingdom aims to be among the top 10 global entertainment destinations and in the top four within Asia.

Supporting infrastructure investments would reach 240 billion riyals over the next decade and contribute 18 billion riyals to GDP by 2030.