Over the past century, Damascus, Beirut and Baghdad stood out as regional cultural hubs where chart-topping songs were recorded, intellectual curiosity was satiated, and blockbuster movies created. Endemic corruption, conflict, economic paralysis, poor governance and corresponding state failure have collectively deemed that reality an anachronism – a relic of the past.
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Today, despite dreary conditions across Arab cultural capitals, there’s much to be optimistic about in a nation swiftly seizing the region’s cultural mantle. Saudi Arabia is emerging as a cinematic powerhouse. Thanks to targeted incentive schemes, a young demographic and strategic state support, the Saudi filmmaking industry is rapidly swapping red tape for red carpets.
Stability begets progress. Momentum through progress ensures that ambitious reform is transformed from aspiration to reality. In a region rife with instability and perpetual conflict, the Kingdom has served as a beacon of stability – a condition through which the country is able to successfully implement the region’s most ambitious socio-economic reform project: Vision 2030.
It is precisely this stability which elevates creative industries to the heart of national development with economic, social, and political byproducts to show for it. The strategic significance of Saudi filmmaking sets it apart from adjacent creative sub-sectors. Until a few years ago, the words Saudi and cinema were seldom said in the same breath.
Today, with over 430 movie theaters and a target of 2600 by 2030, Saudi cinema is the fastest-growing market in the world. Equally ambitious is film’s projected $6.9 billion contribution to Saudi GDP by 2030. Stars like Hillary Swank and Alessandria Ambrosio watched on as the latest iteration of Jeddah’s Red Sea International Film Festival saw the premier of 27 Saudi-made films. The cinematic renaissance is also extending to streaming services: Netflix recently signed an eight-film deal with Telfaz11, a Saudi creative studio.
Riyadh also set a target of 100 movies to be filmed in the country by 2030, with the goal of making the Kingdom a regional filmmaking hub. Its hugely competitive 40 percent film cash rebate incentive already enticed three big-budget Hollywood productions to film on Saudi soil: Ric Roman Waugh’s action thriller “Kandahar” filmed in AlUla; Rupert Wyatt’s historical epic “Desert Warrior” shot in Neom, and the Russo Brothers’ crime drama “Cherry” shot in AlUla and the capital Riyadh. Industry leaders shouldn’t be surprised to see the Kingdom’s lush green oases and yellow sand dunes replace Jordan and Morocco as the one-stop-shop for extravagant desert landscapes.
Top-down ambition is matched by equally potent bottom-up demand: tickets in Saudi theaters are among the most expensive in the world, yet revenues at movie theaters rose to $238 million in 2021.
Large domestic appetite goes far beyond purchasing power – young Saudis are witnessing their peers unleash a creative potential hitherto frowned upon. This is a cultural renaissance in which Saudi creatives are offered an avenue of expression where tradition and modernity coalesce to form a self-sustaining filmmaking ecosystem directly linked to national development in ways that quantitative metrics can’t fully capture.
The power of film to bolster bilateral ties – through cultural exchange – between Riyadh and key partners is a clear case in hand. India’s multibillion-dollar Hindi film industry, Bollywood, was quick to identify the plethora of budding opportunities in Saudi film. Several Saudi-Indian collaborations are in the works across the filmmaking value chain: infrastructure development, talent identification, distribution, production, and technical know-how. The presence of a large Indian diaspora in the Kingdom further amplifies the importance of this intersection.
Beyond generous top-down support, the sector owes its rapid success to a set of strategic measures. Saudi filmmakers are being sponsored to study filmmaking abroad at world-class educational institutions, while domestic filmmaking institutes are being established to nurture local talent. It includes the Saudi Film Council partnering with French film school La Fémis and the University of Southern California.
But, is this nascent success sustainable? What sets the Saudi filmmaking model apart from neighboring countries with deep pockets, ambitious filmmaking aspirations, and little to show for it? The difference is threefold.
First, is demographic trends. Saudi Arabia has a population of 22 million citizens with an additional 13 million foreign residents, indicating serious potential for a homegrown industry.
Second, the majority of the population are under the age of 35, which naturally creates a large domestic appetite for creative outlets. Third, this generation is wired and globally interconnected through social media. The Kingdom is the world’s leading nation in smartphone penetration. What follows is a youthful populace deeply invested in blockbuster film production and distribution.
This begs the following question for creatives across the region witnessing the rapid rise of Saudi Arabia as a cinematic powerhouse: is this success exclusive to Saudi filmmakers, further diluting talent lost in the abyss of regional instability? Certainly not. In fact, a thriving Saudi filmmaking industry lends itself to a thriving region for creatives at large.
The pace at which the industry is maturing makes it inevitable that Saudi productions tap into acting, writing and directing talent from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, setting the stage for creative collaboration.
In addition, Saudi Arabia launched the Red Sea Fund to finance filmmakers, receiving thousands of applicants from across the region. Of the 100 projects that received funding, over 60 were from the Arab region and 15 percent were women. It is therefore glaringly clear that while the Kingdom is experiencing a cultural renaissance, its positive byproducts – like art— are borderless.