Jeddah, Saudi Arabia — Many young Arabs abandon the Ramadan television series that dominated their parents’ screens for Netflix and Shahid, its Dubai-based Arabic counterpart. This switch has created a big new market for Arabic-language content. Netflix produces Jordanian, Egyptian, and Syrian-Lebanese shows with varying degrees of success and has announced the release of “Perfect Strangers,” its first Arabic-language feature film.
Syrian and Lebanese studios dependent on gulf financiers are also turning to web series and Netflix for new funding and broader audiences. Saudi Arabia is also beginning to feed the streaming services’ appetite. Last year, Netflix signed an eight-film deal with Telfaz11, a Saudi creative studio.
The gold-rush atmosphere is surreal for some Saudi filmmakers who struggled when they banned cinemas at home. So telfaz11 began as a YouTube channel, where its videos hooked young Saudis looking for a hip alternative to the dozing broadcast television.
Mohammad Makki recalled dodging the police, guerrilla-style, to film his first show, “Takki.” The low-budget YouTube series about a group of Saudi friends navigating Saudi social constraints a decade ago is a hit Netflix series today.
The Saudi Red Sea International Film Festival, held in Jeddah earlier this month, was a place to see and be seen at.
A wannabe Saudi vlogger and his friends try to escape a dark forest, threatened by the internet’s ravenous appetite for content and more mysterious dangers. A pregnant Saudi woman finds herself far from home and haunted by inner and outer demons. A bride’s mother panics when her daughter disappears from her wedding with all the guests waiting.
These are just three of the 27 Saudi-made films premiering this month at a film festival in Jeddah. These were part of the conservative kingdom’s efforts to remove itself from cultural backwaters into being a cinematic powerhouse of the Middle East.
This Saudi push reflects profound shifts in the creative industries across the Arab world. Over the past century, Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, and Baghdad stood out as the Arab cultural beacons with blockbuster movies, chart-topping recordings, and books that got intellectuals talking.
However, today, those legacies stand battered by years of war that have damaged Syria’s television studios and Baghdad’s publishers. Likewise, Lebanon’s economic collapse has left its art-house cinemas struggling.
Egypt’s film industry made the country’s dialect the most widely understood Arabic but has now been in artistic decline for years. Its intelligence services have hijacked its TV shows to promote pro-government themes.
The region’s cultural crown is up for grabs, and Saudi Arabia is speeding to seize it. A country where, once, cinemas were banned, women were not allowed to drive, and filmmakers dodged the religious police to shoot in public.
A government official reported the kingdom would fund the production of 100 films by 2030, supporting the new projects with permits, prestige, and financing. “It’s our time to shine here,” said Mona Khashoggi, a Saudi film and theater producer.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman drives these changes. He wants to shake off the kingdom’s previous image by building an entertainment industry while stimulating the economy and creating jobs.
In efforts to build the new industry, Saudis are funding homegrown productions, sponsoring Saudi filmmakers to study abroad, and establishing domestic training schools and studios. Meanwhile, the government is also financing similar initiatives for Saudi visual artists, musicians, and chefs.
Three big-budget Hollywood productions were roped in with financing and government-supplied helicopters and fighter jets to film in the country, hoping to be the new go-to destination for desert terrains.
” The kingdom has one goal, to make Saudi Arabia a new hub for filmmaking in the region,” said Bahaa Abdul Majeed, an official from the Saudi Investment Ministry.
Despite its deep pockets, Saudi Arabia faces significant challenges as it lacks skilled creators and technicians. Some industry veterans questioned the longevity of the Saudi movie mania; as previous attempts by the UAE and Qatar to create film industries came up short.
As an advantage, Saudi Arabia has a population of 22 million citizens and 13 million foreign residents; it can support a homegrown industry better than its smaller Gulf neighbors.
Although Saudi Arabia’s citizen population is about a fifth of Egypt’s, the Saudis are more affluent and more likely to pay for expensive theater tickets. As a result, a theater ticket at about $18 in Saudi is among the most costly.
The kingdom has 430 screens and counting, making it the fastest-growing market globally, with a target of 2,600 screens by 2030. Rather than drown its neighbors, Saudi Arabia cinema may also bolster the rest of the region’s filmmakers.
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“Wa’afet Reggala,” an Egyptian “Hangover”-style comedy, was the highest-grossing release in Saudi Arabia this year, beating the Hollywood blockbusters. Several Saudi-Egyptian collaborations are in the works; the popularity of Egyptian content in Saudi Arabia has made it a tempting market for Egyptian studios.
Saudi productions may also continue to draw cinema talent from Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria— widening their reach to non-Saudi audiences.
“With Saudi opening up, it’s saving Egypt’s movie industry,” said Marwan Mokbel, the Egyptian co-writer of “Junoon,” a Saudi horror film that premiered at the Jeddah festival. Saudi films and shows are emerging as the region’s watching habits transform, creating opportunities. Of course, Saudi political, religious, and cultural sensitivities are still factors.
Marvel’s “Eternals” was not released in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, or Egypt because of gay romantic scenes. However, several non-Saudi films screened at the Jeddah festival included gay scenes, nudity, and out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
Sumaya Rida, an actress, said the films portray Saudi couples realistically and avoid onscreen physical affection. But the filmmakers are happy to have support, accepting that it would come at the price of creative constraints.
“I don’t intend to provoke. The purpose of cinema is to tease,” said Fatima al-Banawi, a Saudi actress and director whose first feature film was funded by the festival.