By Katie Paul
RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia lifted a 35-year-old ban on cinemas on Monday, prompting celebrations from film fans, directors and movie chains eyeing the last untapped mass market in the Middle East.
The first theaters could start showing films as early as March, the government said, part of a liberalizing reform drive that has already opened the door to concerts, comedy shows, and women drivers over the past year.
Cinemas were banned in the early 1980s under pressure from Islamists as Saudi society turned towards a particularly conservative form of the religion that discouraged public entertainment and public mixing between men and women.
But reforms led by 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have eased many of those restrictions, as the government tries to broaden the economy and lessen its dependence on oil.
"Opening cinemas will act as a catalyst for economic growth and diversification," said Minister of Culture and Information Awwad bin Saleh Alawwad.
"By developing the broader cultural sector we will create new employment and training opportunities, as well as enriching the Kingdom’s entertainment options."
In a nod to conservatives, the government said the films would be censored to make sure they remain "in line with values and principles in place and do not contradict with Sharia Laws and moral values in the kingdom."
The details of that censorship were not announced, but could be extensive in a country where images of women are often crossed out on advertising.
There was no immediate reaction from the kingdom's Wahhabi clergy and conservative groups, who have responded to past suggestions about bringing back cinema with outraged social media campaigns.
Public objections to the reforms have been more muted in recent months, after authorities launched a spate of arrests clamping down on critics of the program.
"CINEMA IS JOY"
Up to now, the kingdom's film pioneers have had to focus on foreign markets to get their works shown.
"Saudi Arabia is always in the news, but it's nice to be in the news in this way," said Los Angeles-based Saudi director Haifaa Al Manour, who released the first full-length feature shot entirely in the kingdom, Wadjda, in 2012.
"I feel like we're about to relive what Egypt was like in the '50s," she said, referring to the explosion of film-making in what is now the epicenter of Arabic popular cinema.
Prince Mohammed has also sought to promote a more tolerant form of Islam and crack down on extremism, a cause Mansour said would be furthered by films.
"If you want to fight terrorism, you need to give people a love of life. A love of life comes from joy, and cinema is joy."
Thousands of Saudis currently travel to Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and other countries for their entertainment. The government has said it wants to retain the money spent on those trips.
Regional cinema chains have also been eyeing the Saudi market, keen to tap the spending power of the young people who make up roughly 70 percent of the kingdom's population.
Dubai-based mall operator Majid Al Futtaim, which owns the VOX Cinemas chain, said it wanted to open the first movie theater there.
"We are very happy about this announcement, as you can imagine, we have been waiting for it for quite some time,” said chief executive Alain Bejjani.
The government said it expected to open more than 300 cinemas with more than 2,000 screens by 2030, building an industry that would contribute more then 90 billion riyals ($24 billion) to the economy and create 30,000 permanent jobs over the same period.
A commission chaired by Alawwad will announce details of licensing and regulations over the next few weeks, it added.
Locations for the first cinemas are still under study, but would likely be in top population centers, Fahad al-Muammar, the supervisor of cinema in the kingdom's General Commission for Audiovisual Media, told state TV al-Ekhbariya.
($1 = 3.7502 riyals)
(Reporting by Sami Aboudi, Andrew Torchia, Alexander Cornwell and Reem Shamseddine; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Andrew Heavens)