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Less than four months after Saudi Arabia revealed it would be lifting its 35-year ban on public cinemas, heralding a rush of international investment into the kingdom’s nascent entertainment industry, its de facto ruler is making his first visit to Hollywood.
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, on a whirlwind three-week tour of the U.S. to help firm up business ties and promote his country’s sweeping reforms, has a series of engagements planned from Monday, including a dinner party hosted by Rupert Murdoch.
Marking the 32-year-old royal’s trip, a three-day event entitled “Saudi Art Days” is being held by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture initiative at the Linwood Dunn Theater. Alongside a photography exhibit and the screening of 13 Saudi films, three industry panels, featuring director Andy Tennant (Sweet Home Alabama, Hitch) and screenwriter Shauna Cross (Whip It, What to Expect When You’re Expecting), are set to discuss the future of filmmaking in Saudi Arabia.
On Wednesday, the country’s General Entertainment Authority is holding a major summit at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, where government ministers and investors from both the public and private sectors will talk about their experiences and the path to develop Saudi’s entertainment industry, which for decades has been practically nonexistent due to strict Islamic laws.
But arguably the biggest date on Salman’s L.A. diary lands Monday night, when Murdoch throws a special dinner party at his Bel Air estate. The co-executive chairman of 21st Century Fox is understood to have also invited Disney CEO Bob Iger and Warner Bros. chairman Kevin Tsujihara, giving the Crown Prince the opportunity to pick the brains of top entertainment industry brass.
While it’s unknown if any business dealings between Hollywood studios and Saudi Arabia are in the pipeline, the country’s Public Investment Fund is reportedly soon set to close its acquisition of a 5 to 10 percent stake in WME holding company Endeavor for $400 million and entertainment is being shaped as a major component of the kingdom’s future economy as part of a broader initiative to diversify away from oil.
The announcement in December that Saudi Arabia would be lifting its ban on cinemas — which had been widely expected given the recent welcoming of exhibitions such as Comic-Con to Saudi — saw a flood of interest from major international cinema chains. AMC, Vue, iPic and a number of Middle East theater groups have all announced plans to move into the country over the past few months, with sources suggesting to The Hollywood Reporter that the first multiplex is likely to open in Jeddah in October.
Amusement parks are also in the country’s sights as a path to enhance its recreational and tourism offerings, echoing a move made by the United Arab Emirates city of Dubai over a decade ago. Dubai, which has become a major tourist hub, has teamed with the likes of Marvel and Lionsgate to develop several Hollywood-themed amusement parks, including Legoland, while its large number of cinemas have for years seen film-starved Saudis make the hourlong flight.
But while Salman’s Hollywood visit may have pricked the ears of those looking to tap into the billions of petro-dollars he’s hoping to invest in entertainment, not everybody is happy. Several protests have been planned focusing on Saudi Arabia’s ongoing military attacks on Yemen, currently suffering from a major humanitarian crisis.
Codepink, a women-initiated peace group, will be protesting Monday outside WME’s Beverly Hills office at 11 a.m. and at the same time Tuesday outside the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica.
“Mohammed bin Salman employs an army of lobbyists and PR firms to sell himself as a reformer when he is really a war criminal and a power-hungry thug whose ego rivals that of Donald Trump,” said Codepink co-founder Jodie Evans. “It is absurd that the U.S. is in bed with this ‘prince’ who mercilessly bombs Yemen, shakes down Saudi businessmen, captured the Lebanese prime minister, concocted a rift with Qatar and even kidnapped his own mother. The Saudi monarchy also jails and beheads dissidents, discriminates against the Shia minority, and forces women to live under a repressive male guardianship system. It is not a regime the United States should be arming and abetting.”