Saudi Arabia Launches New Ministry of Culture to Oversee Film Initiatives

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Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

The government body will oversee organizations such as the Saudi Film Council and puts in place a new power structure to help expand the Kingdom's nascent entertainment sector, which is set to include a newly announced film festival in Jeddah.

In a glitzy announcement made Wednesday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia officially kick-started the engines of its new Ministry of Culture and with it a number of new film initiatives. 

The arrival of the ministry has been seen by many in the local film industry as a significant game-changer for the country’s nascent sector, with the government body — headed up by Prince Badr Bin Abdullah Bin Farhan, who was appointed Saudi’s first culture minister last year — overseeing a number of different organizations, along with putting in place a clear power structure to help spearhead major objectives going forward.

The launch event itself, which took place in the Saudi capital’s museum district in front of several hundred guests, had caused something of a stir in the Gulf, with several regional industry figures curious as to what was actually being announced. 

It also landed less than 18 months after the Kingdom’s landmark announcement that it was lifting a ban on public cinemas, and less than a year after the new Saudi Film Council unveiled a number of new initiatives — including a film fund, film commission and tax incentives package — from Cannes.

However, there has been relatively little activity over the past 10 months, with insiders saying that the pause button had been hit as the new Ministry was being established and the sector was being recalibrated to fit beneath it. 

Among those falling under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture is the Saudi Film Council, alongside the General Culture Authority.

Among the significant film initiatives announced at the Riyadh event was the Red Sea International Film Festival, set to become the second annual film event by the Red Sea after Egypt's El Gouna, which launched in 2017.

The Red Sea International Film Festival, due to launch in 2020, will take place in Jeddah and focus on emerging talent from Saudi Arabia, the Arab world and the "Global South." The fest, which will also include an industry element, will be presided over by Mahmoud Sabbagh, director of the Berlinale-bowing Barakah Meets Barakah and one of Saudi Arabia's most well-known filmmakers. A date hasn't yet been revealed.

“Today marks a turning point in the history of our nation. It is rare that a nation undergoes such a massive revival of its culture. And that is exactly what is happening with the launch of this Ministry,” said Prince Badr at the launch. “The transformation of arts and culture will benefit all Saudis, young and old, from every corner of our country. It will help build bridges of understanding. And for our children we will build a Saudi Arabia where their creative spirits can flourish, confident of their past, stepping out into the future and into the world.”

Saudi's emerging cinema industry recently took a hit following the Jamal Khashoggi scandal, the fallout from which saw the international theater chain Vue reveal it was putting its plans to open in the Kingdom on hold and Endeavor return a $400 million investment from the public investment fund.