Saudis in the capital city of Riyadh did something at the weekend that they've not been able to do for more than 30 years – they went to the movies.
Since Friday, near-capacity crowds of 300 have been turning up at the King Fahd cultural centre to watch a local production called Menahi, a comedy about a naive bedouin who moves to the big city.
Several religious hardliners attempted to disrupt performances and turn away wannabe cinemagoers, but the screenings have generally taken place peacefully. Women were not allowed to attend, although girls aged 10 and under were exempted from the ban.
Saudi Arabia's few picturehouses were shuttered in the 1970s as part of a push by religious conservatives to limit opportunities for the mixing of the sexes, behaviour said to undermine Islamic values. For the last three decades, Saudi cinephiles have had to make do with watching films at home on television, renting censored movies from video stores or travelling to nearby Bahrain to catch the latest releases.
But the weekend's screenings are part of a trend of opening up in the arts since the accession of King Abdullah in 2005. There has been an upsurge in Saudi-produced movies and the kingdom held its first film festival last year, in the city of Dammam. Menahi producer Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a nephew of King Abdullah and the world's 13th-richest person according to Forbes magazine, said in February that he believed cinemas would eventually be reopened in the country.
Yet, Menahi had to wait five months for official permission to screen in Riyadh, and there was little advance publicity.
As owner of the Rotana media conglomerate, Prince Alwaleed has, along with other Saudi media tycoons, been accused by hardliners of being as dangerous as drug dealers for allowing movies to be shown on his television channels. But reaction from the audience at the screening was positive. "It was just beautiful to see people look so animated and happy," Misfir al-Sibai, a 21-year-old Saudi businessman who attended the screening, told Variety. "That was the best part of the evening." Another cinemagoer told the AFP news agency it was "the first step in a peaceful revolution".