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How Saudiwood’s power play is reshaping Middle East film industry

While the country's first entry at Cannes didn’t win, its inclusion in the festival was another step toward Saudi ambitions to become a film industry powerhouse.
(From L) Saudi actor Yaqoub Alfarhan, Saudi actress Maria Bahrawi and Saudi director and screenwriter Tawfik Alzaidi pose during a photocall for the film "Norah" at the 77th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, on May 24, 2024.

A Saudi film chased an award at Cannes in May 2024 — marking a first, but likely not last, for the country at the prestigious film festival. That movie, “Norah,” is a drama about artistic repression in the kingdom in the 1990s from director Tawfik AlZaidi and was selected to compete in the Un Certain Regard category, which has served as a launching pad for emerging film talent. 

Although “Norah” didn’t win, its inclusion at Cannes was another step toward Saudi ambitions to become a film industry powerhouse, an aspiration that's nearing an inflection point that could reshape the entertainment industry in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) only a few years removed from cinemas being banned in the kingdom.

Saudi-made movies like “Norah” could soon become commonplace in the Arab world, where Egyptian films long reigned and the desert vistas of the UAE and Jordan have more recently attracted Hollywood. Now Saudi Arabia wants a piece of that action, and the door is open for the oil rich kingdom to seize the spotlight as many of MENA’s traditional cultural hubs struggle with instability and economic crisis.

Amid its sweeping Vision 2030 economic transformation plan, Saudi Arabia has been pouring resources into financing movies, building studios and hosting festivals. Such moves aren’t necessarily new in MENA but still stand out, notes William Higbee, a professor in film studies at the UK’s University of Exeter who has studied MENA’s film industry. “The scale and ambition of Saudi Arabia is greater than what we’ve seen before,” Higbee tells Al-Monitor.

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