LONDON — In the latest in a series of gestures toward modernization that would once have seemed improbable, Saudi Arabia announced on Monday that it would allow commercial movie theaters to open for the first time in more than 35 years.
The moves to allow access by early 2018, part of a broad campaign by the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to transform Saudi society, followed measures like giving women the right to drive and to attend soccer games, and allowing concerts and other forms of public entertainment.
At the same time, the crown prince has embarked on a broad drive against corruption, holding members of the Saudi elite in a luxury hotel, in what has been described as an effort to force them to repay billions of dollars diverted into personal coffers from other transactions. Critics say the detentions were intended to neutralize potential challengers.
The announcement on Monday is in keeping with a promise by the 32-year-old crown prince to return Saudi Arabia to a more tolerant version of Islam than the radical interpretation of the Muslim faith it adopted in 1979.
In a statement, the Culture and Information Ministry said the government would begin within 90 days licensing movie houses to open. It did not indicate what kind of movies the government might allow to be screened, but made clear that films would be governed by Islamic law.
“The content of the shows will be subjected to censorship based on the media policy of the kingdom,” the statement said. “The shows will be in line with the values and principles, and will include enriching content that is not contrary to Shariah laws and ethical values of the kingdom.”
It was also unclear how seating in movie theaters would be configured in a conservative kingdom that enforces gender segregation in most spheres of life.
The ministry said it hoped the move would “encourage economic growth by developing the culture and media sector, and offer new employment opportunities,” including 30,000 full-time jobs by 2030.
Saudi Arabia began closing movie theaters soon after it adopted ultraconservative religious standards in 1979. Saudi clerics denounced Western movies, and even the many Arabic-language films made in Egypt, as contrary to the teachings of Islam.
The absence of movie theaters has coincided with technological advances allowing residents of Saudi Arabia to access films online or by satellite television.
Some of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors, notably the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have movie theaters that are regularly visited by Saudis. And even though it has outlawed cinemas, Saudi Arabia has actively encouraged filmmaking, showcasing Saudi films at a festival in the eastern city of Dhahran. In March, the fourth Dhahran film festival had 59 Saudi films on its program.
Outside the country, Saudi movies, some dealing with the delicate issue of gender separation, have been screened at prestigious cinematic events.