Business & Economy

Why Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince is courting LA's entertainment execs

File: Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, Crown Prince, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,  attends a meeting at the United Nations on March 27, 2018 in New York.
File: Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, Crown Prince, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, attends a meeting at the United Nations on March 27, 2018 in New York.
Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images

Listen to story

Extra Audio:
Download this story 3MB

The next leader of Saudi Arabia has been in Los Angeles this week, looking to sell local entertainment executives on expanding into the long closed-off country.

Saudi Arabian officials say Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and his entourage held their summit Wednesday at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills as part of an effort to modernize the country's entertainment offerings and diversify its economy beyond oil.

The Saudis touted the country's population of 32 million people, who are predominantly young, technologically savvy and largely deprived of local entertainment options.

That means new opportunities for some U.S. companies, like theater chain AMC, which announced plans to open 30 to 40 theaters there over the next five years.

"I think it's amazing to bring something like film and entertainment in Saudi Arabia," filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour told KPCC's The Frame. "It's a young population. It used to be called 'The Kingdom of Boredom' because there's nothing to do in Saudi Arabia. It's very hard – you just go to school. It's very important to move away from militant ideas — and all the conservative literature that was very dominant in the society — and become more normal. It's important for the young generation in Saudi Arabia to feel that they are part of the world rather than against it."

Studio executives and theater owners around the world have been eager to do business with Saudi Arabia ever since the country said four months ago it would grant licenses to open movie theaters for the first time in 35 years. Saudi Arabia in February announced plans to spend $64 billion in the coming years building water parks, themed attractions, movie theaters and other offerings.

But some say Saudi Arabia's top priority on this Los Angeles trip is showing the world that its ties with the United States remain strong.

USC communications professor Philip Seib has written about media in the Middle East. And he says it's unlikely that many Western movies will be welcomed into the kingdom.

"Anything that's rated R is probably going to be difficult," Seib said, "even PG. I cannot see the Saudis leaping into intense Westernization."  

Seib also said Saudi Arabia's population pales in comparison to the other foreign markets Los Angeles entertainment companies having been breaking into. "It's not going to be a market for U.S. media the way China is," he said. 

Even if the Saudis only make a few major deals in Los Angeles, the highly visible trip will have been a success politically.

Saudi Arabia is also looking to develop its own entertainment industry — a significant step, according to filmmaker al-Mansour: 

"We need to build infrastructure and definitely invest in manpower. We don't have a lot of talent. But Saudi Arabia has a huge indigenous population that are hungry to see themselves represented on the screen, to see stories in their language. And all that. I think that will push people to get into that industry."

Haifaa al-Mansour continues, "We will see a lot of local films. There will be a lot of mainstream, not very intellectual films, I'm sure. But we will also see a lot of wonderful films coming from Saudi Arabia. It's a very rich place and people there have access to cell phones and Internet and social media. Still, they are very traditional. That kind of tension creates [possibilities for] a lot of story-telling."