JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — A pregnant Saudi woman, far from home, finds herself stalked by inner and outer demons. A wannabe Saudi vlogger and his friends, menaced by the internet’s insatiable appetite for content and more mysterious dangers, try to escape a dark forest. At a wedding, the mother of the bride panics when her daughter disappears with all of their guests waiting downstairs.
These were just a few of the 27 Saudi-made films premiering this month at a film festival in Jeddah, part of the conservative kingdom’s huge effort to transform itself from a cultural backwater into a cinematic powerhouse in the Middle East.
The Saudi push reflects profound shifts in the creative industries across the Arab world. Over the past century, while the name Saudi Arabia conjured little more than oil, desert and Islam, Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad stood out as the Arab cultural beacons where blockbuster movies were made, chart-topping songs were recorded and books that got intellectuals talking hit the shelves.
to promote pro-government themes.
In many ways, the region’s cultural mantle is up for grabs, and Saudi Arabia is spending lavishly to seize it.
At the Red Sea International Film Festival, held on a former execution ground, Jeddah residents rubbernecked as stars like Hilary Swank and Naomi Campbell strutted down a red carpet in revealing gowns, and Saudi influencers D.J.-ed at dance parties.
All this in a country where, until a few years ago, women were not allowed to drive, cinemas were banned and aspiring filmmakers often had to dodge the religious police to shoot in public.
Although Saudi Arabia’s population is about a fifth of Egypt’s, the Saudis are more affluent and wired, making them more likely to pay for streaming services and movie tickets. At about $18, a ticket in Saudi theaters is among the most expensive in the world.
But the kingdom only allowed cinemas to reopen only in 2018 after a 35-year ban. Before that, Saudis escaped to nearby Bahrain or Dubai to go to theaters.
Now, the country has 430 screens and counting, making it the fastest-growing market in the world, with a target of 2,600 screens by 2030, Mr. Abdulmajeed said.
Film Clinic, a Cairo-based production company.
Several Saudi-Egyptian collaborations are in the works, and an Egyptian “Hangover”-style comedy, “Wa’afet Reggala” (“A Stand Worthy of Men”), was the highest-grossing release in Saudi Arabia this year, beating the Hollywood blockbusters.
Saudi productions may also continue to draw acting, writing and directing talent from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt — and will most likely need to do so to reach non-Saudi audiences, said Rebecca Joubin, an Arab studies professor at Davidson College in North Carolina.
Five Movies to Watch This Winter
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“With Saudi opening up, they say in Egypt that it’s saving Egypt’s movie industry,” said Marwan Mokbel, an Egyptian who co-wrote “Junoon,” the Saudi horror film about the vlogger that premiered at the Jeddah festival.
Shahid, its Dubai-based Arabic counterpart.
That has created a big market for Arabic-language content.
Netflix has produced Jordanian, Egyptian and Syrian-Lebanese shows, with varying degrees of success, and just announced the release of its first Arabic-language feature film, “Perfect Strangers.”
Syrian and Lebanese studios that used to depend on gulf financiers — who, they complained, often forced them to water down their artistic ambitions by nixing political themes — are also turning to web series and Netflix for new funding and wider audiences.
a hip alternative to the somnolent broadcast television. Mohammad Makki recalled dodging the police, guerrilla style, to film the first season of his show “Takki,” about a group of Saudi friends navigating Saudi social constraints, a decade ago. Then, it was a low-budget YouTube series. Now, it is a Netflix hit.
“We grew up dying to go to the cinema,” he said, “and now it’s two blocks from my house.”
Saudi women in the industry faced even greater challenges.
When “Wadjda” (2012), the first Saudi feature directed by a woman, was filmed, Haifaa al-Mansour, the director, was barred from mixing in public with male crew members. She worked instead from the back of a van, communicating with the actors via walkie-talkie.
“I’m still in shock,” said Ahd Kamel, who played a conservative teacher in “Wadjda,” which portrays a rebellious young Saudi girl who desperately wants a bicycle, as she walked through the festival. “It’s surreal.”
As a young actress in New York, Ms. Kamel hid her career from her family, knowing they, and Saudi society, would not approve of a woman acting. Now, she said, her family pesters her for festival tickets, and she is preparing to direct a new film to be shot in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi political, religious and cultural sensitivities are still factors, of course.
Marvel’s big-budget “Eternals” was not released in Saudi Arabia — or in Qatar, Kuwait or Egypt — because of gay romantic scenes. Several of the non-Saudi films screened at the Jeddah festival, however, included gay scenes, nudity and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
Hisham Fageeh, a Saudi comedian and actor, said officials had told him future films should avoid touching directly on God or politics.
Sumaya Rida, an actress in the festival movies “Junoon” and “Rupture,” said the films aimed to portray Saudi couples realistically while avoiding onscreen physical affection.
But the filmmakers said they were just happy to have support, accepting that it would come at the price of creative constraints.
“I don’t intend to provoke to provoke. The purpose of cinema is to tease. Cinema doesn’t have to be didactic,” said Fatima al-Banawi, a Saudi actress and director whose first feature film the festival is funding. “It comes naturally. We’ve been so good at working around things for so long.”
Vivian Yee reported from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and Ben Hubbard from Beirut, Lebanon. Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, and Nada Rashwan from Cairo.
Mr. Sweetat is prepared to make compromises in a land where few are ready to do so. He believes cooperation in pursuit of shared prosperity, however difficult, is the only way forward. “If we don’t like it,” he said, “we can pack our bags and go to Switzerland.”
I asked him if he felt like an equal citizen in Israel.
“Of course, I don’t feel equal,” he said, “but I can achieve everything I want.”
Still, he said, “I don’t see new Arab villages being built. I don’t have enough space in my own village. I wanted to buy a piece of land near Tarshiha, but I couldn’t. I want my son, who is 2, to grow up here. Ask the country why I can’t find land here.”
“So, you can’t achieve everything you want?” I asked.
“There are things you can’t change, but we can improve them. The change can start from people.”
Overcoming Mutual Incomprehension
When Tal Becker, the legal adviser to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, drafted the preamble to the normalization treaty between Israel and the United Arab Emirates last year, he expected pushback on this clause:
“Recognizing that the Arab and Jewish peoples are descendants of a common ancestor, Abraham, and inspired,in that spirit, to foster in the Middle East a reality in which Muslims, Jews, Christians and peoples of all faiths, denominations, beliefs and nationalities live in, and are committed to, a spirit of coexistence.”
There was no dissent, despite the fact that the wording made clear that both Jews and Arabs belong in the Middle East.
A widespread view among Palestinians and throughout the Arab world has long been, on the contrary, that Israel and its Jewish population represent an illicit colonial projection into the Middle East that will one day end.
JERUSALEM — The rabbi stood before the grave of the imam, weeping as he gave his eulogy. In life, Rabbi Michael Melchior said, Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish had promised him that he would never leave his side. In death, the sheikh had left him feeling as bereft as an orphan.
Sheikh Abdullah died in 2017, four years before the Islamist party he helped found, Raam, became the first independent Arab faction to join an Israeli government coalition. But the sheikh’s funeral and his unlikely friendship with Rabbi Melchior, as well as their below-the-radar attempts at religious-based peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians, were all part of an unexpected, decades-long back story of an effort by some Islamists to find a place within Israeli politics.
For Mansour Abbas, a politician standing in tears to the rabbi’s right that day, the sheikh’s death was one of several pivotal way stations in his journey to lead Raam into Israel’s government.
“At Sheikh Abdullah’s funeral and Rabbi Melchior’s speech, it hit me — that I need to be committed to Sheikh Abdullah and Rabbi Melchior’s joint approach,” said Mr. Abbas, who became Raam’s leader in 2018 and entered Parliament two years ago. The speech and the funeral “made me go from being a supporter and minor contributor to it to someone wishing to strengthen it and push it forward,” he said.
violent clashes in May. And Israel had just ended a brief war with Hamas, the militant group that holds sway in the Gaza Strip.
Both Raam and Hamas have roots in the same Islamist movement. And Raam’s leading influence, Sheikh Abdullah, was convicted and imprisoned in the 1980s for links to a militant Islamist group.
To those in and around Raam, its new role makes more sense in the context of Sheikh Abdullah’s spiritual journey since he left jail, when he had an ideological about-face and sought to use Islamic teachings to justify a more peaceful approach.
helped legitimize the idea of Arab participation in government by pursuing Raam’s support.
are fighting to restore momentum to a formal peace process that petered out in 2014. To them, Mr. Abbas’s political maneuver was a natural outgrowth of a long-term project of religious-based peace building begun by Sheikh Abdullah.
“My sheikh went through several stations in his life,” said Sheikh Raed, citing Sheikh Abdullah’s break with militance after leaving prison in the 1980s.
“The whole religious dialogue,” Sheikh Raed said, “started from that point.”
Born in 1948 in an Arab town in what became Israel, Sheikh Abdullah flirted briefly with Communism as a young man before turning more seriously to Islam.
In the 1970s, he founded the Islamic Movement, a group based in Israel that aimed to encourage the Muslim minority to deepen its faith and, ultimately, to create a society governed by Islamic law. The group also had a militant wing that carried out arson attacks on Israeli property.
But in the 1980s, he surprised his followers by pushing to establish better relations between Arabs and Israelis, within both Israel and the occupied territories.
participation of the Islamic Movement’s political wing, later known as Raam, in Israeli parliamentary elections. That caused a split in the movement, with some members forming a now banned splinter group that rejected participation in the Israeli parliamentary process.
But Sheikh Abdullah continued on a path of moderation, writing a book that rejected any religious justification for suicide attacks. He also began to work on several peace-building projects with Rabbi Melchior, then a deputy foreign minister in the Israeli government.
communal violence in the city of Acre, in northern Israel.
Understand Developments in Israeli Politics
Key Figures.The main players in the latest twist in Israeli politics have very different agendas, but one common goal. Naftali Bennett, who leads a small right-wing party, and Yair Lapid, the centrist leader of the Israeli opposition, have joined forces to form a diverse coalition to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
Range of Ideals. Spanning Israel’s fractious political spectrum from left to right, and relying on the support of a small Arab, Islamist party, the coalition, dubbed the “change government” by supporters, will likely mark a profound shift for Israel.
A Common Goal. After grinding deadlock that led to four inconclusive elections in two years, and an even longer period of polarizing politics and government paralysis, the architects of the coalition have pledged to get Israel back on track.
An Unclear Future. Parliament still has to ratify the fragile agreement in a confidence vote in the coming days. But even if it does, it remains unclear how much change the “change government” could bring to Israel because some of the parties involved have little in common besides animosity for Mr. Netanyahu.
In 2014, they coordinated to avoid religious violence in mixed Arab-Jewish cities when the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur, fell on the same day as the Islamic celebration of Eid al-Adha, and tried to taper conflict during a low-level intifada the next year.
Mr. Abbas became involved in the initiatives and later developed a close relationship with Rabbi Melchior, speaking with him several times a month.
To the rabbi, these religious-based peace initiatives offered a way to move on from the secular-led diplomatic efforts of the 1990s and 2000s, which he said failed in part because they did not sufficiently include religious elements from the two populations.
“The traditional and religious population felt that the peace was part of the uprooting of what they felt was their sense of belonging, of their DNA, of their identity, of their narrative,” Rabbi Melchior said.
After Sheikh Abdullah’s death, Sheikh Raed took up his mantle. He worked with Rabbi Melchior to defuse another crisis in 2017, when the installation of metal detectors at the entrance to the Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem almost set off another uprising.
In 2020, Sheikh Raed released a lengthy religious tract that provided a theological justification for Raam’s joining an Israeli government. Several months later, Mr. Abbas joined the current governing coalition.
During the coalition negotiations, Mr. Abbas gave a televised speech in Hebrew, largely pitched at Israeli Jews, in which he called for coexistence and presented himself as a citizen of Israel. Analysts later said it played a pivotal role in positioning him as an acceptable partner for Jewish-led parties. The speech was his own, but he spoke beforehand with Rabbi Melchior about its content, both men said.
To some Palestinian citizens of Israel, Mr. Abbas is a sellout for helping put right-wing Jewish politicians in power in exchange for what critics perceive as only token victories.
Ayman Odeh, the leader of the left-wing party Hadash, said Mr. Abbas’s approach was transactional, positioning Palestinian citizens of Israel as servants and subjects instead of as true citizens with collective rights.
“I don’t want to work as a politician under a Jewish supremacy,” said Mr. Odeh, whose party includes a mix of Arabs and Jews. “I fight for deep equality on both a civil and national level between the two peoples.”
But to advocates like Sheikh Raed and Rabbi Melchior, Mr. Abbas’s decision was a hopeful byproduct of a long process of religious peace-building that seeks to place Palestinians and Israelis on a more equal footing, and which political leaders would do well to amplify.
“If the religious element is not inside the peace camp, and not included fully, it just won’t happen,” Rabbi Melchior said. “I, for one, do not want to exclude the secular — not from our society and not from the peacemaking,” he added. “I just want to expand that sense of peace.”
JERUSALEM — More than 1,550 people have been arrested over the past two weeks, the Israeli police said on Monday, on suspicion of involvement in the recent outbreak of mob violence between Arabs and Jews that convulsed cities across Israel.
Announcing the start of an even more concerted arrest campaign, the police said in a statement that thousands of police and border police officers had spread out across the country “to bring the rioters, criminals and all those involved in the disturbances to justice.”
Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the police, said that 70 percent of those arrested were Arab citizens of Israel while 30 percent were Jewish. About 150 suspects have already been charged, the police said.
“The majority of incidents that took place were carried out by Arab Israelis who took to the streets and attacked Jewish civilians and police officers,” he said.
the worst intercommunal violence Israel has seen in decades, the outburst of assaults, arson and vandalism spread to other mixed cities in northern Israel and the Arab towns of the Galilee, while Bedouin Arabs torched and ambushed Jews’ cars with stones on the roads in the southern Negev desert.
Over several nights, Arab and Jewish gangs sought out targets. Several victims on both sides were beaten unconscious; one Jewish man was badly burned; and at times the unrest turned lethal.
looming eviction of six Palestinian families from homes claimed by Jewish landlords has contributed to the unrest, and where the police continue to disperse sporadic protests.
The police have come in for harsh criticism from both Jewish and Arab witnesses and victims of the mob violence. Many said they had tried to call the police as their properties came under attack during the disturbances but got no response.
Mr. Rosenfeld said that at that time too many incidents were occurring simultaneously and that it was impossible to place an officer by every door.
The government called in hundreds of border police officers from the occupied West Bank to restore order in Lod.
When crime involved only Arab citizens, as both perpetrators and victims, the police showed little interest, said Ms. Touma-Sliman, the lawmaker, adding, “we’ve been pleading for years for them to take action.”
Only now, she said, when the violence affected the Jewish population, were the police talking about gathering video footage from security cameras and using other technological means to locate and identify suspects.
“I have lost confidence in the police,” she said. “They will have to earn it.”
On Monday alone, the police said, they had arrested 74 suspects, including dozens who had thrown stones, fireworks and firebombs and assaulted officers in Jerusalem and Arab-populated areas of central Israel. They said they had also seized illegal weapons, including an M16 assault rifle, and ammunition.
Three Israeli Jews, including a minor, 16, were charged on Monday for what the prosecution called the “attempted terrorist murder” of an Arab Israeli driver in Bat Yam, a Tel Aviv suburb. He was dragged from his car and beaten almost to death at the height of the intercommunal violence.