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As Other Arab States Falter, Saudi Arabia Seeks to Become a Cultural Hub

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.

CineWaves.

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.

“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.

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ISIS Poses a Growing Threat to New Taliban Government in Afghanistan

JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Aref Mohammad’s war against the Islamic State ended earlier this fall when his unit of Taliban fighters was ambushed by the terrorist group in eastern Afghanistan. A bullet shattered his femur, leaving him disabled and barely able to walk, never mind fight.

But for the Taliban movement he served under, now the government of Afghanistan, the war against the Islamic State was just beginning.

“If we knew where they were from, we would pursue them and destroy them,” Mr. Mohammed, 19, said from his hospital bed in Jalalabad, the capital of Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar Province where the Islamic State has maintained a presence since 2015.

In the two months since the Taliban took control of the country, the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan — known as Islamic State Khorasan or ISIS-K — has stepped up attacks across the country, straining the new and untested government and raising alarm bells in the West about the potential resurgence of a group that could eventually pose an international threat.

Islamic State fighters carried out a coordinated attack with gunmen and at least one suicide bomber on an important military hospital in the capital, killing at least 25 people.

This has placed the Taliban in a precarious position: After spending 20 years fighting as an insurgency, the group finds itself wrestling with providing security and delivering on its hallmark commitment of law and order. This has proved especially challenging for the Taliban as they try to defend themselves and civilians in crowded cities against almost daily attacks with an army that was trained for rural guerrilla warfare.

once working together with the Americans and the former government to contain the terrorist group in the east — is on the diplomatic stage.

their origin story and their record as rulers.

In 2015, the Islamic State in Khorasan was officially established in Afghanistan’s east by former members of the Pakistani Taliban. The group’s ideology took hold partly because many villages there are inhabited by Salafi Muslims, the same branch of Sunni Islam as the Islamic State. A minority among the Taliban, who mostly follow the Hanafi school, Salafi fighters were eager to join the new terrorist group.

The draw of young fighters to the Islamic State is especially pronounced in Jalalabad, where Salafi mosques have sprung up in growing numbers in recent years, providing ample recruiting grounds for the terrorist group.

The Taliban have made a show of openness to the Salafists, accepting a pledge of allegiance from some Salafi clerics earlier this month. But there is still widespread unease within their community, especially in Jalalabad.

At one Salafi religious school in the city, the Taliban cracked down on the ideology by forcing the school’s founder to flee. They have allowed boys to continue their Quranic studies but have banned Salafist works from the curriculum.

For Faraidoon Momand, a former member of the Afghan government and a local power broker in Jalalabad, the worsening economic situation in the country is also driving the Islamic State’s recruitment.

“In every society if the economy is bad, people will do what they have to do to get by,” Mr. Momand said.

As dusk fell over Jalalabad on a recent day in October, a unit of Taliban fighters belonging to the intelligence agency rode through the streets in a modified Toyota pickup, a machine gun mounted in its bed, as the streets filled with commuters and evening shoppers.

The Talibs pulled up at key intersections and checkpoints, jumping out and assisting with the screening of cars and the ubiquitous yellow three-wheeled rickshaws that jostle and honk as they throng streets. They poked their heads in, shining flashlights inside, questioning passengers, and waved them on.

“We have a court for every criminal,” said Abdullah Ghorzang, a Taliban commander. “But there is no court for ISIS-K. They will be killed wherever they are arrested.”

Victor J. Blue reported from Jalalabad, Afghanistan; Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Doha, Qatar, and Christina Goldbaum from Kabul. Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt from Washington; Safiullah Padshah from Jalalabad; and Sami Sahak from Los Angeles.

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