(Repeats to fix slug identifier for media clients to SAUDI-CINEMA/ from SAUDI-CINEMAS/, no change to text)
RIYADH, April 18 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia is launching its first commercial movie theatre on Wednesday as it ends a nearly 40-year ban on cinemas under a push by the crown prince to open up the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom.
But ordinary Saudis must hold out a few more weeks before they can catch a film. Attendance to private screenings this month in Riyadh is by invitation only, with a public opening to follow in May, according to operator AMC Entertainment Holdings .
Senior government officials, foreign dignitaries and select industry figures are expected to watch Marvel’s superhero movie “Black Panther” at the inaugural event.
The viewing serves as a test run on the only screen set up so far at the venue, a symphony concert hall hastily retrofitted with a screen to meet the debut date announced two weeks ago.
Despite limited access, the screenings mark another milestone under reforms spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to open up Saudis’ cloistered lifestyles and diversify the economy of the world’s top oil exporter.
The powerful prince, 32, has already eased many restrictions in the last two years, including on public concerts, women driving and gender mixing.
The kingdom banned cinemas in the early 1980s under pressure from Islamists as Saudi society turned towards a particularly severe form of religion.
Yet Saudis have been avid consumers of Western media and culture. Despite the cinema ban, Hollywood films and television series are widely watched at home, and private film screenings have been largely tolerated for years.
In 2017, the government said it would lift the ban as part of ambitious economic and social reforms that include retaining money that Saudis currently spend on entertainment in trips to Dubai, Bahrain and elsewhere.
To serve a population of more than 32 million, most of whom are under the age of 30, the authorities plan to set up around 350 cinemas with over 2,500 screens by 2030, which they hope will attract nearly $1 billion in annual ticket sales.
A source familiar with the matter told Reuters last month that theatres would not be segregated by gender like most other public places, but it remains unclear how heavily movies might be censored.
Many Saudis rejoiced in anticipation of Wednesday’s theatre opening, sharing praise and pictures of Crown Prince Mohammed on social media.
Others expressed confusion at what they called the government’s about-face on cinemas’ permissibility, with one tweeting: “Remember you will stand in front of God ... and you will bear the sins of all those who watched the movies.”
Religious conservatives believe films from more liberal Arab countries such as Egypt could violate religious taboos. Some also view cinema and acting, as a form of dissembling, as inconsistent with Islam. (Reporting by Stephen Kalin Editing by Alison Williams)