This Wednesday, Disney’s blockbuster “Black Panther” will be shown in theaters in Saudi Arabia, officially ending a decades-long ban on movie theaters in the country. This may seem odd to Americans who have grown up with cinema and popcorn, but to many Saudis it’s a huge step toward normalization. For too long, hard-line religious figures have preached that cinema would bring about the collapse of all moral values. When the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman decided to end the ban, he also effectively stopped the preachers from repeating such foolishness. By taking the lead to remove the ban, he proved that the government has the final say when it comes to deciding what’s permissible or not, and that some things should be left up to the personal choice of citizens, not the clergy.
Because there haven’t been cinemas in Saudi Arabia for more than 30 years, Saudi newspapers don’t have movie reviews. I can only imagine what the plot and symbols of the film will prompt critics to write. Will they dare to tease out references to local politics?
In “Black Panther,” T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the young king of Wakanda, grapples with whether to hide his wealthy and prosperous country from the outside world, or to engage with it — a question that preoccupies Saudis these days, especially given the turbulence and civil wars surrounding them in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia does have plenty of money and oil, even if it doesn’t have Wakanda’s “vibranium” (a super-substance that powers the country’s technology). What Saudis do lack, however, is the amazing scientific development that Wakanda enjoys. The crown prince is hoping to change that. In his recent U.S. tour, he made a point of meeting the leaders of the technology companies who are at the forefront of the global information revolution.
Many other countries in the region also have money and oil, but they haven’t done much good with it — at least not enough to stop the Middle East’s disastrous wars. Saudi Arabia at least has something else: stability, a scarce commodity in the region. (And if the crown prince has his way, the kingdom will also soon benefit from economic reform, which is designed to provide jobs for millions of young Saudis.) But Riyadh still lacks a proper recipe for restoring peace to the Middle East and creating a new prosperous and peaceful world.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s vibranium should be its stability, financial strength and strong foreign relations. And if the kingdom wants to go a step further, moving to encourage democracy and popular participation in the Middle East would be the most effective means of ensuring regional stability well as protecting itself from neighboring threats.
It might seem odd to call on a country that lacks democracy, such as Saudi Arabia, to use it to restore peace around it. The difference is that Saudis need democracy for better governance, while Syrians and Yemenis need it to stop killing one another. None of these wars will be won militarily. But Saudi Arabia can certainly do more to play a constructive role to bring peace to those countries. Riyadh can encourage the formations of pluralistic governments in both countries and put pressure on the factions there to agree to negotiations.
At the end of the film, the young king of Wakanda chooses to use his country’s power to engage with the world for the greater good. Will Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who likely will soon become king of his country, use his power to bring peace to the world around him?