Page last updated at 15:44 GMT, Monday, 20 July 2009 16:44 UK

No happy ending for Saudi film festival

(File picture 18 December 2008) Saudis pray before viewing comedy film Manahi in Jeddah
Many Saudis are cinema fans but have few chances to enjoy the big screen

By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

Directors, writers and cinema buffs had arrived in Jeddah for what had been billed as a week-long festival of films from Saudi Arabia and neighbouring states.

The festival was due to begin on Saturday. But an hour before midnight on Friday the organisers were told by the Jeddah municipality to cancel it.

The only official explanation was that the event had not been sufficiently prepared.

But it is widely believed the ban is the latest victory for religious conservatives, who regard cinema as a form of Western moral pollution.

Jeddah - the Red Sea city which is also the Saudi business hub - has long been more liberal and open than the desert capital, Riyadh.

Its film festival started in 2006, as a conscious attempt by Saudi liberals to push the boundaries of cultural freedom.

Family feud

Behind closed doors, Saudis are avid consumers of movies - and there is no shortage of budding directors, actors and actresses.

Yet cinemas and theatres are banned, and conservatives are wary of efforts to get round the ban - for example, through officially sanctioned cultural festivals.

Prince Waleed bin Talal with his wife Amira al-Taweel
Waleed bin Talal is an outspoken advocate of cultural change

Conservatives are particularly hostile to the wealthy Prince Waleed bin Talal, whose Rotana entertainment group was the main sponsor of the Jeddah film festival.

The 54-year-old prince has been outspoken in his support for easing cultural restrictions and for greater women's rights.

This has made him the target of conservative criticism.

Last month, in an unusually public display of discord within the ruling family, one of Prince Waleed's brothers, Prince Khalid bin Talal, denounced his efforts to introduce cinema into Saudi society.

He even went as far as calling for his brother's assets to be frozen.

Prince Khalid wants all film festivals to be banned.

Those who favour reform initially pinned their hopes on King Abdullah, who ascended the throne in 2005.

The king has been a cautious advocate of change. In February he removed the head of the religious police, in a re-shuffle that brought in the country's first female junior minister.

But Abdullah has faced opposition from within the religious establishment and from his half-brother Prince Nayef, the powerful minister of the interior.

An anonymous official is quoted by Reuters news agency as saying the Jeddah film festival "was cancelled upon indirect instructions from the interior ministry".

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