Saudi Arabia is often overshadowed by its Gulf neighbour, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). But it has a lot to offer as a filming location thanks to a rich and diverse natural, historical and cultural heritage, as well as a modern and cosmopolitan atmosphere in the cities. If desert landscapes are what you are looking for, Saudi Arabia, with the world’s largest sand desert, will undoubtedly have the right location for your film. With an unbeatable amount of sunny days, most of Saudi Arabia has a desert climate characterized by extreme heat in the day, plummeting temperatures at night and, slight erratic rainfall. Filming during Ramadan is doable but can be a testing process due to the lack of open services and the physical toll that fasting can have on the local practicing crew.
Sitting comfortably at the crossroads of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, its unique geographic position should give it the advantage of being easily accessible for film and television production. Unfortunately, the constraints that are entailed with working in one of the most restrictive countries in the world make it very difficult to film here. Most foreign productions that consider filming in the Middle East settle for the UAE where professional crews, excellent film infrastructure, generous grants and friendly film commissioners really tip the scales in UAE’s favour.
Saudi Arabia is a deeply conservative country. Although it has 27 million inhabitants, there is only one movie theatre in the kingdom. Movie theatres were banned in the 1980s to appease conservative clerics. It is little wonder therefore that the Saudi Arabia’s film industry isn’t booming. Most homegrown talent go abroad in search of creative opportunities and the same conservative conventions that restrict cinema distribution, restrict cinema production. The film industry in Saudi Arabia lacks professional schools and training, production companies, and usually official support. Since little to no filming infrastructure exists, all key crew, equipment and talent must be brought in from abroad which adds considerably to filming costs.
However in recent years, Saudi Arabia has witnessed small steps to bring back films to the audience. Starting in more liberal areas of the Kingdom, the Eastern Province and Jeddah, private and semi-private viewings and film festivals have begun and filmmakers like Haifa Mansour with her 2006 award winning documentary Nissa bila dhill (Women Without Shadows) and feature Wadjda, have begun challenging these difficulties and developing a small sector of both feature and documentary films. The supportive role of Prince Alwaleed cannot be underestimated, especially for future projects.
Saudi Arabia’s modern and hospitable hotel infrastructure, decent airports, robust telecoms network all translate into strong support infrastructure and services and will be brilliant incentives once the film industry is on its feet. A film commission needs to be established and homegrown productions encouraged and nurtured.
Saudi Arabia occupies four-fifths of the Arabian Peninsula. It contains Rub al-Khali - the world's largest sand desert. With the exception of some highlands, the entire country is desert. Droughts can last for several years, with temperatures exceeding 45°C in the interior during the summer. Temperatures are lower on the coast, but high humidity makes the heat uncomfortable. There are no permanent rivers or bodies of water, only seasonal riverbeds. The largest oasis in the world, Al Hasa, is in the country's eastern province.
The recent spate of feature films and documentaries to emerge from Saudi Arabia is puzzling for a country in which public cinemas have been banned since the 1980s.
Keif al-Hal?, released in 2006, was billed as Saudi Arabia’s first film, however it was shot in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the lead actress was played by a Jordanian.
Haifa Mansour’s Wadjda is the first film ever to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, and the first to be filmed with an all-Saudi cast. It is also the first Saudi release to make it to the big screen abroad. Wadjda, the story of an 11-year-old schoolgirl and her fight to ride a bike - an activity discouraged in a country where women are banned from driving - has received international critical acclaim. It was selected as the Saudi Arabian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards. It successfully earned a nomination for Best Foreign Film at the 2014 BAFTA Awards. A German/Saudi co-production, the film was produced with official permission and with support from Saudi partner Rotana Studio, the production company of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. It was filmed primarily on the streets of Riyadh.
Another film to emerge is the documentary “Brotherhood and Courage” about firefighters in Saudi Arabia, made with the support of Prince Muhammed bin Nayef. And in the feature-length documentary Cinema 500km Saudi Arabia’s cinema industry or lack there of is central to the story: a young Saudi cinema enthusiast travels all the way to Bahrain to watch his first movie in a cinema.
With a lack of movie-theatres, the internet has become a way for Saudi filmmaker’s to reach their audiences. One filmmaker which has harnessed YouTube distribution is Mohammed Makki. His mini-series Takki had more than a million hits on YouTube and Al-Arabiya, a television channel part-owned by Saudis, reported that the country has over 90 million YouTube page views per day.
There are almost no foreign productions shot in Saudi Arabia. Malcomn X was the first non-documentary to be given permission to film in Mecca. Baraka, Ron Frick’s excellent non-narrative rumination on human life and religion, featured a scene in the Great Mosque. And, Le Grand Voyage, Ismaël Ferroukhi film about a father who takes his thoroughly Westernised son to Mecca, was partially shot there in 2004. These aside, most big-budget films about Saudi Arabia use United Arab Emirates locations as substitutes for Saudi Arabian ones, such as The Kingdom which was filmed in Abu-Dhabi.
Traditionally, Saudi Arabia is slow in granting permits. Different permits may be required for shooting in cities, in the desert, in national parks and on public roads. Saudi Arabia is a very closed country and photographing government buildings, military installations, oil facilities and palaces is prohibited. Even if you have a permit police can, and often do, shut you down without reason. In theory filming is prohibited unless you do so as a guest of an important religious or political figure.
Non-Muslims cannot enter Mecca religious sites. During the Hajj, all Muslim visitors must have a valid Hajj visa. Non-Muslim visitors traveling to these destinations may be asked to explain the purpose of their trip or asked to show evidence of appointments before being allowed to board a flight to Jeddah. Women traveling alone are not allowed to enter the country unless they will be met at the airport by a husband, a sponsor or male relative. A woman traveling with a man who does not fit into those criteria can be arrested. This is a consideration when bringing crew in from abroad.
There are likely to be restrictions on filming alcoholic drinks and nudity, such as those imposed in neighbouring UAE, but no formal Film Commission exists to indicate and delineate the rules and regulations to filming in Saudi Arabia.
If wishing to film in Saudi Arabia it is crucial to have a local fixer/location scout/ production manager to negotiate permits and obtaining permission - it is impossible to film there otherwise.
There are currently no studios or backlots in Saudi Arabia. The United Arab Emirates - Dubai and Abu-Dhabi - are the closest options. Dubai Studio City has three state-of-the-art soundstages that provide the perfect operating environment for feature film production, as well as a huge backlot adjacent to the studios, industry standard water tanks, workshop and production offices.
Saudi Arabia is blessed with a variety of beautiful locations. The birthplace and spiritual home of Islam, it is rich in attractions and symbolism. It is also, according to the Lonely Planet, 'one of the most difficult places on earth to visit'; one of the world's last frontiers for tourists and filmmakers alike.
Many see the untapped, unspoiled, breathtaking locations as pay-off for the challenges and difficulties faced filming here, others prefer to tap into similar landscapes in surrounding Gulf countries that are more film-friendly. Either way, Saudi Arabia offers a range of unique looks, from the vast deserts and stunning sand dunes that expand across most of the country to the greener mountain retreats. Date palms, wild grasses and hyacinths flourish in the oasis that pepper the otherwise arid, dry landscape. And exotic Arabian architecture and palatial villas compete with cosmopolitan urban architecture in the bigger cities.
Despite the biggest draw being the traditional desert scenario (it contains Rub al-Khali, the world’s largest sand desert), head to the coast, the cities and the highlands and you can find some real gems.
The capital Riyadh is the first port of call and main entry point to the country. Seen from afar, soaring, sparkling, stunning modern towers rise above the desert and shiny 4WDs throng modern highways. Up close, Riyadh is conservative, cautious and sober (especially compared with Jeddah). Filming here is difficult due to its conservative nature (people are uncomfortable with being filmed, police halt filming even with a permit), but ironically many of the production companies are based here or in Jeddah, the second largest city.
Jeddah is the most easy-going city and perhaps, it’s most beguiling. The Al-Balad district is a nostalgic testament to the bygone days of old Jeddah with bustling souks and coral architecture.
Elsewhere, Taif, the unofficial summer capital, is a breath of fresh air in Saudi Arabia's hottest months. At 1700m above sea level, its gentle, temperate climate, wide-tree lined streets, traditional architecture, lively souk and beautiful surrounding scenery are the main attractions. Verdant, the area is known for its figs, grapes, pomegranates and prickly pears.
Another shady spot is Al-Hasa, the traditional oasis region in the eastern part of the country. It has the largest palm tree oasis in the world - containing 3 million palm trees. Renowned springs date trees, it is one of the greenest places in Saudi Arabia and will fulfill any filmmakers vision of a typical oasis landscape. Its magnificence is such that it has been nominated to compete for the title of one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Madain Saleh is home to 131 tombs carved into honeycomb-coloured rock face. Old Al-Ula is one of the most picturesque old towns in Arabia. From atmospheric ruins rise the remnants of the fortress Umm Nasir and palm trees.
Al-Hijaz Railroad, established to connect Damascus with Al-Medina Al-Munawrah, is a beautiful remnant of the Ottoman Empire, its station remain as archeological landmarks dotting the landscape.
There are six open parks in Saudi Arabia: Sud Al-Elb Park, Sud Wadi Hanifa Park, Bio Treatment Park in Otaiqah, Sud Park, Factories Lake Park and Lake Park.
Other locations of note are the Asir region, Farasan Islands, one of the most picturesque marine areas in all of Saudi Arabia, Dhee Ayn, a mountain village and Dir'iyah, the capital city of the first Saudi state and a World Heritage Site.
Some areas of Saudi Arabia are particularly dangerous, especially the region along the long, porous border with Yemen (Yemen has been the official headquarters for Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula). It is not advised to travel to this region.
Historically, only the most basic equipment wass available locally. Other equipment can be brought in from abroad and it is important to bear in mind that Saudi Arabia is NOT an ATA Carnet country. ATA Carnets permit the tax-free and duty-free temporary export and import of goods for up to one year, without it you are likely to incur heavy costs.
However, companies like AFLAM Productions, based in Riyadh, have a range of kit for rental, and also provide full production service support. The Jeddah-based Millimeter Productions have 35mm and HD Cameras, Prime Lenses, Lights 18k to dido sets, dollies and cranes, steadycams and post-production services. It also provides casting and crew services. Silkdeer Entertainment is home to a consortium of companies that work in the entertainment industry and includes Silver Grey, a film production and content development company, Suite Eleven, audio and video postproduction and Speed track, which specializes in production services (permits, logistics, travel and accommodation), location scouting and equipment rentals. Speedtrack has sound equipment, dollies & cranes, lighting equipment, lighting stabilizers and camera systems.
Dubai is the closest major production center, the largest production base in the Middle East and North Africa. And Abu-Dhabi is also a good bet. Both are production-ready destinations with generous financial incentives (30% cash rebate on production spend), location diversity, production resources and professional support. The UAE has world class studios and post-production facilities and competitive rates. The Abu-Dhabi and Dubai film commissioners can provide support obtaining permits, visas and customs clearance. UAE, unlike Saudi Arabia, is an ATA Carnet country if you’re looking to bring in your own gear. If not, Arri, Panavision, and Red equipment is available, including more specialist equipment such as Russian Arm, Technocrane and gyro heads. Working with production companies such as Dubai-based Phoenix is a good and safe option. With experience working across the Middle East they could arrange shoots on location in Saudi Arabia.
As for talent, the conservative nature of the country means many people are uncomfortable with filming. There are severe restrictions on Saudi women working in public. The country offers mainly Arabic looking talent, and all others should be brought in from abroad. As should key crew be brought in from abroad - Saudi Arabia has a limited, almost non-existent, pool of directors, DOPs and stills photographers. Young directors are currently forced to go abroad to realise their filmmaking ambitions, given the lack of prospects in their home country.