The locations scene in the Gulf is heating up with the imminent arrival of Saudi Arabia as a potential location following the lifting of a 30-year ban on cinema at the end of 2017.
The territory boasts a wealth of rarely filmed locations, topped by Unesco heritage sites including the ancient Nabataean city of Al-Hijr and the old city of Jeddah, as well as natural landscapes including the Rub’ Al Khali desert.
The country announced it was launching a 35% cash rebate for international productions at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival but there has been no word on when it will come into force or the exact guidelines for productions hoping to exploit the incentive.
In the background, a number of studio spaces are taking shape, kicking off with the Nebras Films facility outside the capital Riyadh, which opened in 2018 and hosted Agusti Villaronga’s 1940s-set Born A King, starring Ed Skrein, as one of its first productions.
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.
Nebras Films is Saudi's first full-service production studio. The facility offers 42,000 sq ft of production facilities in Riyadh and specialises in post-production services, film and TV equipment supply and visual effects.
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.