It is early days for Saudi Arabia’s fledgling international locations business but the kingdom has big ambitions in this domain as part of its Vision 2030 strategy to move the economy away from a dependence on oil.
Filmmaker and producer Abdullah Al-Qahtani was appointed CEO of the national film commission in June 2020 and is overseeing the wider strategy to build the local cinema and TV business, and encourage international productions to shoot in the territory.
Plans for the latter are believed to include some sort of tax or cash rebate but details had yet to be announced as of the beginning of June.
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.
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.
Another gem is the AlUla region in the northwest of the country. Spanning some 22,561 square kilometres, it encompasses deserts, mountains, oases and ancient cities such as the Unesco World Heritage site Hegra (also known as Mada’in Salih or Al Hijr). Built by the Nabateans some 2,000 ago, Hegra was their second city after Petra, which is now one of neighbouring Jordan’s most popular tourist and film-shooting destinations. The last vestiges of the Saudi sister city are scores of monumental tombs carved in the red sandstone.
The entire AlUla region is earmarked for development into a major tourist site, putting the onus on art, culture and nature. As part of this plan, Film AlUla — a new regional film commission — was launched this spring. Headed by Stephen Strachan, its mission is to develop AlUla as a filming region for both local and international projects.
One of the first US productions to set down was Anthony and Joe Russo’s Cherry for Apple TV+. The production filmed in AlUla in early 2020 before the pandemic forced the country to close its borders.
Other locations that look set to grow in popularity are the port city of Jeddah and its historical centre, and the wider Red Sea coast. The city recently hosted the shoot of Champions, an Arab remake of the 2018 Spanish hit Campeones. It was spearheaded by Oscar-winning Spanish producer Andres Vicente Gomez and directed by Manuel Calvo, with the backing of Saudi company Al Maha Al Arab.
Gomez also produced the historical drama Born A King about the late Saudi royal King Faisal’s coming-of-age trip to London as a teenager and how it sealed the fate of modern Saudi Arabia.
Once completed, the country’s mega building projects such as the “entertainment capital” of Qiddiya outside Riyadh, the zero-carbon high-tech city of Neom on the northern shores of the Red Sea and the Jeddah Tower could prove as alluring to filmmakers as the futuristic skylines of Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
Other features expected to touch down in Saudi Arabia in the coming months include Thunder Road Pictures’ action thriller Kandahar, directed by Ric Roman Waugh and starring Gerard Butler as an undercover CIA agent working in the Middle East.
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.
The territory has a growing roster of technicians and line production companies, but it is early days for the local TV and film industry and big productions still need to bring in much of their crew. For now, the main studio facility is Nebras Films in Riyadh. The 3,900 square metre studio offers post-production services alongside art workshops, 3D animation, audio, casting, crew, equipment, props and sets.
Saudi Arabia spans around 2.1 million square kilometres and most of the Arabian peninsula. This makes it roughly nine times larger than the UK, but with half the population. This means its key cities are widely spaced. The capital of Riyadh and port city of Jeddah, for example, lie just under 1,000 kilometres apart. Thankfully there is an extensive network of airports, including nine with international flights. There is also a modern train network but with only three routes. The easiest way to get around within regions is by car.