Saudi Arabia Opens Doors to Shooting on Location for TV and Film

VERDICT: AlUla and NEOM have no shortage of filming locations: vast deserts and sand dunes, mountains and valleys, lakes, coastlines and ancient ruins.

In the last three years, Saudi Arabia has attracted a good slice of the post-Covid international film production scene – producers who invest their time, talent and effort on its territory and launch aggressive marketing and investing campaigns in industry circles worldwide.

In 2020 Saudi Arabia’s Royal Commission for AlUla established Film AlUla led by Stephen Strachan, an industry expert and veteran producer. This is one of several government initiatives aimed at promoting cultural and touristic collaborations with the outside world, ending 35 years of conservative societal and religious restrictions on culture and media, gender segregation, and female participation in public life. Yet the country was not a stranger to the entertainment business in these years, producing a great deal of content for mass TV consumption. And despite the movie ban, some pictures were partially filmed in the kingdom, including Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Malcolm X (1992).

AlUla is not the only Saudi giga-project. NEOM, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s trillion-dollar futuristic fund, also seeks to establish a regional center for creative industries, supporting international and local projects and establishing connections with media schools.

Taking note of the logistical and bureaucratic (and sometimes security) challenges faced by international film crews in Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, Film AlUla and NEOM appear focused on establishing a suitable infrastructure for the film industry in the northwestern part of the country. Incentives to shoot in Saudi Arabia include providing and renting equipment, easier visa requirements and access, production and location scouting support, and offering to finance 40% of the budget of films shot in the country.

AlUla and NEOM are betting on their diverse filming locations, vast desert, mountainous areas, valleys, lakes, coastlines, dunes, and ancient ruins. Since 2022 several films have been shot in various genres that include action, thriller, horror and war dramas.

Following the success of Anthony and Joe Russo’s war drama Cherry, parts of which were shot in AlUla and the country’s economic capital, Riyadh, more productions are expected to benefit from the industry- and foreign-friendly environment the Kingdom has been establishing.

As an example of international production, the American action thriller Kandahar directed by Ric Roman Waugh was shot in AlUla and Jeddah. Gerard Butler plays an undercover CIA agent fleeing Iran to a pick-up point in Afghanistan’s notorious Kandahar, as he joins forces with his local translator (played by Navid Negahban).

Another production is Darren Lynn Bousman’s English- and Arabic-language tentpole Cello starring Jeremy Irons and Tobin Bell, along with an international cast and production team. Currently in post-production, the film is expected to be released this year.

Another much-awaited mega-production is British director Rupert Wyatt’s Desert Warrior spearheaded by Captain America star Anthony Mackie. Shot with NEOM, the film is produced by MBC, the kingdom’s most prominent media and entertainment company in the pre-2018 years, and AGC Studios of Hollywood. Mackie plays a bandit in 7th century Arabia who unites conflicting tribes and takes arms against the ruthless armies of Emperor Kisra (played by Ben Kingsley).

On the TV front, high-end shows including Rise of The Witches, being touted as the biggest-budget Saudi Arabian TV series to date, The Devil’s Promise, created by U.K. writer Tony Jordan, and crime thriller 1001 Nights are currently being produced by Dubai-based broadcaster and streamer MBC

The Saudi-owned company is currently working on 65 projects in various stages. Rise of The Witches is based on a Saudi novel described by Barnett as a fantasy set 1,500 years ago, with a strong female empowerment theme.

The storyline of the show, written by British actor and writer Charlie Higson (the “Young Bond” novel series), who worked in tandem with two female Saudi writers on Witches, tracks the rise of two witches’ covens that ultimately go to war with each other.

Emmy-nominated Irish director Declan O’Dweyer (Free Rein) and the U.K.’s Craig Pickles (London Kills) are directing the Witches series, with Dominic Barlow (The Last Kingdom) serving as show runner and producer along with Rasha AlEmam for MBC Studios.

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