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DUBAI (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia said on Monday that public cinemas would be allowed in the conservative kingdom for the first time in over 35 years, and that the first ones were likely to open next March.

Cinemas were banned in the early 1980s under pressure from Islamists as Saudi society turned towards a restrictive form of the religion that discouraged public entertainment and many forms of mixing between men and women.

Under reforms led by 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the government is easing many of those restrictions, and also plans to lift a ban on women driving next year. It says the economy, hit hard by low oil prices, will benefit from the growth of an entertainment industry.

"Opening cinemas will act as a catalyst for economic growth and diversification," said Minister of Culture and Information Awwad bin Saleh Alawwad. "By developing the broader cultural sector we will create new employment and training opportunities, as well as enriching the Kingdom’s entertainment options."

By 2030, Saudi Arabia is expected to open over 300 cinemas with more than 2,000 screens, a government statement said, predicting the cinema industry would contribute over 90 billion riyals ($24 billion) to the economy and create 30,000 permanent jobs by 2030.

Regional cinema chain operators are already believed to be studying entry into Saudi Arabia, industry sources said.

A commission chaired by Alawwad will announce details of licencing and regulations over the next few weeks, the government said.

(Reporting by Sami Aboudi and Andrew Torchia; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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Reuters