Saudi Arabia’s New Journey in Anime
After a busy weekend at Saudi Arabia’s movie theaters last November, a live-action superhero film starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson yielded the top box office spot to a cartoon. The Japanese anime movie One Piece Film: Red had enjoyed the second biggest opening weekend of any animated movie in the Kingdom, drawing 61,000 moviegoers and grossing over $1 million.
Japanese-style anime isn’t new in Saudi Arabia. The shows first became popular in the 1970s and 1980s, when Arabic-dubbed versions of Japanese cartoons became popular children’s fare around the Middle East. Today, Saudi Arabia has the largest anime fanbase in the region, and a thriving industry has emerged to seize on the interest of the new generation. Viewers have their choice of streaming platforms like newly released AnimeKey or MBC’s Shahid, which added an additional 200 hours of Japanese anime content in December 2022. During Riyadh Season last October, thousands of young Saudis descended on the Riyadh Front Exhibition and Convention Center for the third annual Saudi Anime Expo.
But Saudis are not only watching Japanese-style entertainment. They’re making it, too—and the state is getting involved. At the forefront is Manga Productions, a firm owned by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s MiSK foundation. In 2021, the company collaborated with Toei Animation, one of Japan’s top animation studios. The pair produced The Journey, an award-winning anime movie that portrays a legendary pre-Islamic battle over the city of Mecca. The groundbreaking production offered Saudi audiences a glimpse of stories told from their perspective using a popular foreign medium. Meanwhile, a state-owned firm held the pen.
As imported entertainment options have flourished under MBS, they have helped erode the Saudi state’s ability to shape public culture. Anime (as well as manga comic books) are already wildly popular in Saudi Arabia and the wider region. With Manga Productions openly seeking to “transfer content development technologies from experienced countries to Saudi Arabia” and CEO Essam Bukhary publicly talking of “exporting our culture,” the firm isn’t hiding its intentions. As anime’s popularity grows, the state’s engagement in the production of Arabic anime content represents a new effort to shape the narrative at home and abroad.