Saudi Arabia has lifted a decades-long ban on commercial cinemas operating in the country as part of ongoing plans to shift away from its current ultra-conservative social policies.

The Gulf nation announced that cinemas will be allowed to operate in the Kingdom for the first time in 35 years as of early 2018, with the government beginning to license some theatres immediately.

The first multiplexes are expected to open in March 2018, with more than 300 cinemas containing 2000 screens expected to be built by 2030.

All cinemas were banned by Saudi Arabia in the early 80s following a wave of ultraconservatism in the country, with hardliners believing films – especially western movies – were a threat to cultural and religious identity.

Saudi Arabia's minister of culture and information Awwad Alawwad said allowing them back into the country marks a "watershed moment in the development of the cultural economy in the kingdom".

He added: "Opening cinemas will act as a catalyst for economic growth and diversification.

"By developing the broader cultural sector we will create new employment and training opportunities, as well as enriching the Kingdom's entertainment options."

The lifting of the ban is one of a number proposed changes in Saudi Arabia by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as part of the country's Vision 2030 reform programme aiming to expand previously restricted social policies, as well as diversify the economy away from oil.

King Salem previously announced that women in the Gulf state will be permitted to hold driving licences following a ban which has been condemned around the world.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world which forbids women from driving and has been highlighted as a key symbol of oppression against women in the Kingdom. The ban was announced in September, but will not be enforced until June 2018.

Elsewhere, women were allowed into the national stadium for the very first time in August and also permitted to attend a concert in the Red Sea city of Jeddah.

saudi cinemas
Saudis attend the opening ceremony of the film festival on March 24, 2016 at the Saudi Cultural Center in Dammam Getty