Saudi Arabia bans controversial series

Can the kingdom build a vibrant entertainment ecosystem when the government is both producer and regulator?

Saudi Arabia’s media regulator has banned a local television series that sparked a fierce debate after depicting a marriage between a woman and a 15-year-old boy. The series, called “Dhahaya Halal” (translated as “Halal Victims”), began streaming last month on Shahid VIP, a video on demand platform owned by the Arab world’s largest media conglomerate MBC Group.

The General Commission for Audiovisual Media said the producers of the series have failed to obtain the required permits and the content violated the kingdom’s regulations. The commission ordered the company to stop streaming the show and remove any promotional materials for it from social media. The first four episodes released earlier are no longer available on the service after MBC took them down.

The series plot reportedly follows the story of five women who depend on a matchmaker to arrange secret marriages, commonly known as misyar, for them. Scenes featuring one of the lead female characters having intimate bedroom conversations with her schoolboy husband elicited angry responses from viewers online who accused MBC of promoting paedophilia.

MBC, which has come under government control after the Ritz-Carlton anti-corruption campaign, has been trying to push the envelope with its subscription-based Shahid VIP platform to fend off competition from international streaming services like Netflix. This was not the only time that the Dubai-based group, which recently underwent a management reshuffle that saw longtime chief executive Sam Burnett return after a brief departure, found itself under fire in the last few days. 

Earlier this week MBC released the trailer for “Rashash”, a crime drama series based on the true story of Rashash al-Otaibi, a criminal young man who was involved in murder and drug trafficking. Created by top British television screenwriter Tony Jordan of EastEnders fame, the group says the multimillion-dollar show, set in the 1980s and filmed in the UAE, is “the biggest production by a streaming platform in the region so far.”

It is not scheduled to premiere until January 21st, but as soon as the trailer was published on social media on Sunday it was received with a furious reaction by members of the Otaiba tribe who believe the show is meant to insult them and incite tribal strife by highlighting the story of their son who was was eventually caught by the Saudi police. “We express our vehement condemnation of the toxic content broadcast by these channels targeting national security and the stability of our kingdom,” said a statement attributed to the tribe.

MBC said the show writers had exclusive access to the archives of the interior ministry’s criminal investigation of Rashash who escaped to Yemen but was later handed over to the kingdom and publicly executed in 1989 in Riyadh. His mother told al-Watan daily that they were not asked for permission to bring the story to television and called for banning the show.

“Every family should be entitled to some privacy. Rashash got what he deserved. His story receded into the past and no one knows about it except his family,” the mother told the newspaper. “To disseminate his story like this without the family’s permission is a violation of privacy.”

Despite the family's pleas and the tribe’s campaign against the “Rashash”, it is highly unlikely that MBC would cancel the eight-part series, especially considering the resources they put into it and how they received cooperation from the authorities to produce it. Senior government officials have even taken the unusual step of using their Twitter accounts to openly promote it and urge people to subscribe to the Shahid VIP service, which MBC says has more than one million paying customers.

Judging by how they coped with criticism and calls for boycott in the past, I don’t think that MBC, as a general rule, minds being at the centre of public debate because that usually brings more attention and eyeballs for their products. But the controversy surrounding their latest shows raises some new interesting questions about the red lines that artists must navigate as they try to create engaging content for streaming services to be consumed by local viewers who are increasingly accustomed to the high production standards set by the likes of Disney and HBO. How far can writers, actors, producers and directors go before a powerful individual, a tribe or a certain segment of society take offence?

Two years ago, I broke the story about Netflix removing an episode of Hasan Minhaj’s show at the request of Saudi authorities. More recently, an Oscar-winning director said major streaming services had not picked up his documentary about Jamal Khashoggi because they don’t want to risk losing market share in the growing Saudi market. If international stars are struggling with incidents like these, what does that mean for local talents? 

These questions will become more pressing as Saudi Arabia continues its push to expand the arts and entertainment sector as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plan to diversify the economy and liberalise society. They are further complicated by the fact that the region’s largest media groups, MBC and Rotana, are now both under government control. This will repeatedly lead to awkward situations where government-backed productions that aim to be daring and groundbreaking are being regulated –or banned– by another government entity tasked with protecting social values and norms.

Arts need freedom in order to flourish, but people in the budding creative industry want you to believe they can have it both ways: enjoy government support and adapt to government control. It is a very delicate balance to achieve, and I believe it would be extremely hard to maintain in the long run.

Gulf deal follow-up

Saudi media have widely welcomed the agreement to end the Gulf crisis, saying the decision shows the kingdom’s leadership as the GCC largest country. Jeddah-based daily Okaz said Thursday in an editorial that all Gulf states should learn from the experience, calling the success of al-Ula summit a “painful hit to the Turkish and Iranian regimes” that would limit their interference in the domestic affairs of Arab countries.

However, Qatar Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman says his country won’t change its ties with Iran or Turkey after the deal to end the dispute with neighbours, offering the latest indication that the gas-rich state has not made many major concessions to secure the agreement. “Bilateral relationships are mainly driven by a sovereign decision of the country… [and] the national interest”, he told the Financial Times. “So there is no effect on our relationship with any other country”.

The United Arab Emirates has been seen as the most reluctant party among the so-called “quartet” to embrace the agreement, but Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said he expects re-establishing full relations with Qatar, including the return of diplomatic missions, within one week. “The UAE is behind this deal, positive about re-establishing relations with Qatar within the GCC context”, he said in a media briefing. “We want to do this faster rather than slower”.

One thing officials and analysts from all countries have been keen to emphasise in their post-summit comments is that there are no losers and all countries are “winners” as a result of the agreement, with several Saudi columnists claiming that Qatar has quietly addressed many of the grievances that the quartet had and it was time to move on.

“The problem grows and becomes impossible to solve when we raise expectations in the real world that has its own considerations, and the reconciliation may not satisfy all our wishes but it remains a positive step for all, and maybe other steps will follow it in the coming months to raise the degree of cooperation between these five countries, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain,” wrote Abdulrahman al-Rashed, former editor of Saudi-owned daily Asharq al-Awsat.

Now compare the above with this column by the same writer from June 2017: “Taking into consideration Qatar’s irrational policies, it is made clear that the logic behind the decision-making is impossible to grasp, let alone arriving to a truce with its government,” he wrote then. “During what is perceived as critical times, the Doha approach threatens to dismantle the last of whatever stability the Middle East has known since World War II. The method adopted by Qatari authorities is short to delirious—or what could be loosely put as a ‘nut job’.”

Time has a strange tendency to put things in perspective, I guess.

American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has welcomed the agreement, saying the United States “hope the Gulf countries will continue to reconcile their differences.” But observers say trying to start relations with the incoming Biden administration on better terms might have been a stronger factor behind the decision to end the rift.

Relatedly, activists and families of detained Saudis told AFP they fear that authorities are rushing their trials to use their cases as bargaining chips with Biden. The agency was told by someone connected to the activists that trials were being speeded up now to simply “close the files”, but a Saudi source close to the kingdom’s leadership said rulers were “determined not to be pressured on this issue, so I don't see room for bargaining here”.

One of the most prominent names on trial is preacher Salman al-Oudah. His US-based son Abdullah last month wrote an op-ed in the New York Times calling on Biden to save his father, saying his physical and mental health severely deteriorated after three years in solitary confinement. Abdullah says his father, who faces charges including inflaming society against the rulers and stirring up unrest, was arrested over a tweet in which he prayed for reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar when the crisis broke out in 2017.

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