Saudi soap breaks taboos and triggers debate on society

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Time: June 16, 2018

The first hint that Saudi viewers were in for a Ramadan shock was when a woman left a child by a mosque because he was born out of wedlock.

More was to follow. The lead character, the son of a middle class family living in Riyadh, began an affair with his neighbour’s wife and later cavorted with friends during boozy nights of music and dancing.

The scenes played out in a Saudi soap opera broadcast during the Muslim holy month, traditionally a time when families gather around their televisions for light entertainment. But Al-Asouf was different — set in the 1970s it sought to portray a period when society in the ultra-conservative kingdom was far more liberal. It broke taboos and triggered a storm of controversy.

Critics said it did not offer a true representation of the period and promoted immoral behaviour. “The matter is serious and ugly. They are calling for adultery, incest, betraying one’s neighbour and sleeping with his wife,” said Abdulaziz al-Fouzan, a conservative cleric, in an interview on Saudi-owned television.

Nasser al-Gassabi, the actor who played the lead character and is the main creative force behind the soap, dismissed the criticism and alluded to implicit backing of the kingdom’s key power: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is pledging to modernise the conservative nation.

It portrays a rather dramatic shift away from Saudi religious orthodoxy as being authentically Saudi

“The crown prince’s talk was a big supporter. It reaffirmed where we were going,” he told Saudi media.

He was alluding to Prince Mohammed’s promises of restoring Saudi Arabia to what the young royal says was a more tolerant society before 1979. That was the year the Islamic revolution in Iran sent shockwaves across the Middle East, and, in the view of some Saudis, was the precursor to the rise of the kingdom’s “Islamic awakening” movement.

“We were not like this before. We will just return to what we used to be, moderate Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and peoples,” Prince Mohammed told a conference in Riyadh in October.

But the controversy sparked by Al-Asouf underlines the challenges Prince Mohammed faces in shaping the narrative of change and presenting a softer image of a deeply religious society with a powerful clergy. Music concerts are now held regularly, cinemas opened for the first time in April and this month a decades-long ban on women driving will be lifted.

Experts said contextualising Riyadh’s grandiose modernisation plans in historical terms was an effective communication strategy.

Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, described the idea of reverting Saudi Arabia to its pre-1979 status as “dubious history but brilliant messaging”.

“It portrays a rather dramatic shift away from Saudi religious orthodoxy as being authentically Saudi. And it has the added benefit of casting the blame for Islamic radicalism on rival Iran,” she said. “I expect this will continue to be a master narrative for the new Saudi Arabia accommodating the turn toward ‘moderate Islam’ and supporting nationalist aims.”

Al-Asouf has been airing on a channel owned by the Middle Broadcasting Center. The channel, which is planning a second and third series, has long been a target for attacks by religious conservatives who accused it of spreading western and liberal values. MBC recently came under government control after its founder was among the hundreds of businessmen, royals and government officials rounded up and detained at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh as part of Prince Mohammed’s contentious anti-corruption drive.

While the series was written and produced before the 32-year-old prince made his comments on pre-1979 Saudi Arabia, people in show business said it would not be surprising if its creators received hints on which direction the country was heading.

“I don’t think that someone from the royal court called MBC and told them ‘let’s do a show like that’, but they probably got a green light from under the table,” said Abdulmohsen al-Mutairi, a local film director.

Still, some people said even if the ultimate goal of such series was to dismantle extremist ideology, it should not be done by depicting the country’s past in an unflattering light.

“Talking about stories like this at a time when the country is going through a sensitive period could open opportunities for any outsider, foreigner or conspirator to use it to target the kingdom and attacks it,” Ali al-Guhais, a Dubai-based editor of Saudi daily al-Riyadh, wrote in a recent comment article.

This article was first published in The Financial Times

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