Oprah? On the Arab Peninsula? Land of Mecca, veils and the fashion police? Bear with me. This could be fun.
Shaquille O'Neal, Arab Star
Dial up the English version of MBC, the Dubai-based Arab satellite network, which at last count broadcasts four channels to the Arab Peninsula. What do you see? "[S]tarting January 20, at 19:00 GMT (22:00 KSA), 'Shaq's Big Challenge' ... In this TV show, NBA superstar, father, and role model to millions Shaquille O'Neal embarks on a quest to wipe out childhood obesity and get America's kids on a healthy track." (KSA, by the way, stands for Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, so instead of saying 10 p.m. Mountain Time or 9 p.m. Pacific, as do American networks, MBC says "KSA" for its Saudi viewers.)
Other promos of the week include bits for "As Good As It Gets" (the Jack Nicholson flick), "Dodgeball" and "The Good Thief," and that's just a few of the movies on offer. The series are even more surprising, if your assumption about Arab viewership tends to the al-Jazeeraesque.
Oprah and DR. Phil, Twice a Day
The schedule for next Monday goes something like this: "CBS Evening news," "Elvis Has Left the Building," "Nightline," "Good Morning America" (admittedly, the sequence is quite imaginative), "Jeopardy," "Days of Our Lives," and every day at 2:15 p.m., "Dr. Phil," followed by "Oprah," both of whom are on again at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. (KSA time), after a run of "Still Standing," "Grounded for Life," "House" and "Dawson's Creek." Every show is broadcast in English with Arabic subtitles.
Here are even more startling bits: MBC is Saudi owned, and its target audience is Saudi women, even though, officially, satellite television is banned in Saudi Arabia. In the Arab world though, there's the official line, then there's what everyone really does. And what 80 percent of Saudi households do is own a satellite dish or two (or three or four: the Saudi tendency toward excess is well known in the region, especially in energy consumption, which is the highest, in the world, per capita).
When Oprah Featured Saudi Domestic Abuse
So here's Oprah, officially reviled in the Saudi press, lustily beloved by young Saudi audiences behind closed doors, likely making the daily query--"did you see Oprah yesterday?"--as common, per capita, in Saudi Arabia as it is in Kansas. This is quite a coup for the Dubai station. And for Oprah, mind you. In 2005 Oprah had a show called "Women Across the Globe," which celebrated great womrn in about a dozen time zones. One of the featured profiles was that of Rania al-Baz, a popular television host and mother of two who was also the victim of an all-too common practice in Saudi Arabia: wife-beating. (The practice is, sadly, if reluctantly, endorsed by the Quran.) Except that Rania al-Baz chose to publicize her plight. As Oprah's site described it,
Gruesome photographs of Rania's injuries were printed in newspapers worldwide. She became the first Saudi woman ever to publicly show her battered face. Her husband was convicted of severe battery and sentenced to six months in jail and 300 lashes. In publicizing her private struggle, Rania became the first face of domestic violence in Saudi Arabia. The story of her beating and courage swept the globe.And for that, the Saudi press went medieval on Oprah's America. "Oprah is like a sieve that tells the needle that it has a hole in it," Hayat Al-'Abd Al-'Aziz, a Saudi columnist for al-Riyadh newspaper, wrote. "It would have been better if she had spent the time and money for this segment on doing a service to her own society, and on revealing the
Lubna Hussein in the always more progressive Arab News took a more nuanced approach to her criticism:
It was this newspaper that dared to pursue the case of Rania Al-Baz last summer, and brought it to public attention. Such reportage is utterly important and absolutely necessary for a society such as ours that is experiencing a period of transformation. I am a firm believer in speaking the truth, no matter how hard it may be to swallow or come to terms with. We have come an awfully long way in a relatively short period of time. Subjects that were considered taboo and issues that smacked of social stigma are being addressed openly and publicly. This shows our determination and willingness to confront our shortcomings and failings. Yes, we have domestic abuse. Yes, there are unsavory elements that live in our society too. Yes, there are women and children who have been subjected to mental and physical torture. But no, this does not define us as a society. What concerns me is the manner in which the outside world looks upon the evolutionary process that we are experiencing. It is as if we are damned if we do and damned if we don't.And yet this remains just as true: In Saudi society, where a third of the population of 26 million is women under age 25, "Oprah" is MBC's top-rated show.
Next page:Arab Television As an Instrument of Social Change?