Japan’s need for energy security has long driven relations with the Gulf states, but, under the banner of economic diplomacy, Gulf-Japan ties are diversifying.
“Al-Asouf” (Winds of Change) returned to MBC, the Middle East Broadcasting Center, for a second Ramadan season continuing the story of Riyadh developer Khalid, played by famous Saudi actor Nasser Al Qasabi. The series takes place in a traditional Najdi household, in the heart of Saudi Arabia, with most of the scenes occurring inside the home. The show is an homage to simpler times before the oil boom and, despite political undertones, the main storylines focus on the family dynamics. It portrays a traditional but relaxed Saudi society, in an attempt to show a more tolerant “modern past” prior to 1979. The show folds seamlessly into the current mainstream Saudi media narrative, as the country focuses on developing its homegrown industries and nationalist rhetoric.
The second season of “Al-Asouf” picks up from the previous season, with the Sahwa, or “awakening,” movement in Saudi Arabia growing in influence in the kingdom as the historic events of 1979 unfold. As the show progresses, some members of Khalid’s family and community are drawn under the influence of the Sahwa movement – they are seen smashing televisions, calling for jihad in Afghanistan, and asking the women of the households to wear gloves and cover fully.
The production depicts historic events such as the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat following the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, and the Iranian Revolution and ascendance of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as resulting from the increasing influence of the Sahwa movement. During the pivotal 15th episode, the audience watches as the protagonist, Khalid, walks into the Grand Mosque in Mecca. As he begins to pray, the mosque is suddenly taken over by militants vowing to take back the “true Islam.” A Hollywood-style re-enactment of the siege of Mecca follows through a chilling portrayal of Juhayman Al-Otaybi, the militant who led the seizure of the Grand Mosque in 1979.
The common thread running throughout the show is that the ideology of the Sahwa movement, with its strong anti-Western rhetoric, ultra conservative views on women, and intolerance, had a deep and damaging effect on an entire generation of Saudis, Saudi society, and the region.
Conservative clerics such as Abdulrahman al-Nasser and Abdulbaset Qari have criticized the show saying it promotes “disastrous values” and spreads “immorality” due to some scenes depicting infidelity and gender mixing. Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a prominent Saudi columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat, rebutted the criticism arguing that, “Extremists are against it [‘Al-Asouf’] because they believe it is an attempt to destroy what they built over the next two decades [since 1979], which they refer to as the ‘awakening.'” Despite such controversy, the show has been widely popular. It has reinforced the reigning narrative inside the kingdom that condemns extreme hard-liners for leading the country toward a more intolerant society.
The Ramadan series is just part of broader media message carrying a re-examination of the Sahwa movement. On the first day of Ramadan, Aid al-Qarni, a former Sahwa member, publicly apologized for the Sahwa movement. He stated in a television interview that, “I now support the moderate Islam that the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has advocated, which is also our true religion.” Additionally, Adil al-Kalbani, a prominent religious figure and former imam of the Grand Mosque, publicly took back some of his inflammatory comments, such as those claiming Shias were apostates. In fact, his public stance on many issues has changed so drastically that he has even gone as far as to say that gender segregation in mosques is a phobia in Saudi society, arguing that men and women prayed together in the time of the Prophet Muhammad.
Key phrases such as “moderate Islam” and bringing back the “true religion” are common under the leadership of the young Saudi crown prince. In an interview with “60 Minutes” in March 2018, Mohammed bin Salman said that “Saudi Arabia and the entire region went through a revival after 1979. All we’re doing is going back to what we are: a moderate Islam.” In 2017, many prominent members of the Sahwa movement were imprisoned. Saudi cleric Salman al-Odah was arrested for his involvement in the movement in 1994, though he later shifted his public position and had a prominent television show on MBC watched throughout the Arab world. The show was canceled in 2011. Despite public apologies by some clerics, under the crown prince, the messaging has been clear: Those who were involved in the Sahwa movement led the country astray from its true religious values and must face repercussions.
The use of Ramadan soap operas to project political messaging is not new. In fact, the most widespread Ramadan soap operas have traditionally been from Egypt, a country that is no stranger to the use of television to reinforce political messaging. Under Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule in the 1960s, soap operas with political undertones and social messaging were prominent. The shows were used to promote a nationalist and cohesive agenda.
The significance of “Al-Asouf” goes beyond the anti-Sahwa component and shows a desire to continue to invest in a sustainable homegrown film and production industry and foster local talent in the kingdom. There has been a conscious push to use local Saudi talent and the local dialect. For the past decades, the most popular Ramadan television series were from Egypt and the Levant; the shift toward Gulf shows has been supported by the Saudi government through formal ministries, authorities, and well-funded initiatives. “Al-Asouf,” which is filmed in the Najdi dialect, directly caters to the domestic Saudi population while also expanding the traditionally more geographically isolated dialect throughout the Arab world. The Saudi crown prince’s nationalist agenda has focused on opening more opportunities to Saudi citizens, particularly in the arts and culture sector.
The “Saudi First” narrative has also shaped the entertainment industry, from the Ramadan series to the expansion of Saudi sitcoms and a well-financed startup film sector. As tensions have increased between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, local television has also reflected the messaging of the Saudi government. Historically, Turkish soap operas dubbed in Arabic have been popular throughout the Arab world. In March, Gulf giant networks such as MBC pulled popular soap operas such as “Ezel” and “Noor” and stopped streaming Turkish shows as a reaction to political tensions.
The use of film and television is a strong tool to expand the kingdom’s soft power and builds upon a creative renaissance that predated the announcement of the crown prince’s Vision 2030. Independent films such as “Wadjda” and “Barakah Meets Barakah” were made by Saudis prior to the first cinemas reopening. Today, the government has embraced homegrown filmmakers and has established multiple film initiatives under the new Ministry of Culture and General Entertainment Authority. Additionally, Saudi Arabia’s minister of culture, Prince Badr bin Abdullah, announced that Saudi Arabia would host the Red Sea International Film Festival in 2020. The ministry has also set up several foundations to fund and assist films being made inside Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia isn’t alone in using Ramadan television to strengthen social campaigns and national unity. As film and television continue to expand inside Saudi Arabia, there will likely be an increase in Saudi-produced shows and films in the Saudi dialect. The pivot toward a Saudi nationalist agenda will undoubtedly be reflected in further investment in Saudi productions portraying the aspirations of Saudis in a manner consistent with the direction championed by the Saudi government. Television and media are optimal means of communicating with constituents, and Saudi Arabia is utilizing them to convey its messaging.
is currently pursuing her master’s degree at Columbia University. She previously served as programs and outreach assistant at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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