While Ramadan gatherings may be on hold, the tradition of Ramadan soap operas is on full display. As Saudi Arabia’s film and television industry develops under new government-sponsored initiatives, Saudi Ramadan series provide insight into the social changes occurring inside the kingdom.
Prime-time specials aired in Saudi Arabia during Ramadan often float changes in social norms and traditional attitudes. Last Ramadan, the Saudi-owned MBC network aired “Al Asouf,” a look back at 1979. The series garnered significant media attention as it covered controversial topics surrounding the takeover of the Grand Mosque in that year.
This year, MBC’s prime-time Ramadan special is “Exit 7.” The series follows the life of a government worker, played by Saudi actor Nasser Al Qasabi, as he tries to navigate the changes impacting societal norms in the kingdom. Shot in Riyadh and in the Najdi dialect, the program follows the father as he struggles to adapt to what is portrayed as the “new normal.”
A New Saudi Workplace
In the beginning scenes of the series, Qasabi breaks out a new bisht (a traditional men’s cloak) as he prepares for his promotion. He is shocked to learn he is not promoted and will now have a female boss. As he struggles to adjust to the new professional norms, the series echoes narratives that the government has been promoting in recent years surrounding the workplace: doing away with nepotism, and the Saudization of the workforce, in which jobs previously held by non-Saudis are now held by Saudi citizens.
The removal of wasta, or nepotism, to receive promotions or work positions has been the focus of government initiatives in the kingdom. In 2016, Nazaha, the Saudi governmental agency for anti-corruption, named nepotism the most pervasive form of corruption within government sectors. The Saudi government has enacted a series of anti-nepotism and bribery laws, outlawing the use of personal connections for professional gain. In March 2019, a royal decree expanded the scope of anti-bribery laws beyond public officials to include the private sector.
While “Exit 7” does not address bribery, the larger picture showcases a workplace where promotions are merit based. Throughout the series, Qasabi uses humor with his new boss as he struggles to adapt to the changing Saudi workplace. Similarly, his new female boss’ brother struggles to adapt to a mixed gender office. The series portrays the shift in the Saudi workplace in which gender segregation is no longer mandatory and social restrictions are further relaxed.
Additionally, Qasabi is shocked to find out that his daughter, played by Saudi actress Aseel Omran, was seeking marriage to a Saudi delivery boy. Qasabi is hesitant to let his daughter marry a delivery boy and tells his daughter to search for a husband with a profession such as engineering. In another MBC Ramadan special, “Ureem,” the main character, a young Saudi male, is seen working at a niche coffee shop. Previously, many jobs considered low status were reserved for foreign and migrant workers. Although a comedic look at the topic, these series show a transformation in Saudi Arabia. The shift has occurred as a result of Vision 2030’s push to increase job opportunities for nationals to lower the high rate of youth unemployment.
Normalization of Old Taboos
While the workplace environment has shifted rapidly, broader societal norms are also changing. In the beginning episodes of “Exit 7,” the show portrays events surrounding Valentine’s Day, now celebrated by many Saudis. In the past few years, the shift to normalize the day has been indicative of the changes happening inside the kingdom. Following the removal of the mutawa’s (religious police) ability to arrest in 2016, Valentine’s Day has become an openly celebrated event. The show depicts a music filled restaurant showcasing a special Valentine’s Day evening.
Perhaps most shocking to many was the introduction of a newer societal norm, the discussion of the Saudi relationship with Israel. In “Exit 7,” the main character’s son, Ziyad, befriends an Israeli through online gaming. The friendship shocks his father, who is perplexed by the child’s lack of concern. Ziyad laughs at his father’s reaction, revealing the changing perceptions between generations. Ziyad’s uncle eventually confronts his brother, pointing to the potential of commercial ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel and the unequal Saudi relationship with Palestinians. “Exit 7” is not the only Ramadan series that is addressing Israel. Another MBC show, “Umm Haroun,” addresses Jewish roots in the Gulf Arab region during the 1940s. While these shows do not indicate the normalization of political relations, they do suggest a reconsideration of the strict prohibitions against dealing socially and commercially with Israelis and broader religious tolerance in the region.
A New Generation of Saudis
As Saudi Arabia continues to undergo massive social changes, both “Exit 7” and “Ureem” reveal the inevitable generational tensions. The younger characters share a new perspective that is increasingly evident in Saudi life. Characters like Ziyad will never know the mutawa or period when mixed gender workplaces were deemed unacceptable, and he may never share the same attitude as his parents toward Israel. As Saudi Arabia continues to adapt, workplace and societal norms will continue to change. Like the massive youth bulge in the country, Saudi leadership is increasingly young; the crown prince, the foreign minister, and the minister of culture are all examples of the generational leadership shift. As young leaders continue to assume prominent roles, Saudi Arabia’s societal policies also will continue to shift, and this will be reflected in future Ramadan series.