Soap operas have been a Ramadan tradition providing both entertainment and a means of generating public discussion given their broad audience. This year, these TV series were more important than ever, due to public commitment to the stay-at-home orders issued in response to the outbreak of the coronavirus. Two popular Ramadan TV series on the Saudi-owned MBC network, “Um Haroun” and “Exit 7,” broached the controversial issues of Jewish coexistence and social normalization with Israel in an unprecedented fashion, drawing the attention of the international media.
At the same time, these fictional dramas prompted internal debate within the Gulf over their historical presentation of Jews in the Gulf and a frank discussion of interaction with Israelis. Many in the Gulf are questioning the series’ social and political significance, coinciding as they do with signs of more constructive relations with Israel by some Gulf governments.
Testing Public Perceptions on Political and Social Normalization
Opinions have ranged from country to country, which could be explained by the narrative a particular media outlet or state is trying to promote. Countries such as Kuwait, with long-standing Arab nationalist and Islamist legacies, were more suspicious of the series.
On the other hand, the series were better welcomed in countries exploring more cooperative relations with Israel and promoting “religious tolerance,” such as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Indeed, Bahrain was one of the sponsors of “Um Haroun” through the King Hamad Global Center for Peaceful Coexistence. Meanwhile, in Qatar, Al Jazeera and other media outlets were strongly critical of both TV series, calling them “drama with the flavor of ‘normalization,’” which impacted public opinion.
Arguably, two significant camps in Gulf societies have emerged from this discussion: critics who speculate that the series will facilitate social normalization and acceptance of Israel and those who dismiss this. However, there is much nuance to the internal debate among Gulf citizens over these shows, which reveals a lot about how they feel toward breaking the “taboo” on this controversial topic.
Easing the Discussion Over Political Normalization
The two TV series took different approaches and engaged in various levels of debate. “Um Haroun” touched on the issue of religious tolerance and coexistence, while the third episode of “Exit 7” addressed the issue of opening up social interaction and commercial relations with Israel directly.
The “Exit 7” episode ignited controversy for its open discussion of Gulf-Israeli relations, a topic that has been avoided in public spaces for decades. The show featured Nasser al-Qasabi, a prominent Saudi actor, who portrayed the daily life of a Saudi government worker struggling to adapt to new societal norms. In the show, Qasabi has a heated debate with his brother over the potential benefits of commercial ties with Israel. His brother also complains about Palestinians’ ingratitude for what the Saudis have given them, which is a narrative that is gaining more ground nowadays on social media from prominent state supporters in some Gulf countries. The debate was prompted by his discovery that his son was playing an online video game with an Israeli friend. The son laughs at his father’s shocked and critical reaction, suggesting changing generational attitudes toward Israel.
While airing these opposing views, the show stopped short of advocating for normalization. “Anyone who watches the third episode of ‘Exit 7’ can easily understand that it opposes normalization and that the pro-normalization actor was playing the role of a crooked impostor,” said Khalaf al-Harbi, content writer for “Exit 7.” However, the debate itself arguably advances the cause of social normalization and eases the discussion of political normalization. “‘Exit 7’ offers not a green light for normalization with Israel, but perhaps a blinking yellow,” said Nabeel Nowairah, an independent Gulf analyst in Washington, DC.
Anti-normalization groups associated with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement in Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar responded by calling for the boycott of MBC, accusing the Saudi-owned broadcaster of “media normalization.” Moreover, the controversial series prompted the Bahraini Society Against Normalization to announce an online event to discuss the Gulf’s normalization, but it was later canceled by order of official authorities.
Religious Tolerance Perceived as Social Normalization
“Um Haroun,” a TV series that told the story of an elderly Jewish nurse who converted to Islam living in harmony with her Arab neighbors in the Gulf, drew an estimated 113 million viewers from across the Arab world. The production was filmed in the UAE, co-produced by Kuwaiti and UAE-based companies, written by Bahrainis, and aired on Saudi-owned MBC. Yet it set off a heated debate before it even aired, despite the writers urging the audience not to jump to conclusions until the last episode.
Unlike “Exit 7,” “Um Haroun” made no explicit reference to “normalization” with Israel. Still, detractors concluded that the show indirectly pushes toward cultural normalization with Israel due to the favorable portrayal of Jewish characters, which, for many Arabs, is tantamount to a favorable portrayal of Israel itself.
According to Osama al-Shaheen, a Kuwaiti member of Parliament, Kuwait’s communication minister allegedly banned local channels from airing the TV show. “Kuwait is against any cultural, political, or social normalization with the ‘Zionist entity,’” said Shaheen. Others kept an open mind. “Gulf Jews are part of our history, and we shall not judge whether the show promotes normalization or not unless we watch the whole series,” said Yousef al-Mutairi, a historian on Judaism in the Gulf.
The Kuwaiti political scientist Abdullah al-Shayji called it “a stealth attempt to weaponize a mix of entertainment with propaganda through soft power,” using Gulf actors and a Kuwaiti star to influence Arabs’ minds with a narrative of tolerance while promoting coexistence, and hence, normalization. Critics were especially incensed by a scene in the first episode when an Arab radio host declared the establishment of the state of Israel and an end to the British mandate on “Israel,” not “Palestine,” a choice perceived as denying the existence of a Palestinian state. The Bahraini writers Mohammad and Ali Shams denied this was the intent, explaining that the radio was broadcasting from London and thus presenting the pro-Israel British narrative.
The opposition of others was presented in religious terms. In one scene, Dawoud, the rabbi, complained of the injustice and humiliation his people faced since the days of Khaibar, a battle that took place during the era of the Prophet Muhammad. The former head of the Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz al-Tuwaijri, called this “blasphemous.” The victimhood of the Jewish people under the Arabs enforces the Israeli narrative, according to some critics.
However, there is a significant camp that believes “Um Haroun” is just a good story being politicized by different parties. “This is a humanitarian story of people from different sects coexisting peacefully,” said the writers of “Um Haroun.” “Palestine has always been our cause, and we had no political motivations,” the writers added. “Accusing the series of an attempt of normalization is funny,” argued Adhwan al-Ahmari, the Saudi journalist and editor-in-chief of Independent Arabia. “The Arab mind has a problem in differentiating between a heavenly religion and an occupying state,” added Adhwan.
Some young people in the Gulf appreciated the subtleties of the program. “‘Um Haroun’ presents the Gulf Jews as people who are living peacefully and do not need their own country, thus opposing the core idea of Zionism. I admire the diversity even within the same sect in the village, where we see different views within the same family,” said Taghreed alSabeh, a Saudi Ph.D. candidate in political science at Loyola University in Chicago. She noted further that the Zionists who chose Israel over their country were stigmatized in the series, including the main rabbi.
“Um Haroun” also elicited some anti-Semitic responses, which was noted by the Saudi editor of Al Arabiya, Abdulrahman al-Rashed: “The series ‘Um Haroun’ is a test for viewers’ racism against Arab Jews. It is a challenge for the old generation who were weaned on blind hatred for political uses.” A video that depicts Gulf Jews as immoral, dishonest merchants who stirred fitna (strife) in the society went viral on Twitter and What’s App groups. However, Rashed himself sees a shared interest in a friendlier Arab stance toward Israel, in defiance of Iran.
Still, other young people in the Gulf weren’t prepared to ignore the political context surrounding the programs, one that has seen Saudi Arabia shift toward both greater tolerance of Jews and acceptance of Israel. In January, the head of the Saudi-based Muslim World League, Mohammad al-Eisa, visited the Auschwitz concentration camp, leading a joint delegation of Muslim clerics and the American Jewish Committee, which envisions itself as the “leading global Jewish and Israel advocacy organization.” In February, King Salman bin Abdulaziz hosted a rabbi and an Israeli citizen in his formal residence in Riyadh. “Viewing the TV series as a show that tells the historical facts of the region is naive. The series cannot be judged apart from the political context and the TV channel that sends messages of normalization throughout the year,” said Mishaal Tareq, a Kuwaiti graduate student at the American University.
Anti-Normalization Camp Remains Steadfast Among Gulf Nationals
For the most part, the debate surrounding this year’s controversial Ramadan soap operas centered on whether the TV shows promoted social normalization, not on the question of normalization itself. Most proponents of the TV series did not advocate for social and political normalization with Israel or even acknowledge the programs had such an element. Therefore, public opposition to social and political normalization with Israel appears to be holding fast among most nationals, even as some governments allow more room for advocates of Gulf-Israel relations to make their case.