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May 22, 2020

Saudi Ramazan TV dramas invite scrutiny of Israel ties


May 22, 2020

RIYADH: Two Ramazan television dramas on a Saudi-controlled network have stirred controversy as they test public perceptions of quietly warming relations between the Gulf kingdom and Israel.

Arab states including Saudi Arabia have no official diplomatic ties with Israel, but both sides are pursuing what one think tank calls a "tepid dance" to furtively build relations on the basis of shared animosity towards Iran.

Now, two taboo-busting series during the holy fasting month -- the peak television season -- have fuelled speculation that Riyadh is trying to openly normalise closer ties with the Jewish state.

A young character in "Exit 7", which depicts the journey of a middle-class family through a rapidly modernising Saudi Arabia, raised eyebrows when he befriended an Israeli boy through an online video game.

In another controversial scene, one of the Saudi characters justifies establishing trade ties with Israel, arguing that Palestinians are the real "enemy" for insulting the kingdom "day and night" despite decades of financial support.

Another show called "Umm Haroun", or the mother of Haroun, portrays a Jewish community in a village in Kuwait during the 1940s.

Social media imploded with scathing criticism of the shows, with multiple Twitter users saying their aim was to promote "normalisation with Israel".

The shows are produced by the influential Arab satellite network MBC, effectively under Saudi government control after its founder -- media mogul Waleed al-Ibrahim -- was detained with other elite businessmen at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel in a 2017 anti-corruption campaign.

They stand in contrast to "The End", a popular Egyptian sci-fi drama that provoked fury in Israel after it predicted the collapse of the Jewish state.

MBC said its shows were among the most popular during Ramadan, garnering top ratings.

"The Middle East has been stereotyped for decades as a region of fear, bloodshed, hatred, extremism," MBC spokesman Mazen Hayek told AFP.

"The shows have sought to project another image of the region that embodies hope, tolerance, inter-religious dialogue. The accusation of ‘normalisation’ is a bit outdated in the context of globalisation and hyper connectivity."

Observers, however, say the shows may be an attempt to normalise the debate on normalisation.

"These shows are useful for the Saudi state to understand where people stand on Israel and Palestine," said Aziz Alghashian, a lecturer at Essex University specialising in the kingdom’s foreign policy towards Israel.

"These shows function as a gauging tool and feel out peoples’ reactions."

This is hardly the first such attempt.

Earlier this year, the kingdom announced the screening of a Holocaust-themed film for the first time at a movie festival, before it was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Multiple Saudi media columnists have shrugged off the MBC controversy, reiterating the kingdom’s official stance that a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a precondition for normalising ties.

But relations appear to be warming regardless, in a shift spearheaded by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.