BEIRUT – As families across Saudi Arabia wrap up their Ramadan feasts and settle in for an evening of TV under the Covid-19 curfew, a new star-studded sitcom is moving the goalposts in how the kingdom presents Israel.
In Exit 7, veteran Saudi actor Nasser al-Qasabi plays Dukhi, an older civil servant in the kingdom working to keep up with the changing society around him.
The show touches on issues like LGBT rights, advocated by his daughter, to women holding senior positions in the workplace, such as Dukhi’s own boss.
But the scene which has turned heads is one in which the protagonist’s father-in-law brushes off the taboo of doing business with Israelis.
“You told him the Israelis are right, and that you’ll do business with them?” demands Dukhi in episode three.
“So what. So what?” the father-in-law Jaber retorts in English, then in Arabic.
“So what!” Dukhi, who symbolizes a more traditional Arab generation, responds incredulously, eyebrows raised.
“Yes,” the character played by Rasheed al-Shamrani confirms, nodding his head and grinning.
Dukhi argues back, insisting that the Israelis are the “enemy.”
“The real enemy is the one who doesn’t appreciate your stance with him,” Jaber retorts.
“Everything in our lives has revolved around Palestine … We turned off the oil for Palestine,” he says, referring to the 1973 Arab oil embargo, when Saudi Arabia cut off supplies to the United States and other nations in retaliation for their military support to Israel during the Yom Kippur War.
Jaber continues, complaining that money spent on paying the salaries of the Palestinian Authority, which administers the West Bank, would have been better spent on priorities at home.
“And whenever they find an opportunity this small,” he says holding his fingers a sliver apart, “they attack Saudi Arabia.”
The protagonist offers an equivocal defense of the Palestinians, but one which is also loaded with controversy. He argues that, just as there were Palestinians who were “expelled in 1948 and subjected to massacres,” there were others who “sold their land” to Jewish settlers.
The allegation that Palestinians willingly sold their land on a notable scale has long been disseminated to the masses in Egypt and employed as a popular defense of its peace treaty with Israel.
Could the Saudi series be a harbinger of things to come?
From the top
Exit 7 was produced by the pan-Arab satellite channel MBC, which is based in Dubai and controlled by the Saudi government.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was believed to be in talks to acquire the channel when he imprisoned its chairman and founder Waleed al-Ibrahim at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh in November 2017.
When Ibrahim was finally allowed to fly back to Dubai the following May, it was revealed he had handed over a majority 60% stake of MBC Group to the monarchy.
With the station firmly under the thumb of the kingdom and its de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman, its mass appeal Ramadan programming offered a new venue for influence.
The most stark example of this came in the summer of 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Arab allies launched a pressure campaign against rival Qatar.
The network quickly cobbled together an episode of the hit show Selfie critiquing the Qataris, also featuring Nasser al-Qasabi.
“They shot it very quickly, because the crisis started in Ramadan, and before the end of the month they were able to put something together,” recalled Gulf states analyst Nabeel Nowairah.
“That was very clear … That came from the high levels of the government,” the Washington-based analyst told Asia Times.
That is not to say that all, or even most scripts, are pushed by the royal court, says Nowairah, who points out the show’s writer Khalaf al-Harbi is known to broach controversial topics.
But content as sensitive as touching on the normalization of Saudi relations with Israel necessarily comes with “a yellow light.”
“You cannot talk about these things unless they’re approved by some agency or another. So it has the blessing of MBS in some way,” he said.
In the case of Exit 7, the show’s content appears to jibe with the vision and words of the Saudi crown prince, and the direction of the Gulf states more generally.
Since assuming the role of crown prince, MBS has promoted a new form of Saudi nationalism, manifested in state-promoted slogans like “Saudi Arabia first.”
“The new nationalist narrative is not simply a spontaneous grassroots movement but a state-led initiative under the auspices of the crown prince,” writes Saudi scholar Madawi al-Rashid.
“The prince is determined to turn young Saudis into champions of the new nationalism.”
MBS notably spoke of the “right” of the Jewish people to ancestral land during a US tour in the spring of 2018 and blamed the Palestinians for missed opportunities during a closed-door meeting with Jewish leaders.
Should the Palestinians reject the Trump administration’s blueprint for their future governance, the so-called Deal of the Century, they will have to “shut up and stop complaining,” the young prince reportedly said.
Months later, in October of 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a dramatic surprise visit to the late Sultan Qaboos of Oman. The same week, the United Arab Emirates had gone public with its Israel ties, inviting Youth and Sports Minister Miri Regev to Abu Dhabi to attend a judo competition and playing the Israeli national anthem.
Given these developments, it may be that Exit 7 is merely keeping up with the times and topics of the day, without any prompting.
Like business dealings with Israel, hot button social issues like LGBT and women’s rights are being presented by the Ramadan hit as open for discussion in the new Saudi Arabia, even as activism and dissent grow increasingly dangerous.
“One [aspect] is preparing the society for what’s going to come next,” said Nowaireh.
“If you start talking about it, you’re breaking a barrier.”