By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent
There certainly is no love lost between most Middle East countries and the US, where peaceful coexistence is often stormier than two dogs fighting over a juicy bone. Years of bias, perpetrated by American foreign policy, has left a bitter taste in the hearts and minds of the denizens of the Gulf that wonâ€™t easily be washed away by mere â€˜sweet talkâ€™ from the Obama administration. However, politics aside, there is a quiet love affair between the East and West that has only grown more intense over the past few years. Regardless of the innumerable â€˜fatwasâ€™ issued about the evils of the boob tube or outright condemnations by Muslim clerics, western television and cinema is the daily bread of many Gulf residents, and have made an irrevocable mark on the social fabric of the region.
Talk-Diva Oprah Winfreyâ€™s show is just as popular in Kuwait as it is in the suburbs of California. Dramas like â€˜Desperate Housewivesâ€™ and â€˜Greyâ€™s Anatomyâ€™ have Gulf dwellers glued to their television screens, just like their American counterparts, on sofas in the UAE, Oman and Bahrain. And even syndicated shows like â€˜Friendsâ€™ and â€˜Seinfeldâ€™ still resonate with the Gulf audience. And while English is not the primary language spoken in the region, all the programming is made complete with Arabic subtitles at the bottom. A notable side effect of the translation crawler is that many Arab speakers are learning to speak English, courtesy of the western programming.
There are two primary satellite television stations situated in Saudi Arabia and Dubai that send out American programming 24/7 throughout the whole Gulf region. The media giant of the Gulf is known as the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) and is completely financed by Saudi Arabia. The MBC Group has evolved over the years to include 5 separate channels including MBC3 which airs American cartoons dubbed in Arabic, MBC4 which airs American sitcoms and dramas, as well as the newest channel named MBCMax which airs the latest Hollywood blockbusters to grace the silver screen. The second biggest media giant in the Middle East is known as OneTV, which is owned and operated by the UAE. It combines the best of both worlds, to include western sitcoms and movies in its monthly repertoire.
Both media empires compete for viewersâ€™ attention by offering the most sought-after shows without charging a single penny. Unlike the popular Showtime channel, which is the predominant pay channel in the Gulf, and rakes in billions of oil soaked dollars every year from their subscribers. However, thanks to cutthroat advertisers hocking everything from shampoo to cooking oil, the television business is becoming more lucrative in the Gulf than the â€˜black goldâ€™ that lies beneath the land. Advertisers scoop airtime up as fast as it becomes available, much to the chagrin of viewers who have to wait between 4-5 minutes for the commercials to end, with each show having no less than 3 commercial breaks.
Surprisingly, the key to the success of satellite television in the Middle East is censorship, which keeps everyone happy. Scenes depicting intimacy or even a kiss are cut off. Programming dealing with things such as homosexuality or teenage pregnancy is usually not aired. It is really up to the code of morals followed by each country where the stations are based. For example, the MBC group based in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia almost never shows intimate situations, whereas OneTV based in liberal Dubai has been known to allow some kissing scenes to appear on its viewerâ€™s screens. For the most part, there is not a lot of governmental regulation as to what is aired by either the stations airing the programming or the countries receiving the feed.
However, one country has gone to great lengths to block American television and cinema. Iran only allows a handful of approved American serials to be played on the state-run news station. As a result, young Iranians are downloading their favorite American serials from the Internet or purchasing them from video dealers.
With the Middle East region constantly feeling the strain of threat, whether from internally or from abroad, western television offers viewers in the Gulf a chance to forget their problems and indulge in a bit of escapism, resplendent in jaw dropping comedy and breathtaking stuntmanship that could only be concocted in Hollywood and exported to the rest of the world.