Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 30 October 2020

How the first Saudi soap opera is smashing stereotypes on the small screen

'Al Mirath' made its debut earlier this week, breaking a tried-and-tested formula for Arabic TV. But why now and how will it fare with viewers?

Set in Riyadh, 'Al Mirath' or 'Inheritance' begins with a death. Abdulmohsin Al Behitani, a construction magnate, has died, leaving behind his wife and two daughters. MBC
Set in Riyadh, 'Al Mirath' or 'Inheritance' begins with a death. Abdulmohsin Al Behitani, a construction magnate, has died, leaving behind his wife and two daughters. MBC

The first Arabic soap opera – Al Mirath – made its debut earlier this week. The show tells the story of two Saudi families embroiled in a battle over an inheritance. It has all the elements typical of a series of the genre. In just one episode, we’ve already been exposed to a death, a disputed will, a long-lost son, a conniving nephew and a murder conspiracy. Sure, these elements could also make for a great Shakespearean play, but the show’s quick pace and rate of character development keep it in the confines of a soap opera.

But why did it take so long for one to emerge in the Arab world? One reason is the entertainment sector’s focus on Ramadan. The holy month is a time that brings families together and broadcasters have previously capitalised on this, with the best TV shows and dramas of the year all only released during this period.

Even in the streaming age, shows aired during Ramadan boast high viewership numbers. They can guarantee an audience for those 30 days and it is much easier to sell airtime to advertisers during the month – and revenue ensures a show’s lifetime. So it’s understandable why very few have chosen not to stray from this tried-and-tested tactic.

MBC has taken a bold step out of this formula with Al Mirath. But how will the show fare? In my opinion, pretty well. Like any good soap, this too has more plot twists than a tangled Slinky, and that is necessary to keep its audience captivated. And if there’s an audience, then the advertisers are not far behind.

There’s also an insatiable appetite for drama in the region and the genre is a great way of highlighting the changes that are taking place in Saudi and regional society. Ali Jaber, group TV director at MBC, says the show “lives, breathes and speaks Saudi in terms of the locations it is set in, the events, the relationships and the family dynamics”.

The characters of Hoor and Shahad reflect the changes of women’s roles in Saudi society. Shahad has dreams of becoming a ballet instructor, which “was unthinkable and quite controversial in Saudi society”, explains Rana Al Shafey, the actress who portrays her, during the show’s launch event last month.

“Shahad is constantly told – by friends and family – to give up on her dream. But she has a very strong character. She loves to be challenged, and to overcome that challenge. She has a dream, she wants to realise it and though she is scared of her parents’ reactions, she won’t allow anyone to hinder her from it.”

The soap opera medium can be a great way to inspire social change. The genre’s primary edict is to be riveting while being topical, and this often goes hand-in-hand with addressing and influencing societal expectations.

Al Mirath could be a brave leap forward not just in terms of television, but of telling a story with regional themes. Whether it delivers on that promise is yet to be seen, but with 250 episodes lined up in its first season, it will certainly get the chance.

Updated: March 9, 2020 09:23 AM

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