The story of two Saudi families embroiled in a battle over inheritance has laid the foundations for the world's first Arabic soap opera.
Al-Mirath (Inheritance) will screen on MBC 1 from Sunday, March 1. The first season of the show will be comprised of a whopping 250 episodes, and will run well into next year.
Four 23-minute episodes will air every week, from Sunday to Wednesday.
Ali Jaber, MBC Group's TV Director, Jaber said the launch of Al Mirath was a pioneering moment for the broadcasting group. "We have created the very first authentic Saudi soap opera. It lives, breathes and speaks Saudi in terms of the locations it is set in, the events, the relationships and the family dynamics."
And the show – developed by MBC Studios, twofour54 and Image Nation Abu Dhabi – also has a special connection to the UAE: most of it was filmed in a warehouse in Musaffah, Abu Dhabi.
The warehouse doesn't exactly look like your typical television set; it looks like basically any other warehouse in Musaffah. But within its walls of corrugated plastic lie the Baroque-style rooms of the palaces of two warring Saudi families. The hallways inside the warehouse are decked out with crystal chandeliers and grand paintings of horses, there are bedrooms with silk sheets, grand pianos and staircases with gilded banisters that coil up to the ceiling.
Construction of the purpose-built studio started in July 2019 and took 73 days to complete, just in time for filming to begin in December.
Why now for an Arab soap?
Arab dramas are well established, but the daily, shorter soap opera format hasn't yet caught on. So why has TV company MBC decided that now was the time to adopt the soap opera format in the Arab world?
Emirati filmmaker Abdullah Al Junaibi, who is part of the directorial team of Al Mirath, didn't offer many clues as to the specific genre's lack of representation on regional screens, but said Ramadan provided at least some of the impetus behind this show.
"The uniqueness of the month in the Arab world, and how families come together to watch television inspired filmmakers to concentrate their efforts for the holy month," he said, speaking at Al Mirath's launch event at the twofour54 warehouse at Musaffah.
But now that MBC has taken a stride into the realm of soap operas, Al Junaibi said he expected other production companies to follow suit. "Especially after they see how effective the genre is at reeling in viewers and advertisers.",
Al Junaibi, who has directed several short films and the feature-length thriller Kaimrah, said the biggest challenge when directing a soap opera is the clock.
“You need to be precise and accurate, not a single minute can be wasted. The turnover rate is pretty quick and we have to be sure to deliver episodes in time. There isn’t much room for mistakes.”
However, he also said that a good script can make his job as a director a lot easier. It allows him to know which details to focus on in a scene, while keeping the overall story in mind.
Nour Sheshakly, one of four scriptwriters on the series, said the process of writing a soap opera was very different than the drama shows she has previously worked on, such as Jareemat Shaghaf. Especially in terms of the number of scenes, the pace of the story and the character development.
“We began writing the show last year. We’d alternate between month-long brainstorming sessions, where we’d come up with ideas and plot elements, and then going to write the script. We approached it 50 episodes at a time.”
However, Sheshakly said there will be room for changes in the writing, as plot elements in TV are often reflective of ratings and viewer opinion. "We always have to keep the audience in mind. If viewers like a particular character, we have to adapt the script to give them more screen time."
Jaber said Al Mirath was a powerful pivot in a new direction for Arabic television. He said that while numerous Arab productions have long relied on well-known stars to attract audiences, the formula is not commonly used in soap operas.
"As a result, viewers can expect to be introduced to a host of new faces on Al Mirath."
One fresh face is Rana Al Shafey, who plays the character of Shahad on the show, he said. "She has a very strong character. She loves to be challenged, and to overcome that challenge. She has a dream she wants to realise – to become a ballet instructor – and though she is scared of her parents' reactions, she won't allow anyone to hinder her from it."
Shafey said she hopes viewers will be inspired by her character, and will find the strength and determination through her storylines to pursue their own goals, regardless of people’s opinions.
Al Mirath will premiere on MBC1 on Sunday, March 1, at 8pm.