Saudi Ramadan Series spark debate about ties with Israel



A Saudi television series in which the taboo topic of ties with Israel became a plot line has spurred speculation it’s a prelude to a real-life push for a rethink toward a country long viewed as a public enemy in the Arab world.

The show, called “Exit 7,” is a comedic special for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, exploring rapid changes in Saudi Arabia through a bumbling father figure who’s trying to adapt. In the controversial episode earlier this week, he discovers his son has befriended an Israeli through an online game. The revelation divides the family: shocking the father, infuriating his daughter and leading his father-in-law to declare “so what?”

“Israel is there whether you like it or not,” says the unperturbed elder, played by Saudi actor Rashid Al Shamrani. He later says he’d happily do business with Israelis and argues that Palestinians are the real enemy for “insulting” Saudi Arabia “day and night.”
The fact that the episode was aired by MBC — a private broadcaster majority-owned by the Saudi government — led some Saudis to predict that officials want to pave the way for closer relations with Israel. Gulf Arab states and Israel don’t have diplomatic relations, but there have been closer informal contacts in recent years which officials say stem from shared concerns over Iran.

‘Not My Issue’
“The notion of a real Saudi-Israeli normalization is still far-fetched,” said Abdulaziz Alghashian, a lecturer of international relations at the U.K.’s University of Essex. But the TV show did at least start to normalize discourse about normalization, he said, and it could be “a way of gradually introducing the Saudi public to very early stages of sporadic Saudi-Israeli cooperation.”

Across the Gulf, the idea of treating Israel as just another country is deeply contentious. Former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki Al Faisal recently appeared on Saudi television to declare “the Zionist lobby” was among the kingdom’s biggest enemies in the U.S.

Yet there’s also been a nationalistic reaction against long-established support for Palestinians and their demands for the return of land occupied by Israel, partly due to perceived Palestinian criticism of Saudi Arabia. Most recently a political cartoon by a Palestinian in Sweden that appeared to mock the damage of falling oil prices on the kingdom stirred anger. Saudi Twitter users have shared a “Palestine is not my issue” hashtag.

To some extent, it’s a generational shift. Supporting the Palestinians remains a key element of state rhetoric. But some Saudis closer in age to 34-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman argue it’s time to focus on their own country, not pan-Arab dilemmas that absorbed years of attention with little result.

Kuwait Row
“Exit 7” underscores how complex Saudi discourse on the topic is, Alghashian said. While the sister character declares a crusade against “the Zionist danger,” a delivery man she asks about the topic replies that he wants nothing to do with politics and is more concerned about finding a job.

It’s one of several Ramadan series to court controversy on the issue this year. Another MBC show called Umm Haroun, set in 1940s Kuwait, depicts a multi-religious village with Jewish residents and stars Kuwaiti actress Hayat Al-Fahad as a Jewish midwife. In a statement, MBC said the drama showcases “a Middle East where acceptance of one another was the norm.” But it set off a backlash in Kuwait, with Al-Fahad criticized by some for taking on the role.

Meanwhile, Egyptian Ramadan series “The End” took the opposite tack: Set in the year 2120 in a dystopian post-Israel Jerusalem, it predicts the destruction of the Jewish state and imagines a future without it.

“Inside every Arab, there’s the idea of liberating any occupied Arab territory,” show writer Amr Sami Atef said in an interview with Saudi television channel Al-Arabiya Al-Hadath.

Israel’s foreign ministry condemned the drama, which stood in stark contrast to the cooperation between governments in Egypt and Israel, which established full diplomatic ties in 1980, especially over security.