MBC's Ramadan drama series Um Haroon has sparked controversy and debate about the presence of Jews in the Gulf region and their relationship with local Muslim communities. In itself, it is the beginning of normalisation of regional relations with Israel; the first stage of a new regional order.
The series is set in 1940s Kuwait and the storyline revolves around the relationship between Jewish, Christian and Muslim households. The central theme is the presence of Jews in the Arab Gulf region and the mistreatment, misconceptions and systematic biases against them. The series is the epitome of a political project through the mass media. Any claims to the show being merely a drama production and without any political motives are far from reality, as this news item pointed out.
Mass media has been used as a tool for politics and social engineering all around the world as a means to create loyalty and shape political understanding as well as national identities. Television is a key institution in understanding the nation as its bridge between the public and domestic spheres. It connects the cultural and socio-political aspects of society and has been seen increasingly as a medium for producing national culture.
It is no surprise then that Um Haroon is produced by MBC, a Saudi-owned private broadcasting company based in Dubai. This series was not created in a vacuum but is reflective of the ongoing regional politics and shaping of a new national identity in Saudi Arabia, one that is more accepting of relations with Israel. Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman's support for Jared Kushner, the architect of the "deal of the century", has already created a ripple effect in the shaping of Saudi society's perception of Israel. This is evident in growing public sympathy towards the occupation state. In July 2019, for example, a Saudi blogger visited Israel and claimed in a video that he "loves" Israel; he even met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while he was there, although he was reviled when he went to Al-Aqsa Mosque. Over the past two years, there has been a growing wave of criticism of Palestinians within Saudi society as being "ungrateful" for the Kingdom's help and sacrifices made on their behalf.
Um Haroon is inspired by the historical character of Jewish nurse "Um John" who lived in Bahrain. Although the rest of the storyline is fiction, the focus of the series has led many to research the Jewish presence in the Gulf during the 1940s. This is obvious in social media debates, where people have been posting interviews and photos of "Um John" as a character reference.
History is always narrated subjectively and is a collection of multiple realities and perspectives on "facts" and "truths". This series is intended to serve as a reminder of the Jewish presence in the region with an attempt to reconstruct a selected part of the history with a new narrative. As a result, the theme of "remembering" and revival of history through soft power becomes apparent. It is linked directly with the formation of alternative regional identity, one that's more tolerant and accepting of Israel. Media serves as an educational tool and brings myth making and memory to life through symbolic characters, and a play on language and dialogues. Um Haroon is meant to shape public consciousness and dilute the bitterness of a long-standing conflict.
Some of the most famous actors and actresses from the Gulf are in the series. Hayat Al-Fahad is a prominent Kuwaiti actresses and plays the eponymous "Um Haroon", while Abdul Mohsin Al-Nimr, a senior Saudi actor, plays "Rabbi Dawood". Television writers, producers and actors are all creative agents, and as intellectual content producers, in a Gramscian sense, they contribute to the process by which power is produced and reproduced or transformed. The work of producers is, therefore, shaped by socially constructed imaginations within particular social and political constraints.
The dialogue in the show is politically motivated to show both Jewish victimhood and also Gulf society's sympathy and commitment to the Palestinian cause. In numerous scenes set at the time of the "declaration of independence" of the Israeli State, characters are shown protesting against Jewish occupation, collecting charity and picking arguments with Jews about the Palestinian Muslims with whom they share Arab and Muslim bonds.
The focus of the drama, though, remains the Jewish characters and the detailed representation of their religious practices. The use of Hebrew language and Jewish names, clothing, traditions and worship provides far more than entertainment; it is a process of rewriting history to make it fit with the political present. This series is intended to familiarise viewers with the new political discourse, and make people comfortable with it. It is being aired in Ramadan, a popular time for watching such series, so the producers have an almost guaranteed audience.
The love story between Rahil and Mohammed in the show romanticises further the Jewish-Muslim relationship as a strategy for creating sympathy for Israel and reframing the "enemy" as a possible friend. There are many subliminal messages, such as the scene in which Ezra asks a British police officer, "Why don't the Palestinians go to the Middle Eastern countries with similar culture?" This is a prime example of using TV to shift audience perspectives. Even though the storyline sheds light on the fact that Judaism is not Zionism, at its core it is ultimately about Jewish national self-determination in the "historic homeland". Zionism is thus presented as an intrinsic part of Judaism.
In addition, the series stereotypes Muslim families by showing the women as conservative and men as radical: Abdus-Salam beats up his wife, while Abu Saeed marries a second wife secretly. The cultural stereotypes highlight both separateness and a connection with society, to make the subliminal messages natural and the viewers more receptive.
Although the show has angered many people in the region, in Saudi Arabia it seems to represent an emerging trend. Another show called Exit 7 aired an episode discussing the taboo topic of ties with Israel, during which prominent actor Rashid Al-Shamrani said that he would happily do business with Israel, and the "real enemy" are the Palestinians who insult Saudi Arabia "day and night" despite the sacrifices it has made for them. This narrative was picked up by many other Saudi citizens on social media who made hateful remarks about Palestinians and welcomed Israelis to Saudi Arabia.
Media and the entertainment industry do not operate in isolation from the wider socio-political context; they respond to changing realities and often push political propaganda. Um Haroon and Exit 7 mark a historical moment in the Gulf region indicating the beginning of a new policy outlook and shift in Saudi Arabia's regional agenda.
The Palestinian cause has been one of the core elements of Arab nationalism and a significant part of Gulf-Arab identity. The shifting of the narrative towards sympathy for Israel indicates the emergence of more parochial national identities based on the interests of individual states. Events over the past few years show that Saudi Arabia can not only shift the religious discourse to suit its own agenda, but also reshape ethnic identity in favour of its economic interests. In this political game, the only constant is the need to benefit the state; friends and enemies can be adjusted accordingly.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.