Soaps and dramas normally unite binge-watching Arab audiences during Ramadan but this year an Egyptian series has been caught up in a bitter dispute with Saudi Arabia over one of its star actors.
“Ard El Nefaq” (Land of Hypocrisy) was forced to remove a guest appearance by prominent journalist and TV presenter Ibrahim Eissa.
His scenes were re-shot after a Saudi public channel protested his casting, at a time when the Gulf’s expanding television series production is gaining popularity among Arabic-speaking viewers.
Ramadan, the holy Muslim month where faithful abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk, is also a multi-million-dollar opportunity for filmmakers, TV producers and advertisers to scoop up viewers.
But politics is never far away from the shows.
Historical series produced in Syria were hugely popular until the 2011 outbreak of the country’s conflict, and a number of channels, including Saudi outlets, have boycotted popular Turkish soaps off the back of regional disputes.
Eissa, who has accused Riyadh of using oil revenues to finance the spread of Islamic extremism, was targeted by the Saudi Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) which is to run Ard El Nefaq along with several other Arab channels.
The show “will be broadcast without Ibrahim Eissa… in agreement with the producer,” SBC director Dawood Shirian told AFP.
Ard El Nefaq, adapted from Youssef El-Sebaay’s 1949 novel and a subsequent film, is a expected to be a comic-drama examining the culture of hypocrisy in Egyptian society.
It will also star one of Egypt’s top comedians, Mohamed Henedy.
Series producer Gamal el-Adl has failed to respond to requests for comment on how much the re-shot scenes cost, nor was it immediately clear if Eissa will be cut entirely from the programme or just the version shown in Saudi Arabia.
“There won’t be two versions of the show, just one, and this version will be broadcast on SBC channel,” Shirian said.
The Saudi protest at Eissa’s casting came after Saud al-Qahtani, an influential royal advisor, tweeted his opposition to “Arab media figures who have insulted our leaders and country”.
“The terrorism that has spread across the Muslim world and the globe and all of humanity, it all came from this Wahhabi seed,” Eissa said in one of his shows, referring to the puritanical ideology of Saudi Arabia.
– Costs of ‘Mosalsalat’ balloon –
In the industry, Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation, is the biggest market with more than 100 million viewers inside and outside the country.
Ahmed Saad el-Din, art critic at the state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram, expected around 25 to 30 series to be aired this Ramadan on channels across the region.
The costs of the series, known in the region as “Mosalsalat”, have ballooned along with the fees commanded by the region’s stars.
“There is no 30-episode series that costs less than 25 million pounds ($1.4 million), and these are the series without any stars, with only new faces,” said Hosny Saleh, who has directed several well-known Ramadan series.
The costs can climb to 70 million pounds when featuring leading actors, he said.
Yet Ramadan series can be a very profitable venture.
“Every seven or eight minutes the episode is interrupted by advertisements that last for at least five minutes,” said Saad el-Din.