Iraqi series produced by Saudi Arabia sparks controversy

Some TV programs on Saudi-funded channels have sparked controversy among Iraqis.

al-monitor Protesters gather outside the MBC studio in Baghdad, Iraq, on May 18, 2020. Photo by Twitter/IraqLiveUpdate.

מאי 20, 2020

A group of angry protesters attacked the office of MBC Iraq on May 18, causing it to be closed. The TV channel, which is owned by members of the ruling Saudi family, had broadcast a documentary about the attack on the Iraqi Embassy in Lebanon in the early 1980s, accusing a former deputy of the Popular Mobilization Units of being involved in the attack and calling him a “terrorist.” 

The deputy, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was killed Jan. 3 by the United States along with Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani.

The documentary came on the heels of audience complaints about a drama broadcast and produced by MBC Iraq.

The Iraqi series "Ahlam Al-Sinin" ("Dreams of the Years") aired during Ramadan caused quite a stir; tribes in southern Iraqi areas, which are predominantly Shiite, deemed some scenes to be inconsistent with their values.

The events of the series take place in the 1950s in southern Iraq, where tribal norms and values ​​dominate people’s lives. The show is about a family struggle to preside over a tribe and an attempt to seize plots of land. The series also features a sheikh getting involved in violent and corrupt practices. “Revenge” is the name of the game in this series that Iraqi families enjoy watching together.

However, some scenes regarding tribal grudges and a sheikh’s order to handcuff a woman in a barn have raised the ire of tribes in central and southern provinces.

Iraqi newspapers and news sites published a large number of statements issued by tribes demanding the suspension of the series while issuing a warning to the channel. 

Chief among the statements that were widely circulated is one signed by the tribes of the south and another signed by the tribes of Basra province. While the two statements reiterated their condemnation of “the disrespect for the authentic values” of Iraqi tribes, they also attacked the channel as a result of its Saudi funding.

The southern tribes’ statement accused the channel of “seeking to insult Iraqis' national and social values ​​and legacy,” indicating that Saudi Arabia supports religious sheikhs who accuse the Shiite sect of infidelity and that the Gulf kingdom also supports jihadi organizations such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. 

For its part, the Basra tribes' statement stressed that the series is systematic propaganda "intended to offend all Iraqis as well as the noble societal values ​​and reputation of our authentic tribes.” A top tribal sheikh held Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the series.

Sheikhs appeared in video clips defending the tribal values ​​and respect for women, demanding government action to stop the broadcast of the series.

Meanwhile, several members of parliament participated in the campaign launched against the series and the Saudi satellite channel that produced it.

Even before the opening of its offices in Iraq, the Saudi-funded channel came under harsh scrutiny as its intentions toward Iraq were questioned.

The number of statements issued by tribal sheikhs in the south of Iraq has prompted the Communications and Media Commission, which monitors media content, to issue a statement in which it stressed, without naming any station in particular, the need for TV channels to make sure “not to broadcast content contrary to public taste, and to commit to neutrality and professionalism in the transmission of historical facts.” The statement said it had noticed violations on some satellite channels.

As a result of the same social pressure, the Cultural Commission stressed in a statement “the need to respect all Iraqi components and take into account the public taste and moral foundations of Iraqi society in accordance with the provisions of the constitution.”

Bashar al-Kiki, a member of the parliamentary group, told Al-Monitor, “It is true that we, as a Cultural Commission, have issued a statement regarding the series 'Ahlam Al-Sinin' ..., but we do not encourage violent reactions against its cadres.”

Jabbar Joudi, head of the Iraqi Artists Syndicate, said the series' crew members feared for their safety as a result of the campaign launched against the series.

Although the tribal sheikhs said they would sue the channel and the crew, Joudi said, “The syndicate has yet to receive judicial communications in this regard.”

The Iraqi Artists Syndicate seemed ready to face the campaigns against the series. Joudi told Al-Monitor, “I informed the crew that if a lawsuit is filed against them, then the syndicate would take it upon itself to defend them before the judiciary.”

Another series called “Binj Aam” ("General Anesthesia"), one of whose episodes dealt with the issue of female Yazidis kidnapped by IS, also caused a stir, albeit to a lesser extent.

The political content of these series has played a major role in how the audience reacts. For example, the series “Kamamat Watan” ("Homeland Masks"), broadcast on Al Sharqiya TV channel, was widely praised as it tackled the issue of the victims of the demonstrations that began in October, and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi met with the crew to encourage them.

Iraqi dramas broacast during the month of Ramadan are usually widely criticized due to their detachment from Iraqi reality, but this year has been rare in how it has sparked cultural and political controversy.

Joudi said, “Attacking Iraqi drama will deal a heavy blow to it at a time when we are already suffering from a lack of production.”

He said, “The series did not disrespect anyone and the dramatic events required good and evil characters. The evil character in the series on MBC Iraq was the tribal sheikh, and this is not intended to offend Iraqi tribal elders.”

Joudi fears that “such campaigns would lead to censorship.”

“This will destroy the drama industry in Iraq and limit freedom of opinion,” he said.

Kiki seemed more optimistic, however. He said, “As a cultural commission, we do not want to place control barriers on Iraqi productions, but we call on Iraqi creators to take into consideration the security of the Iraqi people when embarking on a given work without disrespecting the customs of any Iraqi components.”

Political interpretations related to a series broadcast on a Saudi channel have exacerbated the issue, and the participation of Iraqi institutions in such campaigns sow fear among drama makers regarding the tackling of more problematic issues in Iraqi society.

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