Turki al-Sheikh, the controversial Saudi Arabian billionaire and sports minister who has roiled Egypt’s soccer scene, is generating a new tempest with his involvement in the country’s entertainment sector.
In early February, Sheikh, who was appointed chairman of the Board of Directors of the General Authority for Entertainment in Saudi Arabia in December, inked agreements with several Egyptian entertainment companies. The nature of the contracts varies. One, signed with the Sabah Group, represented by Sadek al-Sabah, involves the production of films featuring Egyptian, Saudi and other Arab actors to premier in Saudi Arabia. Others contracts are with the singers Amr Diab, Hani Shaker and Mohamed Hamaqi and the poets Amir Toaimeh and Ayman Bahgat Kamar for performances in the kingdom.
Another of Sheikh’s contracts is with Cairo Show, a production company recently launched by the director Magdi al-Hawari. Under the contract, “Three Days in the Coast,” starring Mohamed Henedi, and “King Lear,” starring Yehya al-Fakhrani, will be shown in the kingdom.
Even before any deals were signed, Cairo Show productions and the other Egyptian parties had come in for severe criticism as news of Sheikh's intentions emerged. On Jan. 27, Moataz el-Shafeay, an amateur actor with the theater of the Faculty of Literature at Cairo University, posted on Facebook that while many would agree that Egyptian theater has been going downhill, it is questionable whether Sheikh’s funding is the solution.
Shafeay asked, “Would he treat Cairo Show the same way he dealt with the Pyramids [the Egyptian soccer club that he owns]? Will he use his influence for an unknown agenda? Will Egypt’s entertainment sector [change to satisfy the tastes of the Gulf]? Is it worth losing our cultural identity over funding?”
The parliamentarian Amr Abdul-Fattah had expressed similar sentiments in early January, posting on Facebook, “Very worrying news about Al-Sheikh's pumping of billions of Egyptian pounds into the Egyptian arts and drama sector. Al-Sheikh will manage to ruin Egyptian arts just as he ruined the Egyptian sports sector.”
Despite such criticisms, the deals were signed. At least one signatory defend it through social media.
The poet Oyman Bahgat Kamar wrote on Facebook, “I'm very surprised at the criticism toward the contracts signed between the General Authority for Entertainment of Saudi Arabia and Egyptian artists. What’s the problem? These aren't agreements that impose a monopoly or contracts to sell off cultural or artistic heritage. They are agreements for plays, concerts, and TV productions [to be staged in Saudi Arabia]. … It indicates the clear appreciation Saudi Arabia has for the Egyptian arts and its producers. At the same time, it will help get our works to larger audiences through Saudi support.”
Kamar's post spurred a long line of comments, including accusations that he was “clueless” and inviting “cancer into Egyptian show biz.” The anger being expressed stems in part from the contentious role Sheikh, a confidant of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has played in Egyptian football.
Two years ago, Sheikh became the financial backer of Al-Ahly SC, the country's biggest soccer team in terms of fan base. He was also named honorary president in December 2017, a position he held for only five months before stepping down over a harsh dispute with the club's management about fund allocations and contracts.
Sheikh then bought Pyramids FC, which is currently competing for the Egyptian Premier League championship. Meanwhile, rumors have been circulating among disgruntled Al-Ahly fans about Sheikh and Pyramids management allegedly bribing referees, using illicit means to pressure the Egyptian Football Association and monopolizing Egyptian and international players using the Saudi investor’s huge supply of capital. Sheikh signaled his intention to exit the Egyptian soccer scene in October 2018, but he still owns the Pyramids.
Many art critics approached by Al-Monitor expressed concern that Saudi money flowing into the Egyptian theater and cinema sectors would inevitably lead to more conservative content being produced. Egypt's film industry, the “Hollywood of the Middle East,” has long been popular across the Middle East, from Jerusalem to Dubai, producing musicals, comedies, risqué romances and dramas. The sector already complains of increasing state censorship and difficulty obtaining funds for cultural projects.
The art critic Mohamoud Qassem, who on the whole welcomes the arrival of new capital for the sector, told Al-Monitor that the works for Saudi Arabia will need to be somewhat different from those seen in Egypt, and he believes that this might not be such a bad thing in the end.
“[The Saudi authorities would require] the artistic works to be free of sexual innuendo, slang and insults,” Qassem said. “This would help art in Egypt to improve morally and socially.”
Art critic and freelance journalist Husam Fahmy told Al-Monitor that Sheikh and the Saudi General Authority for Entertainment want light fare, not serious, artistically driven drama. As an example, he cited the films by Saleh Kamel, a Saudi businessman who established a production company in Egypt to export video productions to the kingdom in the 1990s.
“Kamel’s company mainly focused on light, family-style entertainment, and this may well be the sort of production that would result from the partnership,” Fahmy told Al-Monitor.
According to Fahmy, Sheikh would likely be involved in the content produced by the partner companies to guarantee that they meet Saudi Arabia’s more conservative standards. Sources close to the Egyptian film world say that Capital Show's production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” which contains political criticism of absolute power and hints of adultery, may be censored for the Saudi audience.
Others worry that Saudi funding will create unfair competition, essentially picking “winners” and “losers” among Egyptian companies, and put small production companies at a disadvantage. “This funding [to a few] will have a negative effect on the other local companies,” Fahmy claimed.
The critic Mohammad Adly sees things differently. “The fact is that Sheikh's funds are reviving Egyptian theater after years of deterioration,” he said, brushing aside claims of unfair competition. “The past years have proved that success is not achieved only through material capacities. Production companies that are unwilling to partner with Sheikh can compete and be present through the value they create rather than the scale of their productions, or they can simply choose to cooperate among themselves.”
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