During the past two decades and with the beginning of satellite broadcasting, Gulf drama production has undergone a transformation.
This has developed a local character for TV dramas and cut reliance on shows bought in from traditional suppliers such as Egypt, Syria and Lebanon.
But Gulf drama production still faces many challenges which are hindering its development and the wider distribution of its programmes in the Arab world.
Looking at the Ramadan season TV broadcasts, one can sum up these limiting factors as the scarcity of productions, the weakness of scripts and the repetitive treatment of the same social issues.
In some of the works broadcast during the current Ramadan season there are episodes within the same series that fluctuate in quality between the good and the bad, as in the series “No Walking” by the Saudi actor Nasser Al-Qusaibi. Some series were filled with overused clichés as in the Kuwaiti series “Amina Haf” with the actress Ilham al-Fadala, which raised the issue of polygamy without adding anything new to the subject.
Other comedies were filled with comments inspired by social media debates, such as the series “Studio 21”, without paying any real attention to the plot. Some of the output seemed almost identical to previous shows featuring the same stars.
Among the most prominent causes of the crisis in Gulf drama is the limited number of productions. This clearly affects their quality.
The region does not lack the capital needed to produce good made-for-TV drama. But drama production is only one link within a wider industry that needs an harmonious interplay between all its various links, from production to distribution and the availability of technical personnel. Without that whole chain, local production companies are reluctant to take risks.
This is why most producers prefer working with tried and tested models to ensure a return on their investment.
This is reflected in the nature of productions that usually address social issues, with shooting limited to the interiors of Gulf homes, with their exaggerated furnishings and luxury cars.
Saudi director, Muhammad Dahham al-Shammari, says that such shows “no longer meet the taste and aspirations of the audience and their eagerness for a different and novel drama.”
He believes that most of the work produced in the Gulf falls into the trap of stereotypes, repetition and superficiality at the level of stories, starring actors and visual artistry.
Among the other shortcomings of the Gulf drama is its dependence on single stars, as is the case with the Kuwaiti series “Margaret” with the Kuwaiti actress Hayat Al-Fahd. Dependence on one single star has become a common phenomenon today in Gulf drama and there are series written specifically for particular stars.
But the major scourge of Gulf drama is censorship. There is no doubt that this handicaps Arab drama in general. But censorship in Gulf shows seems to be more stringent than in other places and this prevents the discussion of many pressing topics and dynamic ideas that exist in society.
Taboos and exaggerations
Shammari believes that such topics have become strict taboos that cannot be treated in TV drama without provoking a lot of controversy and turmoil.
Faced with the limited script options, the actors, directors and the entire technical staff are forced to accept what is available. This leads to shallow productions with predictable topics.
Usually, Gulf drama writers resort to ruses in drafting scripts or directing some shows in order to comply with the conditions or observations imposed by the regulatory institutions.
The red lines of Arab censorship in drama and cinematography include the traditional trio of politics, sex, and religion.
As for Gulf censorship, it adds to these a number of other exaggerated caveats such as setting limits to the way in which Gulf women can appear.
A Kuwaiti censorship official said that the role of censorship is to preserve the high status of Kuwaiti women, so that they do not appear in “inappropriate” social or economic postures.
He believes for instance, that a woman cannot play the role of a restaurant waitress in a TV series.
As strange as this statement is, it reflects the nature of the limited margin of manoeuvre within which drama writers in the Arabian Gulf must move. Such restrictions reflect obviously on the quality of the works they eventually produce.