The episode started with the television show’s lead character, an official at Saudi Arabia’s consumer protection department, worried that the rainbows emblazoned on a set of children’s stationery might promote homosexuality among the young.
“If it was up to me, I would say [homosexuals] deserve to be burnt alive,” he said. “Actually, merely burning them is not enough. They should be erased from existence, completely.”
His teenage daughter did not agree. “Dad, if you believe in human rights, you would believe these people have rights,” she said. “They are living peacefully on their own. It is none of our business.”
Homosexual acts in public can be severely punished under Saudi law and to discuss the topic openly, even for a fictional character, was highly unusual. That the scene was aired in a primetime slot during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when families were gathered together after breaking their fast, was even more radical.
The comedy program called Exit 7, on air since April, depicts the life of a middle-class family as they navigate a realistic, modern-day Saudi Arabia experiencing rapid social change under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious reform agenda.
This was not the first time the programme had sparked controversy. An earlier episode explored the taboo of relations with Israel after the lead character’s son befriended a boy from the Jewish state via an online video game.
Exit 7 is produced by Middle East Broadcasting Centre, or MBC, which was brought under government control after its founder was among hundreds of royals, businessmen and former officials detained in 2017 at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh as part of an anti-corruption campaign.
The sight of a Saudi-Israeli friendship blossoming on a TV show aired by a state-controlled broadcaster immediately raised speculation that the kingdom wanted to encourage Saudis to accept the normalisation of ties with Jerusalem.
The same network, conspiracy theorists pointed out, has also produced another series for this Ramadan season, Umm Haroun, which features Jewish characters living in a small village in neighbouring Kuwait during the 1940s.
MBC has defended its decision to broach such subjects on the screen. “If the choice is between a stereotypical image of the Arab world and one where MBC shows tolerance, mutual living and meetings between religions and cultures, then so be it,” spokesman Mazen Hayek said earlier this week on the network’s Egyptian channel. “At least we would be helping to heal wounds and bring people together.”
Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a Saudi analyst who is intimately familiar with the official thinking in Riyadh, dismissed the debate about the normalisation with Israel as a “non-issue”.
“Currently, despite everything that is being said and interpreted, we do not actually see any signs of relations or development of relations with Israel, let alone a move towards normalisation,” he wrote in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. “The old Arab regime remains the same, and so does Israel. There is no urgent need to force changes in the Arab reality at the moment.”
But the on-screen depictions do reflect shifting attitudes among some groups in the kingdom. Though there are no official diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, relations between the two countries have quietly warmed as they have both pursued an aggressive anti-Iran agenda and shared strong affinity with the US administration of President Donald Trump.
The older generation remains mainly supportive of the Palestinian cause and official government statements emphasise that support. But some young Saudis, who have adopted an ultranationalist agenda, view the conflict as a distraction and argue that citizens must focus on their own country and ignore pan-Arab issues.
Given increased government control of the entertainment industry over the past four years, some observers said that tackling controversial topics, such as Israel and homosexuality, was now easier for broadcasters than criticising official institutions or raising the real issues that affect people’s daily lives — something that past Ramadan shows, featuring the same actors, have done to strong effect.
“This Ramadan, like last year, we have seen a clear departure from the usual topics, perhaps as an attempt to take advantage of the changed political and social reality,” said Eman Alhussein, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “However, this departure does not accurately depict or highlight real concerns within Saudi society,” she added.
“Even though it managed to stir controversy and generate much discussion, the topics [the programme] deals with so far remain distant from the daily concerns of Saudi citizens making it seem like an alien imposition even if performed by familiar faces.”