American TV Popular in the Middle East

March 5, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent

friends There certainly is no love lost between most Middle East countries and the US, where peaceful coexistence is often stormier than two dogs fighting over a juicy bone.  Years of bias, perpetrated by American foreign policy, has left a bitter taste in the hearts and minds of the denizens of the Gulf that won’t easily be washed away by mere ‘sweet talk’ from the Obama administration. However, politics aside, there is a quiet love affair between the East and West that has only grown more intense over the past few years. Regardless of the innumerable ‘fatwas’ issued about the evils of the boob tube or outright condemnations by Muslim clerics, western television and cinema is the daily bread of many Gulf residents, and have  made an irrevocable mark on the social fabric of the region.

Talk-Diva Oprah Winfrey’s show is just as popular in Kuwait as it is in the suburbs of California. Dramas like ‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ have Gulf dwellers glued to their television screens, just like their American counterparts, on sofas in the UAE, Oman and Bahrain.  And even syndicated shows like ‘Friends’ and ‘Seinfeld’ still resonate with the Gulf audience. And while English is not the primary language spoken in the region, all the programming is made complete with Arabic subtitles at the bottom. A notable side effect of the translation crawler is that many Arab speakers are learning to speak English, courtesy of the western programming.

There are two primary satellite television stations situated in Saudi Arabia and Dubai that send out American programming 24/7 throughout the whole Gulf region.  The media giant of the Gulf is known as the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) and is completely financed by Saudi Arabia. The MBC Group has evolved over the years to include 5 separate channels including MBC3 which airs American cartoons dubbed in Arabic, MBC4 which airs American sitcoms and dramas, as well as the newest channel named MBCMax which airs the latest Hollywood blockbusters to grace the silver screen. The second biggest media giant in the Middle East is known as OneTV, which is owned and operated by the UAE. It combines the best of both worlds, to include western sitcoms and movies in its monthly repertoire.

Both media empires compete for viewers’ attention by offering the most sought-after shows without charging a single penny. Unlike the popular Showtime channel, which is the predominant pay channel in the Gulf, and rakes in billions of oil soaked dollars every year from their subscribers. However, thanks to cutthroat advertisers hocking everything from shampoo to cooking oil, the television business is becoming more lucrative in the Gulf  than the ‘black gold’ that lies beneath the land. Advertisers scoop airtime up as fast as it becomes available, much to the chagrin of viewers who have to wait between 4-5 minutes for the commercials to end, with each show having no less than 3 commercial breaks.

Surprisingly, the key to the success of satellite television in the Middle East is censorship, which keeps everyone happy. Scenes depicting intimacy or even a kiss are cut off. Programming dealing with things such as homosexuality or teenage pregnancy is usually not aired. It is really up to the code of morals followed by each country where the stations are based. For example, the MBC group based in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia almost never shows intimate situations, whereas OneTV based in liberal Dubai has been known to allow some kissing scenes to appear on its viewer’s screens. For the most part, there is not a lot of governmental regulation as to what is aired by either the stations airing the programming or the countries receiving the feed.

However, one country has gone to great lengths to block American television and cinema. Iran only allows a handful of approved American serials to be played on the state-run news station. As a result, young Iranians are downloading their favorite American serials from the Internet or purchasing them from video dealers.
With the Middle East region constantly feeling the strain of threat, whether from internally or from abroad, western television offers viewers in the Gulf a chance to forget their problems and indulge in a bit of escapism, resplendent in jaw dropping comedy and breathtaking stuntmanship that could only be concocted in Hollywood and exported to the rest of the world.

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The Hummus War

October 16, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS

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The inconspicuous chickpea, while puny in size, is causing a major war of words between Israel and Lebanon. Both countries lay claim to inventing the savory dip that has become a worldwide hit thanks to the tasty travels of visitors to the Middle East which has caused a dramatic demand for Hummus in North America as well as other regions like Japan.

So what’s all the fuss about? Apparently, Israel has been laying claim to such Lebanese national dishes as Hummus, Falafel, Baba Ghannoui and Tabbouleh, which have been adorning the dinner tables of Lebanese families for centuries. The Director, Fadi Abboud, of the Lebanese Industrialists Society is launching a lawsuit against Israel for infringement across food copyright laws. “It is not enough they (Israelis) are stealing our land. They are also stealing our civilization and our cuisine,” said Abboud in a recent interview. The case will be mirrored after the successful feta cheese copyright dispute, where the European Parliament declared Greece as the sole country with rights to brand the salty dairy product as originating from the Greek culture, which includes a mandate that says any cheese that bears the name ‘feta’ must be produced with either sheep or goat’s milk.

This culinary war is not merely about bragging rights but rather millions of dollars in export revenues that are at stake. In the USA alone, the domestic market for store-brand hummus has grown by 78% this year alone. Hummus sales in America are valued at approximately $250 million dollars for this fiscal year and that figure is set to skyrocket as the demand for hummus continues it upwards spiral. The global market for Hummus is estimated to be in the billions of dollars.

The reason for the popularity of hummus is that it really is the perfect food. It’s smooth, goes down easy and digests well especially since it does not cause the ‘gassy’ after effects that most bean-based foods do. Hummus is also rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, healthy nutrients like iron and manganese, and is an excellent source of fiber. Talk show host Oprah Winfrey has even listed Hummus as one of the best foods for weight loss in her ‘O’ magazine citing that the creamy dip is filling and nutritious enough to snack on a few times a week.

Only time will tell who will win the rights to hummus as it remains to be seen just exactly where Lebanon will file it’s lawsuit given that it is officially at war with Israel. It’s also noteworthy to mention that the Palestinians also lay claim to being the originators of Hummus, however they have stayed out of the fray for the time being. If the case ever does appear in court, it’s likely another hummus contender may step in the ring. However, while their busy duking it out in court, anyone with a blender can whip up their own Hummus at home. Just visit www.allrecipes.com and search the word ‘Hummus’. Happy dipping!

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