For conservatives in Saudi Arabia, entertainment options have always been scarce. Social gatherings for women and religious summer camps for boys and young men did not fulfill the need for entertainment. This became more of an issue when more Saudis began tuning in to Arab and international television channels for movies, reality shows and series. The lack of Islamic entertainment options encouraged businessmen to cater for the conservative faction in the country. Not surprisingly, such channels have generated big revenues and gained much approval and praise among their followers.
Early Islamic Entertainment Attempts
Islamic entertainment television started with Iqra channel which was launched in 1998. Iqra is part of the Arab Radio and Television network owned by Saudi billionaire and businessman Saleh Kamel. The Egyptian preacher, Amr Khalid, was a frequent guest on its shows which did not appeal to Saudi scholars who considered his views “too controversial”. The free-to-air channel on Nilesat was not a preferred option for conservatives who refused to install satellite dishes. Moreover, Iqra featured women on its programs which, to many scholars in Saudi, was not acceptable. Therefore, the channel was mostly watched by other viewers in the Middle East than in Saudi Arabia.
Al-Majd network, a package of channels offering entertainment for the whole family, was launched by a Saudi businessman in 2002. It learned the lessons from Iqra and required it’s own subscription to view its encrypted channels. That way, subscribers can ensure that they will only receive Al-Majd channels on their their satellite receivers. Moreover, Al-Majd numerous channels do not feature women on their programs. They also do not play music and opt for “inshad” (a form of Islamic singing without the use of musical instruments). Al-Majd became the only network that ticked all the boxes for conservatives, as one fatwa considered it “a channel that follows Sharia principles”. Interestingly, however, one of Al-Majd’s presenters and comedians, Mohammed Shathaf Al-Shihri, was one of the suicide bombers responsible for carrying out the Riyadh compound bombings in May 2003.
The Case of Bedaya
Launched in 2005, Bedaya channel has given Islamic entertainment a full makeover. Even though it refuses to feature women on its programs, the majority of its viewers are believed to be female. The channel is known for its reality television programs where male contestants can be seen cooking, cleaning, singing and occasionally dancing. Bedaya has a more lenient take on music by allowing musical instruments (but it calls music “iqaa” and songs “shilat”).
Bedaya reality shows feature male contestants who can be considered “conservatives, yet, modern”. The contestants can be sometimes seen talking about religious matters, but they also laugh and dance. This repackaging of Islamic characterizations breaks away from the stereotypical strict and serious attitude usually associated with religious men. One of the contested was featured wearing a suite and sending a message in English “to the world” in which he talks about the country’s vision 2030 and the need for “peace and love”.
Bedaya was banned in 2017 due to a number of incidents that were considered “sexually suggestive”. In 2015, the well-known Saudi scholar Mohammed Al-Arifi made a suggestive remark to one of the contestants. The incident caused a huge wave of criticism that even included Saud Al-Shuraim, Imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, who voiced his disapproval in a tweet. A dance gone wrong between two men, also for its suggestiveness, caused the Ministry of Culture and Information to temporarily suspended the channel.
Earlier this month, the host of Bedaya’s reality show informed one of the contestants that his father had passed away. The contestant’s reaction generated a widespread disapproval on social media which caused the channel to be suspended again. A hashtag started trending on social media calling for its return, arguing that other entertainment channels available do not provide any better content than Bedaya.
Reality television is all the rage in Islamic entertainment channels these days. Al-Majd has also been running a number of reality television shows, however, they still try to maintain a clear religious direction. To many, Bedaya is the most entertaining option of all Islamic channels available. The television network has been attempting to distance itself away from the Islamic label to justify its changed direction that has increased its popularity. However, many of its audience still consider it “Islamic” and do not wish to see it otherwise.
Bedaya fills a vacuum for those who still want an Islamic entertainment channel but desire a more fun and different way of presenting it. It’s controversial content shows how both its contestants and audience are struggling to redefine an Islamic version of entertainment. The various attempts at breaking taboos sometimes succeed and other times fail. Bedaya offers an “in-between” platform for those who desire an entertainment option with an Islamic twist.