Talk shows can play an important role in influencing public opinion and providing platforms for discussion. They are even more crucial in societies that lack alternative means for free expression. In the UAE and Saudi Arabia, talk shows have been instrumental in allowing some room for debate while also absorbing public anger and discontent.
Abdallah bin Khusaif, commonly known as Bu Rashid, is the host of Al Rabia Wal Nas on Ajman’s Radio. The show has been on air for more than a decade. Callers from across the UAE use this outlet to discuss the shortcomings of government services.
The way the host handles these calls demonstrates the function of these programs. Usually, the host identifies the government body or official responsible for the caller’s plight and confronts them on air. Bu Rashid’s method allows him to publicly address problems experienced by UAE citizens while channeling the anger towards government employees.
Last year, Ali Al-Mazrouei called the program to express discontent over his low income. The co-host at that time, Yaqoub Al-Alwadhi, criticized Al Mazrouei and mocked him on air. Al-Awadhi told the caller that he should be grateful for the government instead of criticizing it. The confrontation between the two escalated to public outrage, causing Al-Awadhi to lose his job at the request of the Crown Prince of Ajman, Sheikh Ammar bin Humaid Al Nuaimi. Following his dismissal, Al-Awadhi said that he was merely trying to protect the UAE’s reputation.
Moreover, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Ruler of Dubai, also stepped in to demonstrate his disapproval. He requested a detailed report from the Ministry of Community Development and a plan to address the problem of UAE nationals with limited income. Sheikh Mohammed also commented on the importance of media “as a tool for catering to the wellbeing of citizens“.
Dawood Al-Sharian returned to television with a new show on SBC, a state-run channel that was launched last year. Al-Shirian’s appointment as the head of the Saudi Broadcasting Corporation in 2017 ended his equally controversial show, Al Thaminah, which was broadcasted on MBC. Unlike Al Rabia Wal Nas, Al-Shirian’s show focuses on a specific social problem, and hosts a number of affected individuals and experts to discuss it.
The first episode dealt with the issue of women fleeing the country. Al-Shirian blamed the Ministry of Labor and Social Developments for failing to protect women who are subject to abuse. He also criticized the guardianship system imposed on women. In the second episode, one of the issues discussed was the widespread use of drugs in Riyadh’s poorer areas. During the episode, he had a heated exchange with Rashid Al-Ardhi, an official from the General Directorate of Narcotics Control. When Al-Ardhi said that they follow the orders of the King, Al-Shirian interrupted him and said, “I’m talking to you, not to the person who ordered you.”
Why are these talk shows important?
Talk shows act as mediators between citizens and governments in the absence of real political representation. The hosts have mastered the art of redirecting blame by calling government officials and holding them accountable for their shortcomings. This constant re-shifting and disassociating channels anger towards government employees who can be criticized on air, or even sacked.
If the leadership steps in, similar to what happened to Ali Al-Mazrouei, it reaffirms the patriarchal tradition in the Gulf, by extending a helping hand to citizens in need. In the case of the UAE, talks show can even target ministers. A former Minister of Health, Hanif Hassan, was sacked after an episode discussed a misdiagnosed Emirati patient. During the episode, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid called and offered to pay the full cost of the treatment abroad.
What makes Bu Rashid’s show unique and effective is the small population of the UAE, especially in comparison with Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the half-elected Federal National Council as well as some influential social media personalities play a role in public debate, even if the topics discussed remain relatively limited.
Dawood Al-Shirian’s latest show came in at a time when the space allocated for public debate has changed dramatically. The rise of nationalism and takhwin has led some enthusiasts to attack the show, arguing that it promotes unrest and destabilizes the society. It is no wonder then that Al-Shirian’s show has divided public opinion. On the one hand, some have voiced optimism, arguing that Al-Shirian is raising the bar of freedom of expression, while others have criticized the show’s discussion of sensitive issues, demanding that the it must be stopped. In any case, the public debate that follows Al-Shirian’s show seems to have achieved its objective by channeling anger away from the current climate, and allowing room for expressing views on issues assigned by the program and its host.