By Sarah Dadouch
BEIRUT – “They call Dubai the Diamond City”.
So begins the new drama-packed Netflix reality television show "Dubai Bling," which follows a handful of self-proclaimed millionaires living – and quarrelling – in the sparkling hub of the United Arab Emirates.
The show became an instant hit after debuting late last month. It was Netflix’s third-most-watched non-English-language TV show on the week of its release. The next week, it rose to second place.
Few, if any, shows from the Gulf have captured the attention of such an international audience.
Even in the Middle East, the most popular shows have traditionally come from Egypt and Syria; shows produced in the Gulf, which tend to be more conservative and male-heavy, mainly appeal to local audiences.
But the biting mean-girl theatrics, high-quality production and outrageous plotlines of "Dubai Bling" have quickly attracted a large following.
Last week, it was the most watched show in Morocco, Lebanon and Jordan, as well as in all Gulf countries, according to Netflix. In Egypt, it was second.
Dubai has long been an international city, and the show is no different: of the 10 main characters, only two are Emiratis. The rest are Indian, Lebanese, Iraqi, Kuwaiti, Saudi and Mexican American.
Origins are mentioned at the beginning, then brushed aside. Characters switch between English and various dialects of Arabic with ease, often mid-sentence. Perhaps most impressively, the captions never miss a beat.
Rarely does entertainment from the region reflect its diversity of dialects, though it has became more common to see a subtle mix of accents on Middle Eastern shows over the past decade, especially those from Lebanon, as collaboration with Syrian actors and directors who fled their country's civil war has grown.
Each Arab country boasts its own form of Arabic. The popularity of Egyptian and Syrian shows made those dialects familiar in households across the Middle East. Syrian has also become increasingly recognisable as the popularity of Turkish shows, dubbed into Arabic by mostly Syrian actors, exploded in the past two decades.
But many viewers wrestle with unfamiliar dialects. Cultural and linguistic differences also mean there are different taboos and different senses of humour that may not translate easily across audiences.
Although "Dubai Bling" is often risqué, it avoids any mention of premarital sex, an off-limits topic in the overwhelmingly conservative Middle East.
But it tackles religiously and culturally sensitive issues. Safa Siddiqui, a British-Iraqi woman with the bored eyeroll of a brunette Paris Hilton, is surprised when her Lebanese and Saudi female friends reject her idea of using a surrogate to have a child.
The notion was later gently critiqued to the camera by Lojain Omran, a Saudi former TV presenter who evokes Glinda the Good Witch and is wont to hand out words of wisdom.
“This specific subject, we can’t delve very deep into it because it's not popular and not acceptable, whether religiously or socially,” she said.
But Omran herself is not shy about criticising Arab society. In the West, she said, unlike in the Middle East, society values what was inside a woman’s head more than her looks and youth.
The widespread appeal of the show, however, owes less to its cultural introspection and more to all the gossiping and fighting – and the diamonds, oh so many diamonds.
Social media platforms across the Middle East were quickly peppered with memes from some of its most iconic moments.
A favourite is from Zeina Khoury, a Lebanese real estate CEO, repeating, “I am the company”, with increasing force to a foe asking to speak to the owner of her firm.
Perhaps the most quoted character is Loujain Adada, a 32-year-old Lebanese mother of two whose Saudi billionaire husband passed away five years ago.
Her one-liners include “I have a saying: I’m rich, but I love a gift,” and “I’m not playing hard to get. I am hard to get”.
The content of "Dubai Bling" is not “edgy at all”, said Joseph Fahim, an Egyptian cultural critic.
“It’s a one-off,” said Fahim, adding that “meaningfully edgy” Arab-produced TV shows can be found on Shahid, the online platform belonging to the Saudi-owned MBC Group, the Middle East’s largest broadcaster.
Fahim said the success of the show was testament to Netflix’s reach as a platform, but in the region, “Shahid and MBC are still king”. Egypt’s economic woes will probably not have a big impact on the entertainment industry, he predicted, because it is “way too big and way too lucrative to even be affected by something like this”.
The biggest Arab on-screen talent hails from Egypt, as it always has. But as some parts of the Gulf open up and loosen their censorship laws, they have started to lure talent away from Egypt.
“The opening up that happened in Saudi Arabia is the best thing that happened to Egypt,” he said.
Egyptian films are blowing up in the kingdom after it allowed cinemas to open and defanged the religious police, leading to a general easing of cultural conservatism.
While Netflix’s content might not be as daring, what it offers Arab talent, from actors to directors, is a global audience.
Nuha Eltayeb, Netflix’s director of content acquisitions for the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey, said the platform’s audiences are “coming to Netflix to discover and fall in love with content they may not have had access to elsewhere”.
“In the Arab world, we have so many talented and passionate writers, directors, film-makers, and producers from diverse cultures, with different traditions, upbringings, and lifestyles and they bring all of that to life in their content, which makes their work unique and authentic.”
And the topic of authenticity lies at the heart of "Dubai Bling," where its stars are always fighting over who is and isn’t “fake” – reality TV's most universal question.
“Dubai Bling” is streaming on Netflix.