In what is being hailed as a milestone, Egyptian director Mohamed Diab recently became the first Arab helmer to direct a Marvel project when he took the reins of the limited series “Moon Knight,” while Netflix launched its latest Arab original show, “Finding Ola,” toplining Cairo-based Tunisian star Hend Sabry. Sabry plays a happy divorcee who embarks on a journey of self-discovery, reflecting changing female roles in the region and the streamer’s thematically groundbreaking Middle East strategy.
Meanwhile, Egyptian producer Mohammed Hefzy, whose production company Film Clinic was behind Netflix’s first Egyptian original skein, “Paranormal,” became a member of the 2022 Intl. Emmy Awards jury.
Hefzy points out that “Moon Knight” “opens doors for other Arab directors in the international TV arena” and notes that Marvel has also hired other behind-the-camera Egyptian talents such as editor Ahmed Hafez and composer Hesham Nazih. But still, it’s a Hollywood show.
“The issue with Arab television is that so far it hasn’t been exportable,” says the Cairo-based producer. “We have seen very few Arab series that travel around the world. I think that’s the next barrier that we should be knocking down.”
Hefzy’s experience with “Para-normal,” a show set in 1960s Egypt and based on a series of bestselling Arabic horror books, was stimulating for him, he says, because it was seen in some markets outside the Middle East.
But what’s lacking in the region are more traditional ways of packaging TV shows for global play, through international sales at markets like Mipcom. “We need to have a bigger presence at these events,” Hefzy says.
So far, the Arab series that have made the biggest international inroads are “Finding Ola” and Netflix’s Jordanian “Al Rawabi School for Girls,” which follows a group of high-schoolers plotting revenge on a trio of bullies. It also portrays physical and sexual violence against women as well as the overwhelming patriarchy in Arab society. It landed in the top 10 list on Netflix in several countries around the world.
Both “Ola” and “Al Rawabi” have been renewed by Netflix for a second season.
The arrival of streamers on the Arab TV scene has, of course, helped Arab series break out of national confines. Streamer subscriptions across the Arab world are expected to more than double over the next five years, with Netflix, the current regional market leader, remaining firmly ahead of the pack.
According to a recent study conducted across 13 Arabic countries by London-based research firm Digital TV Research, paid SVOD subs in the Middle East are set to rise from 9.49 million in 2021 to 21.5 million by 2027.
Amid this growth, “Netflix will continue to lead the market, although Disney+ has provided a strong challenge since [entering the market in] June,” says the firm’s chief analyst Simon Murray .
Right behind Netflix in the the Arab world is Shahid VIP, the streaming service from top regional broadcaster MBC. It’s been churning out some high-end shows — the latest standout skein is “The Devil’s Promise,” created by British screenwriter Tony Jordan (“Life on Mars”) and directed by Colin Teague (“Being Human”). It’s about an Egyptian contractor named Ibrahim who secures a gigantic project to redevelop a Cairo slum on the same day his wife is diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor. Refusing to accept the prognosis, Ibrahim tries everything in his power to save her, including promising his soul to Iblis, aka the devil, after his death.
“MBC are really doing interesting work,” says Hefzy, who notes that “if anybody from the region is really going to break out, they have the best shot.”
Though Arab TV still lacks a big global breakout show, there are some encouraging examples of Arabic series starting to play beyond of national confines. Conversely, there is also a tendency to adapt Western shows such as “Suits” and “The Office” locally which, while not rooted in the local DNA, can help the industry hone a more international vision.
The following is a select list of standout Arabic TV series in various stages:
Cairo-based Tunisian film and TV star Held Sabry made her debut as an executive producer on this Netflix Arab Original skein, which she pitched to the streamer. She plays a woman who embarks on a journey of self-discovery after her divorce.
The show sees Sabry reprise her role as the beloved Ola Abdel-Sabour character that she played a decade ago in groundbreaking social drama “I Want to Get Married.” While in the original, Ola was under pressure to get married before turning 30, a decade later she is divorced and juggling responsibilities as a mother, a daughter, her job as a pharmacist and also her new attempts at finding love. Beyond the built-in pan-Arab appeal with “Finding Ola,” Netflix is also looking to draw audiences across the global market.
Rise of the Witches
This fantasy-adventure, based on a series of best-selling Saudi books set in ancient Arabia about an epic war between two rival witch covens, is touted as the biggest-budget series ever produced with a predominantly homegrown Saudi cast.
The storyline revolves around two witches who use magical powers and martial arts and form their own groups in a world dominated by male magicians. The 10-episode series, which is currently shooting, is an original for MBC Group’s pan-Arab streaming platform Shahid VIP, and co-helmed by Emmy-nominated Declan O’Dwyer (“Miss Scarlet and the Duke”) and Craig Pickles (“London Kills”).
The Devil’s Promise
Created by British screenwriter Tony Jordan (“Life on Mars”) and directed by Colin Teague (“Being Human”) this high-end MBC Studios production is about an Egyptian contractor named Ibrahim. He secures a big project to redevelop a Cairo slum on the same day his wife is diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor. Refusing to accept the prognosis, Ibrahim tries everything in his power to save her, including promising his soul to Iblis, aka the devil, after his death.
The hit U.S. show created by Aaron Korsh recently got a high-end Arabic adaptation that is playing successfully on pan-Arab satellite pay-TV and streaming service Orbit Showtime Network (OSN) and Egyptian broadcaster UMS. The Arabic “Suits” adaptation is penned by Egyptian multi-hyphenate Mohamed Hefzy and Yasser Abdel Mageed. Set in Cairo and directed by Myriam Ahmadi, it features an A-list local cast, including Asser Yassin (“Messages From the Sea”), Ahmed Dawood and Saba Mubarak (“Amira”). NBCUniversal Formats is handling sales outside the Middle East.
BBC Studios and MBC Studios recently teamed on the first Arabic-language adaptation of the hit British comedy series “The Office.”
Egypt’s Hisham Fathi (“Ending So Gently”) is directing the Saudi Arabia-set show, which started shooting in June with Italy’s Alessandro Martella serving as director of photography.
In the Saudi adaptation, “Al Maktab” is set in a courier services company, with Saleh Abuamrh (“The Fates Hotel”) as Malik Al-Tuwaifi, the company’s self-absorbed yet lovable boss.
The plan is for the 20-episode series to air on MBC’s linear TV channels, and stream on its Shahid VIP streaming platform.