x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A Queen in the Kingdom

The focus on her sway over American voters obscured her growing popularity in international markets.

Oprah Winfrey, seen here with tv journalist Barbara Walters, is making her influence felt in the Gulf.
Oprah Winfrey, seen here with tv journalist Barbara Walters, is making her influence felt in the Gulf.

Just how powerful is Oprah Winfrey? It is a question that swirled through the international press for much of the past year, as the "Queen of all media" - as Time magazine dubbed her - threw her support behind a presidential candidate for the first time in the 22-year history of her top-rated talk show. Much ink was spilt on whether Winfrey's celebrity endorsement of then presidential hopeful Barack Obama would really have an effect; more continues to drip over whether her reputation suffered as a result of her stepping into the political arena. But two things are clear: Mr Obama will be the next president of the US, and those who underestimate Winfrey's ability to affect society probably do so at their peril. But all the focus on her sway over American voters obscured her growing popularity in international markets, particularly the Middle East, where her show is among the top three rated western programmes on MBC4, the pan-Arab satellite station aimed at young Arab women. It has taken an especially strong hold in Saudi Arabia, where it is watched by 600,000 viewers a day, according to MBC network figures. Saudi women latch on to Winfrey for an array of reasons, ranging from her modest dress to her rags-to-riches personal narrative, which in some ways mirrors the desert kingdom's own, says Mazen Hayek, the group director of marketing, PR and commercial at MBC. "The fact that Oprah is a self-made woman who made it to the top by counting on herself gives people a lot of hope and sends out the message that nothing is impossible in life," he said. "This is the main reason behind Oprah's popularity. In addition to that, some of the female audience see in her a platform for self-expression, self-identification and for greater engagement in society. So they talk to their society and to their family members through programmes like Oprah." Many of the topics Winfrey tackles are taboo in Saudi Arabia, a country where the sexes are strictly segregated and subjects such as sex and race are rarely discussed. Winfrey's show allows Saudi men and women to get advice on relationships and other family problems that might be hard to talk about in another context, Mr Hayek says. The Oprah Winfrey Show has been broadcast in Saudi Arabia since Nov 2004. Within the first few months, the Arabic-subtitled show became the highest-rated English-language programme among women 25 and younger, a demographic that makes up about a third of Saudi Arabia's population. Winfrey remains an idol among Saudi women, having a regular page devoted to her in Sayidaty, the largest-circulation Saudi women's magazine. The New York Times reports that dog-eared copies of O, The Oprah Magazine, which is not sold in the kingdom, are passed around by women who collect them during trips abroad. Despite the eager fan base, there are no plans to publish O magazine in Saudi Arabia, according to Jeannette Chang, the senior vice president of Hearst Magazines International, which publishes O in partnership with Winfrey's Harpo Entertainment Group. "Her show has grown to a point where she is such an incredible household name, but magazines are something different," Ms Chang says. "It was a lot of years before she decided to have a magazine." After having her own talk show for 14 years, Winfrey launched O in 2000. The only international version to date is the South African edition, which was launched in 2002. Despite her hesitation at entering the print market in the Middle East, Winfrey has been reaching out to her viewers in the region, just last week picking 10-year-old scuba diving twins from Abu Dhabi to appear on her show as part of competition to find the world's most talented children. "They are trying in some ways to internationalise the show, and gratifying viewers in the Arab world is part of that," Mr Hayek says. "I'm sure the producers of the show know, as we know, that she has a huge following here." A spokesman from Harpo referred all questions to MBC. Mr Hayek sees a thread connecting Winfrey's success in the region with the station's biggest ratings-maker, the Arabic-dubbed Turkish soap opera Noor, which also appeals disproportionately to women. During the season's finale in August, 85 million people were watching throughout the Arab world - 50 million of them female, MBC says. Like The Oprah Winfrey Show, Noor carried within its melodramatic storylines some basic tenets of respect for women and the need to balance duty with personal freedom. The series revolves around Noor, a young Turkish woman from modest means, as she struggles with her arranged marriage to the rich and handsome young businessman, Muhannad. The programme has one foot in traditional culture, with its arranged marriages and deference to elders, and another in Turkey's more liberal society, where women are rarely veiled. "I think the same phenomenon of female self-expression, self-identification and engagement are found in common between the two programmes," Mr Hayek says. "Arab women were able to identify themselves with the storyline, and television was able to trigger something within the audience." As with Winfrey, Noor's greatest impact is in Saudi Arabia, where three to four million people watch the show daily out of a population of 27 million, according to the network. The phenomenon caught the attention of Saudi's clerics, several of whom issued fatwas against it. In late July, Saudi Arabia's leading cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al Asheikh, issued a statement banning Muslims from watching Turkish soap operas. Several of the channels airing the programmes, including MBC, have Saudi owners. MBC declines to comment on the fatwas, but the record ratings it earned the next month spoke for themselves. They underscore another recent finding by the advertising agency JWT and the market research firm AMRB, which looked into the patterns forming within different segments of Muslim consumers. The report's authors discovered, much to their surprise, that Saudi Arabia had a relatively low percentage of "religious conservatives" - 18 per cent - compared with countries such as Jordan and Egypt, which had more than 40 and 50 per cent, respectively. The bulk of Saudi society was divided evenly between "societal conformists" (35 per cent), who are not particularly religious but believe that social norms should be adhered to above personal choice, and "new-age Muslims" (33 per cent), who are religious but support female empowerment and realise the potential of the internet. "They are living within the world, they are pro-media," said Roy Haddad, the chairman and chief executive of JWT MENA, a unit of the advertising agency JTW. "They can manage that harmony between their need for modernity and progress and their religious belief." Balance and harmony are two mainstays of Winfrey's message, on both television and the printed page. So perhaps it should not be a surprise that a major sector of Saudi society looks to her to help maintain it - or that her show's producers are now reaching out to Middle Eastern audiences directly. "Oprah as a modest personality, as a healer and as a self-made person rings a bell in areas of the world where social issues are more pressing than in other areas," Mr Hayek says. "So they [the show's producers] probably want to reach out to the Arabs to inject greater hope into their societies." khagey@thenational.ae