On the outside, reality TV shows may appear like harmless entertainment, but does this Western formula translate just as well in the Gulf?
Who remembers The Real World, American Idol, Big Brother, Survivor, The Amazing Race, The Apprentice (when Donald Trump was nothing more than a businessman), or even Keeping Up with the Kardashians circa 2007? Though there was some truly trashy content being produced at the time (we’re looking at you, The Swan), the reality TV of the 1990s and early aughts appears tame, and almost enlightening in comparison to contemporary content. Over the last couple of decades, the genre has gained traction, adapting to, and changing with the times. And often cross-pollinating with the many platforms available at our fingertips to propel their stars even further into the spotlight, and embed them deeper into our psyches. And though there is still room for more innocuous, uplifting, and worthwhile reality TV, it appears that the entertainment media landscape of today is geared towards a more voyeuristic, potentially damaging kind of show.
During the early uncertain, volatile days of the Covid-19 pandemic, I binged on Love is Blind and watched in horror, the very public undoing of Jessica Batten. I hate-watched Bling Empire as I tried to while away the hours during which I was not hustling for work in a complicated economic climate. I acquainted myself with the catty ladies of the Real Housewives franchise when I could not spend time with my friends due to lockdowns or social distancing. Here in the Middle East, we had been watching these shows from afar; the Ramonas, Lisas, and Nenes of the world were characters I would never meet in the real world. But in 2022, those reality shows landed on our shores. Dubai Bling. Real Housewives of Dubai. Dubai Hustle. Inside Dubai: Playground of the Rich. The entertainment, the drama, the fallouts, and the people were now very, very close to home.
Case in point, Fadie Musallet – a Dubai Bling cast member whose storyline begins in episode four of the first season. I ran into the affable entrepreneur at a community event, and he graciously spoke to his experience on the much-talked-about reality show that follows the lives of “10 self-made millionaires” from the UAE, Saudi, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Iraq who all call Dubai home. Musallet initially turned down the opportunity to appear on the show, admitting he got cold feet. “Reality shows can either make you look good or bad,” says the Palestinian- American founder of the Invite Only DXB entertainment agency, founder of non-profit organization The Giving Family, and cousin of multiple awardwinning global superstar DJ Khaled. “With me, what you see is what you get, and I decided I had nothing to lose by just being myself.” Did it pay off? “I am happy to say I was part of Dubai Bling Season 1, the most watched reality show in the history of the Middle East,” he says. Netflix turned down our request for comment, but their figures show that Dubai Bling was in the streaming service’s global top 10 non- English shows for four consecutive weeks after its launch in October 2022. The show was undoubtedly a commercial success, as was Bravo’s Real Housewives of Dubai (RHOD), which follows a “dynamic group of lavish women as they run business empires and expertly navigate a highly exclusive social scene” in Dubai, which show producers refer to as “an ultra-luxe Billionaire’s Playground.”
Though we had been offered a taste of reality TV with shows such as Star Academy, a hugely popular Lebanese talent show – which stopped airing in 2013 but has started filming a brand-new season (from Saudi Arabia this time) – Arab Idol, Arabs Got Talent, and other Western competition-based shows adapted to the region, this new breed of shows hit different. They were not well received by locals and expats alike – commercial successes aside. An Emirati commentator criticized the RHOD saying the women featured in the show did not represent the women of his country. One of the show’s stars, Emirati entrepreneur Sara Al-Madani, responded by emphasizing this show was all about breaking long-held stereotypes about the region and its women. Musallet echoes the sentiment, insisting that long-held traditions are changing. “This is Generation Z, and we have to adapt to it,” says the 44-year-old. “It’s a different world we’re living in, and we can’t continue to live in the past the way our parents did.”
From a collective perspective, reality shows can have a deep influence on society – both negative and positive. Dr Diana Cheaib Houry, CDA-licensed psychologist at Dubai’s Thrive Wellbeing Centre, says the impact can begin to be felt on individuals, move on to families, and later to communities and extend throughout society. She acknowledges the Arab world’s long-standing passion for television and cinema, and the media’s powerful reflections on values, culture, and challenges. And ultimately, their power to effect a shift in these areas through the exploration of topics that can be deemed taboo. “It takes decades for certain values to change if change is needed,” says Dr Cheaib Houry. “When shows stray far from a society’s values and traditions, then a certain resistance is normal, if not healthy. Acceptance and integration are not necessary, but they are needed to maintain critical thinking about what we receive as content, even if it is initially meant for entertainment.”
Back in 2016, Emirati pop diva Ahlam starred in her own reality show following her stint as a judge on Arab Idol. The Queen challenged participants from across the region to become the singer’s best friend by competing against each other for the diva’s affections. The show was axed after only one episode, as regional viewers complained, outraged by the show’s egotistical, vapid nature. A line had been crossed. A few years before Ahlam, Paris Hilton – the queen bee of reality TV – had landed in Dubai to search for her new “best friend” as part of Paris Hilton’s Dubai BFF, a spin-off of Paris Hilton’s My New BFF, a show that the star later admitted was intended as a business move in her growing empire. The quality of the influence of reality shows, Dr Cheaib Houry considers, depends on the topics, dynamics, and values that they choose to emphasize. “Many shows focus on wealth, power, and success linked to materialistic possessions, consumerism, competition, jealousy, beauty – external and superficial aspects of the personality,” she explains. “Promoting success and wealth as a goal and a key for happiness without speaking to difficulties and challenges can be a source of frustration rather than empowerment and inspiration. Happiness, satisfaction, and balance are not mass productions; they are aligned with each person’s values, priorities, and vision of life.”
Though studies pertaining to the connection between reality TV and mental health have not been conducted, Dr Cheaib Houry encourages maintaining a critical discourse with family and friends when it comes to consuming content that is meant primarily to entertain, but whose effects can seep into the fabric of day-to-day life. “Exposure to values that conflict with our culture can increase identity conflicts,” she says. “Encouraging exclusively materialistic values and superficial aspects of personalities can impact self-esteem and body image. Aggressive and competitive communication, excluding each other, and judging each other can foster social anxiety, jealousy, and competition between people, rather than promoting empathy and tolerance.”
Reality shows, she says, suggest that what they are presenting is real; when viewers are watching a show qualified as such, they are more likely to lower their guard along with their capacity to critique, filter, and reflect. “What we often miss in reality shows is that the scenarios and themes are well-studied, focusing on conflicts, rivalry, scandals, power, and competition,” says Dr Cheaib Houry. “So, what might appear as spontaneous isn’t in fact that spontaneous.” I asked Musallet about that fight, a scene in episode five of Dubai Bling that left me shocked, and frankly, embarrassed. Was it scripted? “We’re human, you know. Fights happen every day,” he says. “None of it was scripted. If everyone was getting along on the show, it would be boring, and we wouldn’t have a season two, right?”
Originally published in the March 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia