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Al-Assouf, set in the 1970s and aired on satellite broadcaster MBC during Ramadan, has emerged as a cultural flashpoint Image Credit:

Riyadh: A Saudi television drama that glorifies a period before the rise of religious fundamentalism has evoked nostalgia about the kingdom’s modern past.

“Al Assouf”, set in the 1970s and aired on satellite broadcaster MBC during the holy fasting month of Ramadan portrays a different Saudi Arabia - a traditional but tolerant society where the sexes mingle unfettered, some women blithely pursue lovers and appear unveiled in musical soirees, and the men appear disinterested in controlling what they wear.

That image of Saudi society chimes with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s repeated assertion that the kingdom was a cradle of moderate Islam until 1979, a turning point that marked the birth of conservatism.

That year saw an Islamic revolution in arch-rival Iran and a militant siege of Makkah’s Grand Mosque, which the crown prince has said gave conservatives free rein to enforce an austere vision of Islam.

Our communities are in need of an Al Assouf that is capable of sending us back to our first life, or in the correct sense, our simple life before we changed for the worse.”

 - Ali Al Zuabi | Professor at Kuwait University


While conservatives in the country have voiced their distaste for the show, moderates, including Al Assouf’s lead actor Nasser Al Kasabi, have fiercely defended it.

“Extremists are against it because they believe it is an attempt to destroy what they built over the next two decades (since 1979), which they refer to as the ‘awakening’,” columnist Abdul Rahman Al Rashed wrote in the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al Awsat.

“They are attacking Al Assouf because it has cast light on an era that was deliberately made dark. The raison d’etre of the extremists is to extinguish this light.”

The show comes as Prince Mohammed pursues reforms that mark the biggest cultural shake-up in Saudi Arabia’s modern history.

The reforms have ended decades-long bans on women driving and cinemas and allowed mixed-gender concerts, sidelining hardliners who were once the traditional backers of the royal family.

Others who made regular appearances on television have disappeared from the public eye, and some long known for virulently opposing women’s rights have mysteriously come out in support of the prince’s pro-women reforms.

Columnists in Saudi newspapers have openly called for abolishing the kingdom’s once-feared religious police, whose powers have been clipped.

The modernisation drive has been lauded by the prince’s supporters as a “second awakening”, an idea that Al Assouf appears to promote.

“Our communities are in need of an Al Assouf that is capable of sending us back to our first life, or in the correct sense, our simple life before we changed for the worse,” Ali Al Zuabi, a professor at Kuwait University, told AFP.

The flagship MBC show, aired daily during Ramadan, was filmed two years ago in Abu Dhabi.

The broadcaster said the delay in airing was caused by production reasons, adding that the top-rated show will have two more seasons.