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New Saudi TV drama aims to counter Islamic State propaganda

Show underlines Saudi's self-appointed role as bulwark against extremism but critics say kingdom is sponsor of violence and intolerance
A woman performs in a scene from the series Black Crows, believed to have been filmed in Lebanon (Reuters)

In an effort to counter the sleek propaganda of the Islamic State (IS) group, a Saudi-owned television channel has launched a drama series portraying the harsh realities of life within the so-called caliphate.

The $10m project - which will be beamed across the Arab world by satellite channel MBC - reflects the kingdom's self-appointed role at the forefront of the fight against extremism which was underlined during US President Donald Trump's visit in May.

Black Crows shows women and children living under the militants and is the first television drama to tackle subjects such as mass murder and rape, contrasting sharply with the idyll of heroism and holy war projected by IS on social media.

"The main audience we target, the most important and dangerous, are those who are prone to support and even join terrorist organisations," MBC spokesman Mazen Hayek told Reuters in an interview.

"Media is part of their [IS] offensive strategy. Thus media organisations have the right, actually the duty, to face such an offensive - which is well-funded and on the internet and social media - with this series," he said.

But actors and MBC have told local media that they have received online death threats from IS supporters because of the show.

Filmed in Lebanon, the series, which runs for more than 20 episodes, started on Saturday and follows the widow of an IS commander turned leader of a women's morality police force. There are scenes of gutted homes, mass graves, big explosions and gunmen waving black flags.

Plot-lines include women from the Yazidi religion being captured and forced into sex slavery, child soldiers and a woman with a forlorn love life moving to territory held by the group to become a "jihadi bride".

Since IS launched its lightning offensive across Iraq and Syria, staging beheadings and releasing carefully crafted films to draw in new recruits, Arab and Western governments have sought to counter their message.

Women perform in a scene from 'Black Crows' series, believed to be filmed in Lebanon (Reuters)

Battling radicalism

During Trump's Riyadh visit, Saudi King Salman unveiled a Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology to monitor and rebut extremist material online, and now maintains a new Ideological war centre within its defence ministry.

"The media alone is not enough, we need religious institutes, clerics and mosques to work with the media in combating radicalism," said Najat al-Saeed, a Saudi analyst who has written a book on Arab satellite TV.

"There is progress, but it's slow and is not enough for the reformists or the global community."

The show will aim to reach a big audience of Muslim viewers as they break their fast in the evening for the holy month of Ramadan - a prime season for TV dramas. MBC together with its sister entertainment and movie channels are the most watched network in the Arab world. The subject matter strays widely from traditional programmes, including Middle East period dramas or romantic soaps.

A woman performs in a scene from 'Black Crows' series, believed to be filmed in Lebanon (Reuters)

However, Syrian actress Dima al-Jundi, who plays the morality enforcer, says only art can convey the depth of human suffering the group has wrought, in a way viewers need to see.

"If you open YouTube, you'll find videos of murder or suicide bombings. But the details of their daily life, how they recruit kids, how they abuse women - this you wouldn't know."

Yet in some quarters Saudi Arabia is viewed as a sponsor of extremism. Suspicions about the kingdom's role in the UK were heightened yesterday when a report into the foreign funding of so-called extremist Islamic groups was not published. Tom Brake, a foreign affairs spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats political party, wrote a letter to the prime minister asking what steps she proposes to take to address “one of the root causes of violent extremism in the UK”.

The UK has recently approved $4.5bn of arms sales to the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia follows an ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam, but sees IS as posing a threat to its own stability. IS denounces the al-Saud family as ungodly rulers for their alliance with the United States and has staged attacks in the country.

Senior clerics, whose influence in Saudi society forms part of a covenant with the royal family dating to the kingdom's founding 250 years ago, endorse execution by beheading for offences that include apostasy, adultery and sorcery, oppose women driving or working and describe Shias as heretics.

The clerics sharply differ, however, from al-Qaeda and IS Sunni militants in opposing violent revolt against the government.

Saudi Arabia crushed a campaign of al-Qaeda attacks in 2003-06, but has been hit by IS bombings in the past two years. Saudi security police closely monitor Saudis with suspected connections to militants and have detained more than 15,000 suspects in the years since al-Qaeda's campaign.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.