How Netflix Is Transforming the Middle East

Netflix launched its services to the Middle East in 2016. Since then, Netflix has exponentially increased the number of subscriptions every year. Now, Netflix has almost 50 million subscriptions in the Middle East, Europe, and the northern Africa region (EMEA). It is a great success story for Netflix to achieve this much subscriptions in just four years.

Left to Right: A photo by Tamas Pap, and Al-Aksa Mosque, Jerusalem by Cole Keister on Unsplash

Netflix has been in our lives for over a decade and has turned into a global platform for the movie industry within the last years. Many were doubtful of its growing and global acceptance, and many people expected a cold war among the Netflix and film producer companies or companies that run physical cinemas. Nevertheless, this did not happen, at least not in front of the scene. Netflix had a firm ground in the cinema industry for carrying it to the next level.

I remained eye-closed for such a significant change in the digital world until 2020. I used to think about what good I might find in it. But now, I understood that the approach of mine was wrong. I came to cross with a piece of news that Netflix produces a series about the Ottoman Empire named Rise of Empires: Ottoman Empire. It was a mind-blowing moment for me and decided to subscribe to it.

As a record, I felt I should note one thing down here. I will not discuss or talk about the content, authenticity, or the factuality of the events that the movies were inspired to be produced. However, I am not a specialist in this to make such comments on any movie. But I want to try and share my observations on how Netflix could transform the world, especially in regions struggling with crises like the Middle East.

Before, people would usually watch two types of movies in the Middle East. The first was their own countries’ movies, and the second was Hollywood. Bollywood or the regional ones might be the third one. We were all under the influence of such movies one way around. This is not bad, but Netflix could change this forever.

I am originally from Turkey and spent my life watching Turkish movies and Western ones. When I first watched a Bollywood movie, it was a great experience seeing a movie from a different culture and background from India that is mosaic and of diverse cultures. First, I became familiar with the Indian culture. Second, I felt sympathy for India and Indian people after watching many great movies of Bollywood. This clearly shows how movies play an influential role in making assumptions, perceptions, and expectations of us. By the way, I am a super fan of Shah Rukh Khan, the King of Bollywood.

Shah Rukh Khan

Once a time, Shah Rukh Khan was asked about the religion of his children by reporters. He has a background of Islam and his wife of Hinduism, and responded, ‘I am a Muslim, my wife is Hindu, and my kids are Hindustan.’ He does not influence the life of people only with his very famous side of acting but his views, thoughts, and the way he lives as well.

Now what I am discovering with Netflix is that the scope of my movie preferences was narrow and so biased. Netflix brings movies and series from different parts of the world on a single platform. This is revolutionizing the cinema sector. Now anyone could watch great movies from any country which they never imagined before.

I never thought that I would watch a movie that was made by Israeli producers until I started watching Netflix. That is not a remark of racism. In my home country, the mainstream media would never stream a movie or even a short clip from Israel. As it is not enough, the media outlets never make a single positive narrative about Israel due to the political issues going on for more than a half-century. However, I found a chance to watch an Israeli production on Netflix. As I noted above, my primary concern is not the content of the movies. The mention of some movies does not mean that I advise them or endorse the content of them.

The first movie I watched was the controversial series called Fauda. In the movie, the Israeli producer attempts to show how radicalism in Palestine and terrorism in the region affect the Israel-Palestine relations, and how Israel enforcement agencies are mighty of overcoming any of such radicalizations and the act of terrorism. The second movie I watched was The Spy. The Spy shows how Israel played a vital role in the founding of the Ba’ath Regime of the Assad family in Syria. The series is based on a true story, as claimed by the producer. I had never actually heard of such an occurrence that politically happened between Israel and Syria before I watched the series.

By watching these series, I saw the life, culture, and, most importantly, the people of Israel for the first time. Turkish dramas are also very popular in Israel. Most Arabs reacted to this series as it is biased, one-sided, and unobjective. But they saw the culture and people of Israel on Netflix at least as a plus point on whatever they assume about Israel. This is an excellent start to understanding each other at first.

Netflix’s first Arabic original series called Jinn sparked uproar in Jordon in 2017. Another original series of Netflix, Messiah, also stunningly attracted the attention of the people. Some states in the Middle East wanted to censor it with the claim that the image of Islam was poorly shown in the series. Like many other viewers, I watched the series at a sitting.

I also watched a Swedish series for the first time on Netflix called the Caliphate. It was a series based on stories about Swedish intelligence and ISIS that discussed the terrifying effects of ISIS’s long-arm on Swedish youth. The producers perfectly storied how ISIS recruits the youths in the center of Europe and how they are taken to the Raqqa at ease. I believe that all Muslims who mainly live in Europe must watch this series. They will receive more information and be aware of the tricks of terror groups like ISIS on how they recruit the youth. It would be a good way to see how they should try to protect their children from such terrible terror groups.

Another series called Designated Survivor disturbed the Turkish state a lot with the 7th episode of the second season. I was astonished when I watched the episode based on a story related to political tensions among the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the self-exiled, Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gulen and its effects on American-Turkish politics. The series depicted Erdogan as in an image of an authoritarian leader and Gulen as a very respected scholar in the US. Indeed, the story was true. This episode was aired in 2017, and since then, the Erdogan regime has been very disturbed and annoyed with it.

Netflix has a growing market in Turkey with 1.5 million subscriptions. It is around 10% of the countries broadcast household. The Erdogan regime knows well how broadcasting, social media like YouTube and Netflix are influential. Turkey pressed the button and made all necessary law changes to be able to monitor all platforms, including Netflix and YouTube, like the traditional media outlets. After the law changed, Turkey’s Broadcasting Watchdog censored the concerned-episode of Designated Survivor, and Netflix remained with only one option in hand and removed the specific episode only from Netflix-Turkey.

The censorship approach of the states in the Middle East creates tensions among the segments of the societies. From one side, people are getting more ‘liberated’ with technological developments, and on the other side, authoritarian regimes fight back to halt this digital evolution. Turkish youths’ hatred against the Erdogan regime increased in the past years, according to new public surveys. The youths are against any restrictions on any social media. Is it specifically only in Turkey? No. Arab youths also have huge problems with the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East. As much as these authoritarian regimes want to restrict the internet and social platforms, the anger of the youths grows.

Ideological, cultural, and political movies and series would increase shortly. Turkish dramas are so popular among Arabs, Israelis, and central Asia adding Pakistan and Afghanistan in this group, too. The famous Turkish drama, The Magnificent Century found a lot of fans among Arabs in the Gulf countries. Saudi-lead Gulf states decided to produce a drama to break the soft power of Turkey’s influence over the historical drama that storied the Ottoman approach of Turkey in the region. As a response, The Kingdom of Fire was produced explicitly for that reason by Arab countries, and it was aired last year to show how tyranny the Ottomans were. Will it end with this? I don’t think so. This war on broadcasting social media will get warmer and more tactical in the coming years. And, it seems that a new sort of a war concept at our doorsteps.

Another Turkish series, Yunus Emre, which might be criticized a lot by Arabs and Iranians, is airing on Netflix. The episodes successfully show the way of understanding of Anatolian Islam or Sufism. In an era of radicalism, the message of the series against radicalization is too strong, and the image of Islam is displayed very moderately. Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, wanted Pakistani to watch Yunus Emre and ordered it to be telecasted in Pakistan. Who knows, we might see a new series about Mullah’s life and the version of Iran’s Islam or other series heavily influenced by Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia on Netflix or other platforms soon as a response against the series of moderate Islam of Turkey that is popular in the region.

Nevertheless, Netflix style broadcasting social media would not only transform our lives but the regions struggling with crises like the Middle East in the world. We need to know more about our lives, cultures, and people rather than the political ideology imposed by our states. All internet written-contents have its limitations and narrowness in doing this so. However, the broadcasting media is different and revolutionary. Netflix and other alternative social media platforms could help us become more connected and get to know each other better if used wisely and sophisticatedly.

Now, I am willing and able to watch movies from different parts of the world on Netflix. For example, I have never watched a movie/series from such countries as Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Kazakhstan. Still, Netflix is able to provide this more or less on a single platform for everyone.

The projection for Netflix’s total subscriptions by 2023 is 400 million if all goes the same in a line. It would mean at least 100 million subscriptions in the Middle East, Europe, and the northern Africa region (EMEA). Nowadays, people mostly stay at home and spend more time on the internet due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and because of this, Netflix could reach this milestone earlier. Moreover, this would mean a positive change in the Middle East and the adjacent regions in the long term period.

Educator, Author and Activist

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