Television in the UAE & Saudi Arabia: An analysis of women’s representation

Television in the UAE & Saudi Arabia: An analysis of women’s representation


This research analyzes the ways in which women are represented on television in Arabic countries; through social programs in the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia.

Since graduation in 2007, I have been employed at Dubai Media Incorporated (DMI). This has awarded me seven years of experience as a news reporter and presenter; which has helped me to understand more about common traits in Arabic television as well as its depiction of women. As a result of this background, the connection between the Arabic women of the television and the country’s government will be the primary subject that this report will explore.

The rationale (epistemological, substantive, and practical) for undertaking this project stems from personal interest towards the research; as workplace experience at DMI included conducting analysis about current affairs and relations between Arabic-Gulf countries and Arabic women. This background raised a personal and moral obligation: to discover whether Arabic women are represented on TV in a negative way and what can be done to support them. This project surrounds a universal matter of gender in-equality and should be addressed as such. Arabic women (like all women around the world) should be able to work and have a proper education instead of being fated to live the life of a housewife. What makes matters more significant is the strategy the government has put in place to deliver on this mandate – manipulating the public through propaganda on common media platforms.

This report will discuss more precisely what can be done if the research concludes that women’s representation is negative on Arabic television (by analyzing the source of the problem). For instance; are religious reasons, customs and traditions, different cultural backgrounds and governmental differences to blame for female representation in the mediaOr are there other factors worth considering?

Secondary research into the topic will aid the report. This research will help reach a logical conclusion of the matter and also vicariously un-cover a niche in this area of study – (there was barely any information directly comparing between these two Arabic countries). So although this means the project will be a more difficult subject to research, it will be thoroughly completed in order to shed light upon the topic. For this reason, a mixed methodology application of quantitative and qualitative methods will be used to conduct my research. Moreover, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been chosen for research because they advocate different rules in TV programming than other Arabic countries even though they all follow the same religion – Islam. Furthermore, women in these two countries have different cultural backgrounds and government.

The role of television as a media platform in the Arab world has been highlighted repeatedly. Arabic TV’s image and perception must therefore be the first thing to be addressed in the process of identifying whether the representation of women is a positive or negative one. In light of this, the project addresses the following questions:
How does Arabic TV present women in a positive or negative way?
What are (and why are there) differences between women’s representation in these two countries, even though they share a common religion?

Women’s experiences of social Arabic TV- harmful or helpful?

Literature Review

Literature dealing directly with the relationship between the Arabic woman and her problems with representation on Arabic TV is virtually non-existent. However, with the continuous development of worldwide media, it is hardly surprising that the Middle East’s opinion of Arabic media has become more sophisticated and modern in many aspects. In light of this, many Arabic television channels have become much more well known and influential than ever before. For example, “Al-Jazeera TV” in Qatar has noticeably developed a stronger base of viewers around the world from its wide-spread signal – something that hasn’t happened to a global Arabic news station before. As a result, the middle-east now has access to a new brand of “universalized” news (Waxman, N.D.).

Consequently, these channels have become more interesting in many aspects. It could even be argued that Arabic women are presented in an equal light to men on their native TV because of the positive attributes it shows women possessing. For example, channels depict women as intelligent and wise on worldwide TV stations in the Middle East; by implying they have the right to be educated, to be independent and to have their own business. Conversely, there are some local Arabic TV channels that do present women negatively. What makes this more significant is how the television stations do nothing to remedy this negative (and purposeful) representation.

References to renowned academic literature will also be included that argues each side of the debate; which for all intents and purposes was substantially difficult to find. Whereas a selection of these studies focus on the positive way Arabic television depicts women, other research is focused only on the differences between Arabic women in the East and the West. On the other hand, other works have sought to discuss merely the negative image Arabic stations impose on their native females. The results and critical opinions within this collected research (as well as primary research) will subsequently form the main body of my essay.

An extensive amount of the work collected on the matter emphasizes dominance over Arabic women; particularly Saudi Arabian women. One of the main books to demonstrate this belief is Paul Danahar’s The New Middle East. Published in 2013, the BBC’s Middle East bureau chief (Danahar) revealed that a new era shaped the Middle East during the Arabic Spring of 2011 which lead to clearer insights of media representatives; thereby changing traditional opinions in some Arabic countries such as Egypt, Libya, Syria and Tunisia. As a result of this, the general consensus of Arabic people (specifically women) within the international community also changed; creating a knock-on effect on the role Islam played in the Middle East during the Arabic Spring as well. Perhaps the most interesting point in this book is that the writer mentions that people (men and women) of the Arabic community can finally speak more openly for the first time. This book is a strong reference with regards to describing women’s cases during the Arabic Spring, but it is perhaps too eager to include such divine constructs as fate, destiny and pre-destination. The outcome of the Arabic Spring revolution will be considered first.

The work of Goetz (1997) asserts that women have developed remarkably for almost three decades now in numerous Muslim countries, and points out organizations must be recognized as being deeply gendered in their structure towards women’s interests in the media. However, Goetz’s results were based upon data from over 30 years ago, and it is unclear if these differences still persist; as it can be clearly seen that many Muslim-Arabic countries have changed a lot during those thirty years. For example, the amount of women appearing in Saudi Arabian media has seen a significant decrease during the last thirty years.

While Goetz’s research may therefore not be as historically relevant as others (her analysis was not based on empirical research, and she does not focus on Saudi Arabia), it is evident that the way television and media is constructed in the Middle East is fundamentally different from other countries (namely those in the West). For example, Saudi women cannot wear what they truly want to wear on the TV screen, or drive a car, and have to face a patriarchal culture every day. This is why Saudi Arabia was specifically chosen for this report.
Keddie (2007 p. 149- 150) feels that it is remarkably interesting to see the difference between Middle Eastern women in the past and the present. She focuses on tracing the development of Middle Eastern women’s history since the rise of Islam, and notes that there have been significant improvements in the Middle East’s women’s suffrage movement. Moreover, the appearance of women in public places reflects this discovery, as well as the fact that females seem to have taken up the pre-dominant role in advertising. However, she argues that women in Saudi Arabia were more open to change in the 1960s and 1970s than they were in the 1980s and 1990s; also that they were more educated, including a higher amount of people studying abroad, had more job opportunities, their own marital choices and better health. But, this all changed because of “the Islamist takeover of the main Saudi mosque in 1979” (Keddie, 2007, p.150).
It seems this reason remains unclear because Saudi Arabia had already been an Islamic country for centuries before; it was the change of the role of the government that lessened women’s rights – an after-effect of the Islamist takeover.
Strong & Hareb (2012) indicate how the amount of digitally competent young females in the UAE who use social media programs is rapidly increasing. Additionally, Strong & Hareb (2012, p. 3) point out that “The UAE is made up of seven emirates, which were separate authorities until the country was formed in 1971. Each emirate is governed by a ruling family; with some services (like education) to be funded and administered by the overall federal government”. Therefore, the UAE has a different television channel for all seven emirates. Moreover, the WAGL (Women as Global Leaders) claim that “Although Emirati females make up only about 5% of the total population, the spotlight recently has been on them as potential future leaders” (WAGL, 2012). Strong & Hareb (2012, p. 3) suggest this means that the UAE government is showing us through television that it is supporting Emirati females to be leaders. Moreover, the government’s media website said that “the UAE has become a model for Arab women in all fields” (WAM, 2009). For the UAE, the situation is more hopeful – there is perhaps more openness felt towards women, whereas in Saudi Arabia, there is no freedom. Females cannot wear what they really want to wear on a TV screen, and usually have to wear traditional, religious clothing.
Mellor, et al (2011) found that some Arabic countries have a new challenge in the media because globalization has brought new opportunities to them. For example, “the United Arab Emirates (UAE) now profile themselves globally as the perfect hybrid link between east and west” (Mellor, et al, 2011, P. 25). Clearly, it can be seen reflected in women’s current affairs in the UAE. This paper agrees with Mellor, because it can clearly be seen that Emirati women have many more opportunities now; whether it be working as a TV presenter or reporter. This study directly correlates to the main analysis of this report: by showing us that Emirati women are represented in a positive way on UAE television.
A similar view to this essay was found in a report by The Dubai School of Government (2011, p1). This report states that “Arab women in particular have become more engaged in political and civic actions; playing a critical leading role in the rapid and historic changes that have swept the region”. This article focuses on women within media and social terms, in a way that implies they are active in their society and that UAE television does help them feel more independent. It seems that UAE TV urges women to be intelligent, to be something more than just a housewife or mother at home, to work or own a business and finally be equal with Emirati men.
Lastly, the work of Saker (2004) reveals that the image of Middle Eastern women in a media landscape often presents them as changed, empowered and advanced. This article will be useful for my research.

Methodology/ Research Method:

As previously mentioned; this project is difficult to research. For this reason a variety of data by using mixed methodology – qualitative and quantitative methods. Additionally, both types of data will be collected in the two countries during the summer.
This study encompasses two different types of research to explore if Arabic TV helps women or harms them. The first type of research theory is qualitative (questionnaires, interviews, etc.). For example, respondents will be shown clips of Arabic TV shows and create a survey that will ask them which Arabic television programs support women and which do not support women, and why (as well as asking demographic information such as nationality, age, gender, and education level). The second type of research theory is a quantitative content analysis – case studies, statistics or percentages to compare with two social Arabic programs from two Arabic countries that have women presenters from the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. The programs are Kalam Nawaiem from MBC channel – Saudi Arabia, and Zahrat Al-Khaleej from Abu Dhabi channel – United Arab Emirates.
These methods lead to answering the overall research questions: How does Arabic TV show women in a positive way or negative waySecondly, what are the differences between women’s representation in the two countries (the UAE and Saudi Arabia)Thirdly, what are women’s experiences of Arabic TV – harmful or helpful?


The United Arab Emirates & Saudi Arabia have been chosen because on the surface it appears that one country supports women (UAE) and the second country does not support women (Saudi Arabia) on TV stations. This will make for a very conclusive and judicial paper – one that will be written with passion. Firstly, the paper’s aim and rationale for the research will be discussed. Secondly, the relative strengths and weaknesses of the literature written on this topic will be analyzed, as well as the research methods and studies chosen. It is interesting to see the differences between Islamic Arabic cultures and Western cultures; and then to compare women’s representation on TV programs. Moreover, it cannot be denied that we should support and respect women around the world, and is clear that it is not fair or equal to abandon Arabic women in this belief. The most intriguing point is that it is not all Arabic countries that do not support women; even though the Islamic religion connects them all. This research then, will help us understand in more detail the reasons of these differences – whether religious or government or cultural.

However, there will be some problems that most likely will be encountered (especially in Saudi Arabia) due to ethical issues. The research collected may or may not be allowed to be considered outside of the country. To resolve this, alternative ways will be considered so that the project can be investigated freely.

It is clear that this research needs to go ahead because it asks an important question – Are there positive ways Arabic women on TV are presented or negative waysSecondly, there has been little research done before on this topic. There was not much information that has compared two countries, justified research and then remained objective at the conclusion. Thirdly, the research seeks to understand in more depth how these differences have occurred in two Arabic countries even though there is a religion that binds them together; bringing cultural and historical significance to the paper. Lastly, this is a topic that affects everyone universally, and is something that everyone can understand. It does not matter whether the reader is a woman or a man, for it will bring attention and focus to the problem regardless. Thus, this topic can be investigated after the description of its main characteristics.


Danahar, P. (2013) The New Middle East: The World after the Arab Spring. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Dubai School of Government, UAE (2011) The role of social media in Arab women’s empowerment. Arab social media report, Vol. 1, No. 3, 1.

Goetz, A. M. (1997) Getting institutions right for women in development. London: Zed Books Ltd.

Keddie, N. R. (2007) Women in the Middle East: Past and Present. Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press.

Mellor, N. et al. (2011) Arab Media: Globalization and Emerging Media Industries. The United Kingdom: Polity Press.

Saker, N. (2004) Women and media in the Middle East: Power through self-expression. America: Published by I.B Tauris & Co Ltd.

Strong, C & Hareb, H. (2012) Social Media Fashion among Digitally Fluent Young Arabic Women in the UAE. Social Media Fashion. Vol. 8, Issue 1. Dubai, Zayed University.

WAGL. (2012) About WAGL. Women as Global Leaders Conference. Available at: Last accessed 5 February 2014.

WAM. (2009). Foreign Media Delegation Visits. WAM Online. 24th, November, 2009. Available at: Last accessed 5 February 2014.

Waxman, S. (n.d) Arab TV’s strong signal the Al-Jazeera network offers news the Mideast never had before, and views that are all too common. Al Jazeera Online. Last accessed 11 February 2014.