Netflix Signs Deal with Saudi Arabian Animation Studio

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh on October 23, 2018. - Saudi Arabia is hosting the key investment summit overshadowed by the killing of critic Jamal Khashoggi that has prompted a wave of policymakers and corporate giants to …
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty

Streaming giant Netflix announced on Wednesday that it has signed a five-year partnership deal with Saudi Arabian animation studio Myrkott, which produces a cartoon series called Masameer that is popular with Middle Eastern audiences.

The Masameer property is part of the deal, with Netflix granted the power to make “special edits” to the existing episodes.

“Myrkott is at the forefront of creative storytelling and animation in the region. We are continually investing in authentic stories from Saudi Arabia to share their stories across the Arab world and globally. We want to give our members access to great stories that can travel far and wide,” said Nuha El Tayeb, regional head of content acquisition for Netflix.

“We at Myrkott think about this partnership beyond the production aspects, by working with Netflix we inspire Saudi and Arab talents to dream big and support an ecosystem that recognizes equal opportunity, talent and creativity, these are the values that fueled Myrkott in its pursuit of excellence throughout the years,” said studio CEO and co-founder Abdulaziz al-Muzaini. 

“Earlier this year Netflix also announced that it had licensed popular Saudi series Takki. The streaming giant also launched the first Saudi Arabia thriller series, Whispers, in June this year,” Al Arabiya noted on Wednesday.

The Masameer series led to a feature-length animated movie, which Netflix made available to global viewers. The plot, in a nutshell, is about a trio of lovable goofballs trying to form a superhero team:

Masameer: The Movie did well across the Middle East and Saudi Arabia, a run that was all the more impressive because the show is a somewhat irreverent social satire made in a deeply traditionalist country that has only had movie theaters for about three years. 

The National appraised Masameer as a show that wants to be like The Simpsons or South Park but tends to pull its punch before delivering any really provocative satire, and given the pace of recent cultural change in Saudi Arabia, it is essentially making fun of Saudi society circa 2010.

Netflix’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is presently a matter of some controversy because Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said during a CNN interview last week that he removed an episode of a program highly critical of the Kingdom’s de facto chief executive, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), in exchange for continued access to the Saudi market for “socially controversial” Netflix programs, such as those including gay and lesbian content.

Hastings said he made a “very difficult decision” to pull an episode of comedian Hasan Minhaj’s show Patriot Act from the Saudi market because Minhaj suggested during the episode that MBS ordered the killing of writer Jamal Khashoggi. The episode remained available outside Saudi Arabia and on YouTube.

“We are able to have out other content, like Queer Eye, Sex Education, and Orange is the New Black available in Saudi Arabia, so it is a disquieting compromise,” Hastings said.

The interview led to criticism of Hastings for bowing to Saudi pressure to avoid discussion of the Khashoggi killing, and also some grumbling from Middle Eastern viewers that allowing Netflix to broadcast salacious content in exchange for buttoning up about Khashoggi was not a good deal on MBS’ part.

“Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings tells CNN that Saudi allowed gay and sexual shows in return for removing an episode in which MBS was criticized following the Khashoggi crisis. We are at a time in which immorality is okay as long as it protects political leaders,” said a Twitter critic quoted by Turkey’s Daily Sabah, which tends to publish articles favorable to Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Earlier this month, Turkey’s media watchdog ordered Netflix to remove the Cuties TV series from its catalog after it drew harsh public criticism over alleged pedophile content,” Daily Sabah reported, referring to the most controversial of Netflix offerings at the moment.

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