Saudi Arabia is an important commercial market for Netflix, and one where the company is willing to make a strategic compromise.
In what is likely to be an explosive revelation for the deeply conservative Saudi society, the co-CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings, has suggested that under Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) the country has allowed shows such as “Queer Eye”, “Sex Education” and “Orange Is the New Black” to be aired.
The shows often feature openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer characters, or discuss topics that are considered taboo in the Kingdom which is still governed by an Islamic code of ethics which the population still largely adheres to.
But there was a catch. Hastings admitted for the first time in an interview on CNN that in exchange for being allowed to stream shows that tackle conservative mores in Saudi society, they had taken down a show that was critical of MBS a move that he described as "a troubling compromise."
In January 2019, Netflix pulled an episode by US comedian Hasan Minhaj’s “Patriot Act” which criticised MBS over this role in the killing and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The controversial move at the time brought widespread criticism and Hastings called the move a “very difficult decision.”
However, the CEO of Netflix was able to reveal that the compromise seemed to have been influenced by a desire to continue airing shows with more provocative sexual content.
While the show was taken down from Netflix it stayed up on YouTube leading Minhaj to quip, “Clearly, the best way to stop people from watching something is to ban it, make it trend online, and then leave it up on YouTube.”
Clearly, the best way to stop people from watching something is to ban it, make it trend online, and then leave it up on YouTube.— Hasan Minhaj (@hasanminhaj) January 2, 2019
Let’s not forget that the world’s largest humanitarian crisis is happening in Yemen right now. Please donate: https://t.co/znMP8vyJma https://t.co/t2VUDhhIdB
While it is unclear whether there were direct talks between MBS or his advisors to have such an exchange, the crown prince, widely expected to take over from his father King Salman, has projected himself as a so-called moderniser.
MBS lifted the ban on women driving in the absolute monarchy, however, arrested female activists like Loujain al Hathloul who had campaigned for a change in the law. Other women activists were similarly arrested at gunpoint by MBS’s security forces.
The prince’s attempt to market himself as a progressive force has been tempered by the increasingly authoritarian measure taken against opponents at home and abroad.
The Kingdom also relaxed rules on music concerts and opened theatres, a move that would frame MBS as a young progressive.
It’s difficult to judge how popular such top-down social changes are in a country that houses two of Islams holiest sites in Mecca and Medina and is still deeply conservative by any measure.
The announcement by Netflix that adult shows are being aired in the Kingdom as some part of a wider compromise to change Saudi society, would mark a new milestone in MBS’s bid to showcase himself as a reformer.
Hastings said that while Netflix had reached a “troubling compromise” and one that was not taken easily, it believed on balance it was the right thing to do.
Minhaj’s “Patriot Act” recently aired its last show, however, more recently Netflix was at the eye of a new controversy.
The release of the film “Cuties” was panned by critics for promoting paedophilia over the sexualised portrayal of underage girls. A campaign was started to encourage subscribers to cancel their Netflix subscriptions leading to the hashtag #CancelNetflix trending on Twitter.