Pakistan’s soap opera exports are important tools for soft power
Nearly three decades ago in an article published in US-based Foreign Policy magazine, the American political scientist Joseph S. Nye questioned the idea of power. He argued that in the 21st century, even superpowers like the US would be hard pressed to retain power within the global political system by simply relying on military might. To Nye, states needed to supplement this ‘hard’ form of power with a softer version that was vectored in culture, political values and institutional might. Only then, he argued, can states influence patterns of interdependence in an increasingly complicated world.
Cultural dissemination lies at the heart of soft power projection and the information and communication technology revolution has heightened its significance even more. With the emergence of new entertainment mediums like cable television and the rise of social media networking, political wars are now fought in the cultural domain. This has led policy-makers across the globe to emphasize perception-building campaigns and integrate projection strategies into foreign policy. In the age of modern media, discursive hegemony has a huge power bank in politics as well as economic benefits.
In the Middle Eastern mediascape, Turkey is an incredible example of a state promoting its cultural value and engaging with Arab and world audiences through the export of its soap operas and television series. With the rise of private media enterprises, there has been a marked improvement in the quality and content of productions with export revenues reaching $350 million in 2016. Through this entertainment strategy, Turkey has also been marketed as a tourist haven and has invariably raised the number of tourists arriving there from the Arab world.
In the Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia has the biggest media market. Competition within the industry is strong enough that different media groups within the Arab world vie for Saudi audiences with content ranging from Arabic to Turkish and Indian TV productions. In these media wars and soft power schemes in the Middle East, Pakistan has so far not even been on the horizon.
With the emergence of new entertainment mediums like cable television and the rise of social media networking, political wars are now fought in the cultural domain.
In the past decade, Pakistan’s media industry has considerably grown with many television series getting critical and even international acclaim. But a lack of strategic thinking by the government and media owners has meant that these series have not yet added any value to the country’s image-building abroad or to the massive media market in the Middle East.
Against this backdrop, it is a welcome development that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have decided to step up bilateral cooperation in the fields of media and entertainment. Reports suggest that some classic Pakistani soap operas produced by Pakistan’s national broadcaster will be dubbed into Arabic and then exported to Saudi Arabia. It will be interesting to see whether these TV series will be telecasted by the newly founded Saudi Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) or by the Dubai based broadcaster Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC), which banned popular Turkish content in Saudi Arabia in 2018 leaving a unique opportunity for Pakistan’s TV industry to now fill the gap and broaden its pool of viewers.
Though this is a good start, it is not good enough. The real aim on the Pakistani side must be to deliver its best content to viewers within Saudi Arabia, which is very often produced by private media houses and not by the national broadcaster. Therefore a well-articulated plan by the ministry of communication is required, which promotes private sector productions in the Middle East. MBC Bollywood, a channel dedicated to Indian movies and television shows in the Middle-East has broadcasted four Pakistani television dramas including the wildly popular Humsafar (Companion) and Zindagi Gulzar Hai (Life is beautiful.) These series have been received positively and might do even better if an Arabic channel was exclusively airing Pakistani content.
Media content exported to foreign broadcasters must also be diverse, encompassing our history and culture. Dramas based on tribal traditions and rivalries have a great chance of resonating with Saudi audiences where tribal identity still remains an important marker. On the other hand, new and relevant drama productions should also be promoted, those that present Pakistan as a multidimensional country trying to embrace modernity with a burgeoning liberal and progressive side. Pakistan’s picturesque landscapes and tourist destinations is another characteristic that sparks curiosity in international audiences.
This is a unique opening for Pakistan’s soft power projection. An integrated strategy involving the ministries of foreign affairs, communication and tourism should launch a media campaign that builds upon high quality TV content to entertain Saudi audiences and to boost its tourism potential as well as its political capital, and ultimately, to show off the beautifully complex stories and talent of Pakistani artists.
– Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, the conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.