Is Oprah ignorant of the Middle East?
By the time you read this, Oprah Winfrey will have taped the final episode that will cap 25 years of the most popular talk show in America. And when that final show airs in the US later today, her millions of fans would have shed buckets full of tears as they bid farewell to what has been, undoubtedly, the television phenomenon of our generation.
It's still a mystery who Winfrey's final guest(s) will be. Many have suggested it should just be her, talking, as she has done for a quarter of a century. And why not? From an abused child coming from an impoverished background to one of the world's most powerful women many times over, Winfrey's rise to prominence is nothing short of inspirational.
For many of us in the Middle East, Oprah, as she is more popularly known, entered our homes when Middle East Broadcasting Centre's (MBC) channel 4 began airing her show a little over six years ago. It was right around that time that her show, mostly customised for American viewers, began to pick up stories from the region.
Although she has personally never been to the Middle East (she cancelled her planned trip to Dubai for the opening of Atlantis, The Palm, in 2008, citing scheduling conflicts), she has, over the years, tackled issues that affect people in the region. She has interviewed royalty and Arab celebrities and spurred debates about domestic violence, women's rights and the rights of sexual minorities.
Interestingly, many of her segments on Middle Eastern issues have divided viewers, many accusing her and her producers of lack of insight and research.
In 2004, Winfrey interviewed Zain Al Sabah, one of the nieces of the Kuwaiti Emir in her "Women over 30" series. While the American audience oohed and aahed as Zain regaled them with tales of a tax-free life, free medical care, free education and extravagant lifestyles ("I don't want to apologise for the fact that we were born into this lifestyle"), many in the region took to blogs to criticise the show, calling it "shallow" and asking how a member of the royal family whose friends flew to Paris and Milan to shop for wedding dresses was representative of life in Kuwait.
‘Thank God we live in America'
Then in 2005, in a "Women around the world" segment, Winfrey interviewed Rania Al Baz, a victim of domestic abuse, who became one of the first Saudi women to publicly show her battered face. Winfrey's comment during the interview — "Thank God we live in America" — caused an outcry, many calling her ignorant and pointing out that Rania's story, as horrific as it was, did not define Saudi Arabian society.
Jordan's Queen Rania, with multiple appearances, is an Oprah show favourite, with Winfrey often referring her as "the world's youngest living queen".
Then in 2009, Oprah caused another controversy when she referred to Lebanon as a "deeply conservative country" whilst profiling singer Nancy Ajram, whom she called "the Britney Spears of the Middle East".
But it was another episode that same year, in one of her "Women around the world" series that would become the most hot topic yet, even prompting Winfrey's producer to issue an apology. In that now infamous segment, Winfrey interviewed Emirati entrepreneur Lamees Hamdan via internet voice service Skype.
Lamees, who lives in her five-bedroom home in Dubai, spoke of a privileged life living across the street from her mother-in-law, who has her own chef. But it was her comment that water and electricity were free, and that the shayla and abaya were "cultural" options that sparked an outcry, mostly from Emiratis. That she used Skype, a service officially blocked in the UAE, did not help her case. As people took to online message boards to voice their displeasure, the episode soon gained traction, and the media began to pick it up.
Winfrey's production company was eventually forced to apologise. "It was never the intention of the Oprah show to misrepresent the people of Dubai," it said in a statement. "Dr Hamdan appeared live on our programme to speak about her personal life experience as a citizen of Dubai. We apologise if any of our viewers were offended."
Now, as she readies to close a 25-year-long chapter, a glorious one no less, and open a new one with her network, one hopes that with a little luck, and perhaps better researchers, Ms Winfrey will be able to forge a better relationship with her estimated six million regional viewers.