Saudi Arabia and Gulf neighbors threaten Netflix over content that ‘violates Islamic values’

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Saudi Arabia and five other Gulf Arab countries issued a joint statement demanding that Netflix remove content they say “violates Islamic and societal values and principles,” Saudi media has reported.

The statement said that the streaming giant’s material was in breach of government regulations, though it did not make specific reference to which topics or shows broke those rules.

It’s widely believed, however, and voiced by local media and officials, that Netflix shows featuring homosexual characters, same-sex kissing and children portrayed in a sexual light are the targets of the directive.

The move was taken “in light of the recent observation that the platform was broadcasting visual material and content which violates content controls in GCC countries,” the statement by the Saudi General Commission for Audiovisual Media and the GCC Committee of Electronic Media Officials said Tuesday.

The content “violates Islamic and societal values and principles. As such, the platform was contacted to remove this content, including content directed at children, and to ensure adherence to the laws.”

The GCC, or Gulf Cooperation Council, is comprised of the largely conservative, Muslim-majority states of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman. Homosexuality is criminalized in these countries and can be punished by fines, prison time or even the death penalty. 

The authorities also threatened legal action if Netflix fails to adhere to its demand.

“All legal measures will be taken to protect the Kingdom’s sovereignty, citizens and residents from any intellectual attack aimed at affecting its societies, values, safety of upbringing their generations and protecting them from harmful content,” Esra Assery, CEO of the Saudi General Commission for Audiovisual Media, told Saudi outlet Arab News.

Netflix has not yet publicly responded to the statement and had no comment when contacted by CNBC.

A ban in Saudi Arabia?

Saudi state news channel Al Ekhbariya TV released a televised report on the topic on Tuesday featuring clips from the Netflix animated show “Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous.” The report from the state network showed a blurred scene of two female characters expressing their love for one another and kissing.

Al Ekhbariya posted its report on its official Twitter account, which has 1.4 million followers, with the caption “Netflix promotes child homosexuality under a cinematic cover. Will #Netflix be blocked in Saudi Arabia soon?”

Another tweet from the state network read, “Netflix threatens the healthy upbringing of children,” and spreads “immoral messages.” A video in its tweet featured the hashtags “#CancelNetflix” and “#BoycottNetflix.”

Saudis shop at a supermarket at the Panorama Mall in the capital Riyadh.
Fayez Nureldine | AFP | Getty Images

Netflix has not responded to the accusations. But many of its users in the U.S. and Europe have celebrated the featuring of LGBTQ+ characters and content on the streaming platform, saying it sets a positive example for inclusivity and representation. Netflix still boasts the highest number of users of any paid-subscription streaming service, with some 220 million subscribers worldwide as of last June.

A YouGov survey from September 2021 found Netflix to be the most popular streaming service in Saudi Arabia, with 37% of residents in the kingdom saying they use it.

A crackdown on LGBTQ+ themes

This is far from the first time authorities in the oil-rich Arab Gulf states have clashed with Western media on the topic of homosexual content. In June, the Gulf countries, along with several others in East and South Asia, banned the cinematic release of Disney Pixar’s animated movie “Lightyear” over its featuring of a same-sex relationship and a brief same-sex kiss.

And in July, e-commerce giant Amazon was directed by the UAE government to block search results for LGBTQ-related products on its UAE website. Shortly before that, authorities in Saudi Arabia raided several children’s stores to seize rainbow-themed toys and clothing as part of a crackdown on homosexuality, state media reported at the time.

The pushbacks against LGBTQ+ themes come as some of the region’s countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, attempt to diversify their economies away from hydrocarbons and attract new investment.

Part of their strategies includes liberalizing reforms and relaxing some previously strict social laws in order to attract talent from other parts of the world. Up until 2018, movie theaters were banned in Saudi Arabia; they are now being built all over the country due to these reforms, though censorship of certain content still applies.

Activists and human rights organizations have long criticized the region’s laws on homosexuality, while its governments counter that the laws protect its religious and cultural norms.

Sophie Tremblay

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