Hollywood, movies, and the GCC: what is there in common?

Diana Galeeva

Published: Updated:

I would like to argue that the answer to the question ‘what do Hollywood, the BBC drama ‘McMafia’, and the GCC states have in common’ is the possibility of top-class movie production.

The idea of using the film or movie industry generally, or specific film industries such as Hollywood or Bollywood, is rooted in well-known concepts such as soft power and place branding, which are considered essential political tools for successful power. Soft power is ‘the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments’ (Nye, 2002:6).

The main elements of soft power are policies, political ideas, and culture. For America, for example, popular culture includes the production of movies by Hollywood studios. Nye presents a practical example of how movies assist the US to achieve political objectives in China.

As a result of watching American movies, Chinese activists will say: ‘We’ve seen a lot of Hollywood movies – they featured weddings, funerals and going to court. So now we think it’s only natural to go to court a few times in your life’. Thus, Nye explains that the US goal of solidifying the legal system in China and strengthening the rule of law will be achieved more effectively through the watching of movies than by the speeches of American ambassadors. The role of American movies is perceived as even more powerful than America economics or politics. For example, Wattenberg believes that while American popular culture contains elements of violence, vapidity and materialism, is also demonstrates American values of social mobility, openness, individualism and freedom. For Wattenberg, ‘that content is more powerful than politics or economics’ (1991:213). Similarly, Sandburg (2003) states that while Hollywood is ‘not as clean as Harvard’ its influence is ‘further reaching’.

One part of the soft power concept is place branding, focused on concepts such as values, norms and rules in worldwide politics (Ham, 2008). A place brand is intellectual property, which is ‘the totality of the thoughts, feelings, associations and expectations that come to mind when a prospect or consumer is exposed to an entity’s name, logo, products, services, events, or any design or symbol representing them’ (Lindsay, 2010; Ham, 2008:2). Ham suggests that anything can be branded, such as a credit card (American Express), computer components (Intel), or even a state. In other words, any state can be branded with symbols and meanings, and a government can create an attractive and positive global image for their state. In contrast, when governments do not consider branding seriously enough, not only do they miss the opportunity to promote a positive image of themselves, but they also leave open their identity to misappropriation. Counterparts in other nations can produce their own movies about another state or its citizens which play on the lack of knowledge about the target nation. This illustration of a state can forever stick in the memories of the worldwide community who are unfamiliar with a particular state, its history, or its traditions, and have received their first information about a state through this channel, and this negative perception can harm the image of state.

Borat and Mission Impossible

The success of the movie ‘Borat, Cultural Learning of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan’ was enormous. It was distributed by 20th Century Fox, and made $26.4 million on a limited release of 837 screens in the US in November 2006, before going on to further success in Western Europe. The film portrays a fictional Kazakh journalist travelling in the US to create a documentary for ‘benefit of glorious nation of Kazakhstan’, and generated significant controversy. According to Ham (2008:8) it presents Kazakhstan as a ‘backward and anti-Semitic country’. For an American audience, the main purpose of the movie was to demonstrate how easily Americans would along with the journalist’s homophobic, racist, and sexist jokes. For viewers in Kazakhstan, however, the movie was viewed as highly offensive. Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry proclaimed that the character’s behaviour was deemed ‘utterly unacceptable, being a concoction of bad taste and ill manner which is completely incompatible with the ethics and civilised behaviour of Kazakhstan’s people’, and threatened legal action against any similar pranksters. For people who know Kazakhstan, the story is clearly fictitious. However, as Ham suggests, although Kazakhstan is the size of Western Europe, ‘it was basically unknown to most people in the West, and their first ‘information’ about the country came from watching Borat’. This example is crucial for highlighting that, firstly, governments should seriously consider the development of film industries in their own states, able to produce movies of sufficient quality compete in the global market. Secondly, they should not rely on a Western film industry to create movies about their states, as this could just as easily be a damaging misrepresentation as a positive image.

The use of movies as tool of soft power has become an essential part of place branding for the GCC states. For example, scenes in movies such as Star Wars, Mission Impossible, and Fast and Furious, as well as the children’s series Sesame Street were made in the UAE. However, it seems that it is essential for the GCC states to not only use movie production in their place branding, but also as soft power. This soft power can be introducing their domestic unique values to the world or presenting the traditions and history of the GCC states, and for foreign policy objectives, such as competing with their rivals.

The use of movies as tool of soft power has become an essential part of place branding for the GCC states.

Diana Galeeva

Let’s focus on usage soft power as demonstration of domestic uniqueness of the GCC states. There are plenty of Western movies that do not reflect realities of states, or show a nation little respect. For example, some movies produced by the West, such as ‘A Hologram for the King’, do not show Arabs in a positive light, and portray the Gulf mainly in association with oil and wealth. As Western movies are popular globally, this means that those cinema-goers who do not have a particular interest in the region will believe that this is all they need to know about Arabs from the Gulf.

While some Western movies misrepresent the image of the GCC states, most films created by GCC nationals are rooted in the demonstration of traditions and the uniqueness of their homelands. Representatives of GCC states, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, are among the most famous Arab directors. Most have developed a reputation for portraying stories of their countries and traditions, and presenting the social developments within the region. For example, ‘Nearby Sky’ (2014), from the Emirati director Al-Ghanem’s tells the story of the first woman in the UAE to enter her camels in Abu Dhabi’s male-dominated camel beauty contest. Two Saudi movies which demonstrate Saudi society and its distinctive characters and identity are Wadjda and Barakah Meets Barakah, both of which were submitted to the Oscars (Gulf News, 2016). It seems that supporting the film industry at the governmental level, aiming to produce top-quality movies and compete with Western counterparts, will increase the visibility of GCC states’ identities, and histories. It could also represent them differently from the Western perspective of events in the region, and could become one of the most economically profitable economic sectors in states that are looking for means of diversification their economies.

McMafia and the cure for Iranian expansion

Considering movies as foreign policy tool for dealing with its counterparts, we can examine the example of political outcomes from the popular BBC thriller ‘McMafia’, aired in early 2018. The drama presents the story of a Russian family living in the UK. Their son Alex Godman, having been educated at a British private school and graduated from Harvard, is trying to make a success of his investment fund without the financial assistance of his parents. However, after the murder of his uncle, he descends into a world of money laundering and drug smuggling, failing to escape from his family background. Most journalistic pieces have described the series only from this perspective. However, the drama also calls attention to a number of aspects of the life of Russian immigrants, their relations within the family, their understanding of family and family values, and their love for their country. For example, the father of the family, Dimitri, asks for soil from the cemetery of their family home to put in his brother’s coffin. Even before all eight episodes had been aired, the show had political outcomes. The Russian Embassy in the UK criticised BBC, saying that the programme was a clichéd and inaccurate portrayal of Russians’ contribution to the UK. The embassy’s Twitter feed commented that the drama ‘depicts Britain as a playground for Russian gangsters’ and asked its followers to guess how many Russians offenders were in UK prisons. Almost 60 per cent of respondents cited the correct answer of ‘fewer than 10’ (Guardian, 2008).

The Russian Embassy also commented: ‘Crime rate among Russians in UK is well below national average. Good that our followers are not buying into the clichés BBC is spreading’. The political fall out has not ended with highlighting that the series creates a cliché and harmful image of Russians, but also that it has led British officials to action. The security minister Ben Wallace stated that the success of ‘McMafia’ will be raise awareness of corruption, and he warned that Russian oligarchs might be targeted in the latest crackdown. Wallace highlighted the importance of the drama for understanding the finances of wealthy Russians, stating in an interview with the Times that: ‘McMafia is one of those things where you realise that fact is ahead of fiction’. As a result, British officials will apply new unexplained wealth orders (UWOs) to seize doubtful possessions until they have been accurately accounted for. UWOs permit the British authorities to freeze and recover possessions if individuals are unable to clarify how they obtained assets in excess of £50,000. It is surprising how a television series can generate such a reaction: ‘When we get to you, we will come for you, for your assets and we will make the environment that you live in difficult,’ Wallace said. This example shows how popular media can harm the image of a nation and launch a new political and legal actions against particular state-citizens.

Learning from this example, it is clear foreign policy objectives can be accomplished not only by diplomatic means but also by the production of movies and television shows aimed to resonate with the political actions of other governments and affect worldwide public opinion. One of the goals in the creation of popular culture can be its use as a political tool to engage with counterparts, and to create a ‘counterargument’ to a state’s competitors or enemies. For example, movies can be applied as soft power tool to counter Iranian destabilizing behaviour in the Middle East, focusing on the Iranian regime itself and Iranian-backed militias, for example high-quality movies based on true stories about how the Iranian regime has started to use sectarian policies to influence the region. Movies based on real stories about the operation of Hezbollah, the Houthis, or Hezbollah in Bahrain will cause these groups and events to be viewed in a new light by the worldwide community. Just as Nye cited that the US ambition of promoting the legal system in China was promoted more by movies than American speakers, by creating movies to global quality standards and with internationally famous actors, Gulf states will be better able to solve political problems in their region. Thus, movies can be used to break Western stereotypes about the GCC states, gain economic advantages from both movie production and tourism, and implement ‘power of discourse’ – telling the stories that the GCC governments would like to tell about their counter-parts and rivals in the political arena.


Diana Galeeva is a PhD Candidate at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. Her PhD research focuses on theories of power, IR theory, small states, political islam and GCC politics. She was an intern at the the President of Tatarstan’s office - Department of corporation and Religious organizations (2012), Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Tatarstan, legal department (2011), and the Ministry of justice (2010). Diana received her M.A. in International Relations from Exeter university in the UK, and earned a degree in Governmental Law from Kazan Federal University (KFU). She speaks English, Russian, Tatar and studies Arabic and Turkish. She can be contacted on diana.galeeva@durham.ac.uk and @diana_galeeva.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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