BEIRUT — In the latest twist on Arab reality TV, a show filmed in the United Arab Emirates is to be broadcast entirely in English and feature a cast of Brits and Americans.
Known as “The Hydra Executives,” the boardroom-style “Apprentice”-like program is now being pitched for global distribution in March. It is being produced in association with Showtime Arabia, which is partly owned by Viacom, and Dubai’s Infinity TV.
With a grand prize worth $1 million, the show groups 16 contestants into U.S. and U.K. national teams to face off in challenges across the Emirates’ bustling capital of Abu Dhabi. Other planned spinoffs include an India vs. Pakistan edition.
“It’s kind of like the Olympics of reality TV,” says executive producer and co-host Ziad Batal. Joining him will be Sulaiman Al-Fahim, the CEO of Hydra Properties, a UAE-based real estate developer that is a key backer of the show. Other sponsors include the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority and Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
“They are rolling out the red carpet,” Batal said of the UAE government, admitting that the show would provide “perfect exposure” to the country and its multibillion-dollar real estate industry. The winner will be given $1 million to set up his own company in Abu Dhabi.
“At the end of the day, it’s about showcasing the Arabs as well as foreigners coming here and doing business,” Batal said, noting that $5 million would be spent on the first season.
But business reality programs have had a troubled history in the region. In 2005, plans to broadcast a regional version of “The Apprentice” were suddenly abandoned and a relatively large 2006 MBC production, “The Investors” has yet to air a second season. Batal himself developed a show called “CEO” in 2005, which also was never broadcast.
The difference now, he says, is that sponsors have rekindled their interest since the show is being pitched to a global English-speaking audience.
Showtime has already pledged to broadcast “Hydra Executives” in Asia and the Middle East, according to Batal, and negotiations are ongoing with the major U.S. and European format production houses for distribution in their territories.
“Arabs watch English programming, foreigners don’t watch Arabic. Now we are giving them the world of both,” said Batal.
Batal is also the creator of “Street Smarts,” a reality show entering its third season on Infinity TV, and producer of “Shake the Stadium,” which aired this year on Showtime.
Al Fahim, however, is less known in the television industry. His company’s latest projects include a $500 million mixed residential complex in Mazatlan, Mexico, as well as half a dozen other high-rise properties in the UAE.
“He doesn’t do the Donald Trump ‘you’re fired’ kind of thing,” says Batal. “He does, ‘Welcome to my country, I am your host and let’s get to it.'”