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Lack of Local Content Hamstrings Netflix, Amazon in Middle East

Just as Netflix was launching in the Middle East two years ago, its chief content officer Ted Sarandos told a Dubai Film Market panel that he was keen for the streaming giant to find great local storytellers and talent that could generate a Netflix original scripted series about contemporary life in the region. But that has yet to happen.

The only Arabic original announced so far by Netflix is a stand-up comedy special with Lebanese comedian and actor Adel Karam.

Lack of localization is considered to be holding back Netflix and Amazon Prime Video’s growth in the Middle East; both launched in 2016 and are said to be struggling to rack up subscribers in the region. The two global streaming giants together will account for a mere 21% of the Middle East and North Africa market in 2017, according to a recent report from research and analysis firm IHS Markit.

Meanwhile, local streaming brands Icflix, Seevii, OSN’s Wavo and MBC’s Shahid Plus, as well as smaller international streamers such Starz Play Arabia, iflix and Viu, “are all expected to contribute significantly to the market in the coming years,” according to the IHS Markit report by analyst Max Signorelli. He notes that no single player has the optimal mix of content and accessibility. But sees “greater investment in local content” as one of the crucial factors to gaining the upper hand.

Most of Netflix and Amazon Prime’s competitors in the Middle East can boast an edgy original scripted series rooted in present-day Arab reality.

OSN recently picked up groundbreaking show “Qalb Al Adala” (“Justice”), which is inspired by “L.A. Law” but based on real cases from the Abu Dhabi Judicial Dept. Written by Emmy Award-winning U.S. producer William Finkelstein in collaboration with a local team, it is produced by Image Nation Abu Dhabi in tandem with L.A.-based Parkes/MacDonald Prods.
MBC has produced “Black Crows,” the first series set in the world of the Islamic State, which dramatizes life under ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Iflix has produced “Tough Luck,” a comedy of errors packed with Arab stars about residents of a dilapidated tenement of Cairo’s renowned 5th district who attempt in vain to fix a crumbling building.
Starz Play Arabia has plans to soon announce an Arabic-language original.

Netflix, which is expected to attend the upcoming Dubai Film Market, is believed to be having a tough time finding the elements they deem can provide an Arabic show enough heft to play globally, according to sources. That is understandable since, unlike Turkish dramas, Arabic TV content rarely travels, and even movies from the region only get occasional international arthouse exposure. How Netflix navigates the Middle East will be particularly interesting to watch.

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