Hams Fekri, a 29-year-old Saudi wedding singer from Jeddah, has been crowned the winner of the first season of “Saudi Idol” during a moving live finale from The Boulevard Riyadh City recreational complex.
The golden-throated Fekri, whose mother had achieved success as a pop singer during the 1980s, but subsequently faded into obscurity, hugged her own young daughter on stage.
She was exultant after battling it out in front of a live studio audience plus the panel of judges for 13 weeks and emerging victorious out of three finalists to win most audience votes for the night.
In addition to being named the very first “Saudi Idol,” Fekri also won a recording contract with MBC Group’s Platinum Records label which involves the release of a full studio album in the coming months.
Following her win, Fekri expressed her gratitude to the viewers who voted for her, saying: “Everyone’s love and support during this journey has made me a different person, and I hope to live up to their expectations. I am going to continue to work harder and harder!”
She also paid tribute to Saudi Arabia, thanking the kingdom, which is undergoing a major cultural shift, for helping to achieve her dream.
The first Saudi Arabian edition of Fremantle’s global Idol franchise was produced by leading Middle East broadcaster MBC in tandem with Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority.
Prior to the show’s finale, Variety spoke to Samar Akrouk, MBC Group’s director of production, about the challenges and thrills of pioneering the Idol format in Saudi Arabia as the kingdom morphs into a regional entertainment hub and restrictions previously imposed by conservative clerics ease.
MBC produces lots of Arab talent shows. Do you consider “Saudi Idol” particularly significant in terms of breaking cultural barriers?
Like you said, we’ve had huge success with “Arab Idol,” which is a pan-Arab version of the format. And before doing “Saudi Idol,” the first localized version we did was “Iraq Idol.”
That said, MBC has been a leader, or a big contributor, to this [cultural] change that you’re seeing in Saudi Arabia, and has probably been on the forefront of it. I mean, we have been producing content – I would say progressive, tolerant, eye-opening content – for years. And, by the way, [before the country opened up] we may not have been producing this type of content in Saudi Arabia, but we were producing it for the Saudi audience. So the appetite is there. Indeed, you cannot deny that there are lots of positive changes that are happening in Saudi Arabia, and particularly in the world of entertainment. But I also think that we have always been part of this trend. We’ve always been helping to promote and propel this trend.
Can you talk to me about the “Saudi Idol” auditions process?
I consider Saudi Arabia to be more like a continent, not a country. Because it’s huge. So we went south, east and west to all the major cities. What we do is we send the behind-the-scenes team across all the regions. We collect the stories — I call them “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” These are the stories that we think can make good television content. And then we bring them in and we do the auditions, which is what you see with the jury. So we covered a lot of cities. We had huge turnouts from all these different cities and from – how can I say this – the different belief systems that are in Saudi Arabia. We attracted them all. They came and they made it on the show.
The “Saudi Idol” jury features Saudi singer Aseel Abu Bakr, Emirati singer and actress Ahlam, Syrian singer Asala and Iraqi singer and composer Majed Al Mohandis. Not all of them are Saudis. How were they chosen?
First of all, the jury has to be picked based on characters. You need to have strong characters and personalities on these shows. So it always starts from there. Even in our other shows, it doesn’t start with nationalities. It starts with who we think has the personality and the character to carry these programs. So how did we choose the jury? Well, they are not all Saudis. But all four of them have a huge fan base in Saudi Arabia, and also have produced Saudi music. So, even if not by passport or by nationality, they are Saudis. They have a huge fan base there, and they have mastered the art of Saudi music.
The jury is also gender-balanced (two women, two men) and the women aren’t wearing veils.
Of course, you also want to make sure that you have female representation and male representation. I want to point out that one of the jury members, Ahlam, actually started with us in the “Arab Idol” franchise. So it made sense to show the growth and the continuity of this format, and how we took her from “Arab Idol,” and put her in “Saudi Idol.” That created a very nice link or an extension, let’s say, of the brand.
What about the veil? I know Saudi is not Iran. But I’ve been to Saudi recently and most women there were veiled.
Wearing a veil is a matter of choice in Saudi Arabia, and in the Arab world in general. I know that maybe people don’t understand that. But it’s actually a choice, and it’s a cultural thing. So you can wear it, or you can not wear it. And when we did our casting, I would say about 30% of the women came veiled.
Can you give me an idea of the types of music on “Saudi Idol”?
Since it’s “Saudi Idol” and the contestants are Saudi, obviously the majority of the music is Saudi music which has a particular style to it. It’s heavy on percussion. A lot of the songs on the show are Saudi. I would say the split is about 70/30 (70% Saudi, and 30% Arabic from elsewhere). So we take popular Saudi songs from the Saudi legends, whether they be Mohammed Abdu or Abadi Al-Johar, or Rabeh Saqer, and we create modern versions of their songs, and these young talents are singing them. But the contestants are not just singing Saudi songs, or re-engineered Saudi songs. They are also singing other very popular songs from the region — Egyptian songs, Lebanese songs, but always re-engineered for their voice and their vocal range
Was there any Arab rap music on the show?
We don’t have a rapper on this season. But that doesn’t mean this is not something that we would want to include next time around. In general, these shows are more for a mass audience. So rapping may be a little bit more niche. Hip hop is huge in Saudi Arabia. But while I would love to include them in this kind of show, they might be disadvantaged because the other types of songs may have more of a mass appeal. But personally I think that’s the next thing that I’m talking to MBC about: producing a show for rappers, about hip hop. It’s a huge underground scene. In fact it’s not even underground anymore. It’s a huge scene that attracts so much of the Arab youth.
How have the ratings been?
It’s doing very well. “Saudi Idol” has brought eyeballs back to TV. It’s our number one non-football [soccer] show, I’ll put it to you that way. Because it was also competing with the World Cup, and then the resumption of the football [soccer] league. So it’s doing exceptionally well. It’s been our number one program in its time slot right now, across the MENA region. Commercially, the show has to do well in Saudi Arabia, obviously, and it does. So that’s our main market. But we’ve doing it with a vision that it needs to travel. And it really has.
How important do you think “Saudi Idol” is in establishing Saudi Arabia as a regional entertainment entity?
Saudi Arabia is becoming a regional hub. So producing in Saudi and attracting local talent is great, in and of itself. But that’s not where we want to stop. We want to be able to take the Saudi culture, the Saudi ecosystem in general, and make sure that it transcends boundaries. When you have a jury on “Saudi Idol” that’s as eclectic as ours, that are Saudis and non-Saudis, that’s exactly what you’re doing. You are trying to take the Saudi song, the Saudi talent, and the Saudi culture, and hope that it transcends those boundaries.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.