RIYADH: With a furrowed brow and wagging finger, Dawood Shirian for years skewered top officials on Saudi television, but now the firebrand host is taking over the country’s state broadcaster.
Deploying a pull-no-punches style rarely tolerated in Saudi Arabia’s tightly controlled media landscape, Shirian spent nearly six years as the host of “Al Thamina” (Eight O’Clock) on satellite broadcaster MBC.
Shirian — nicknamed “matchstick” for his combustible personality — was allowed to champion issues that are a potential lightning rod for public discontent, from joblessness to extremism.
His career took on a new trajectory on Monday with his appointment as the head of the Saudi Broadcasting Corporation, as his legions of admirers called for his return to Al Thamina.
His intentions as the new chief are unclear. But if his past is any indication, Shirian may be about to shake up the country’s traditionally sedate state television and radio channels.
The primetime show garnered an avid following with its host’s hard-hitting style of demanding accountability from officials, often berating them and sometimes chivvying them into action.
In a recent episode, Shirian, 63, fumed over rising unemployment among Saudi engineers, airing testimonies from some with the highest grades forced to work as waiters, car washers and fish sellers.
VIDEO: ‘Get AIDS, win an iPad:’ Saudi TV host slams health minister
“Where are the authorities?” he demanded.
Within minutes, the hashtag “Saudi engineers treated unfairly” started gaining traction on social media. Behind the scenes, the show’s producers were inundated with hundreds of WhatsApp messages pouring in from people venting fury.
A labour ministry official, caught like a deer in the headlights, sought to explain on the show that policy reforms were in the works to create jobs.
“When?” Shirian interjected with a scowl. “The people are getting angry.”
– ‘Valve for frustration’ –
MBC said Al Thamina, which enjoys a mass following in Saudi Arabia — consistently registering top ratings typically seen by lifestyle shows — will continue to air after Shirian’s departure.
To get a full measure of its success it is crucial to understand where it is broadcast.
Saudi Arabia this year dropped three places to 168th out of 180 countries in an index ranking freedom of the media, prepared annually by Reporters Without Borders.
A recent government crackdown on the elite, ostensibly to fight corruption, ignited new concerns that it could further tighten control. The detained included media moguls such as the owner of MBC Waleed al-Ibrahim.
But the tolerance for public criticism of officialdom appears to have expanded after the so-called Arab Spring -— which saw pent-up public anger spilling onto the street across the Middle East.
“A show like that (Al Thamina) is definitely tolerated by Saudi authorities,” Najat Al-Saied, author of “Screens of Influence: Arab Satellite Television and Social Development”, told AFP.
“In fact, the authorities are increasing the scope of freedom in this show… to release the valve for public frustration.”
In an interview with AFP ahead of his appointment, Shirian said Saudi Arabia offers “more freedom than you think” to push boundaries.
“Yes, there are red lines such as religion and national interest issues,” said Shirian, one of only a few Saudi journalists to interview powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“For all other matters I am colour blind.”
– ‘He’s a painkiller’ –
Shirian’s new job as SBC chief could be at odds with his image of bashing officials on live television.
“In the Middle East, talk show hosts say ‘your highness this, your excellency that.’ I go on a first name or last name basis,” he said.
“We are the voice of the people.”
A portrait of Oprah Winfrey hangs in a waiting room beside his studio — the American talk show queen who was clearly not the inspiration for his show.
One official waited in nervous anticipation, doodling his thoughts on a paper napkin.
In an otherwise sober media scene, Shirian was entertaining even when he treated officials as a punching bag, often taking questions and cues from live callers on the programme.
“I feel a sense of relief watching him,” a Saudi businessman said in a Riyadh cafe, with Al Thamina playing on a hanging television. “He’s like a painkiller.”
Shirian also did not shy away from offending hardline clerics.
“You are the reason our sons are jihadists, they are in Afghanistan,” he said in one episode, blasting two clerics with millions of social media followers.
“You talk about going to heaven if you die in jihad. Make your sons go to heaven. Leave us alone!”
Many officials refused to appear on the programme and some demanded to know his questions in advance. An empty chair was often planted on the show to symbolise an absentee official unwilling to answer impromptu questions.
“For people I may be a painkiller,” Shirian said. “For officials, I am painful.”