Western media usually misrepresents the Middle East. Not ‘Real Housewives of Dubai’

Six women posing in glamorous gold evening gowns.
“The Real Housewives of Dubai” cast members, from left, Sara Al Medani, Caroline Brooks, Caroline Stanbury, Chanel Ayan, Lesa Milan and Nina Ali.
(Chris Haston / Bravo)

Here are a couple things I‘ve learned while watching “The Real Housewives of Dubai”: Bad bitches can throw shade anywhere, even in the desert, and the dumbest show ever is not entirely stupid in its representation of the gulf.

The latter point may cause you to dismiss me, or this piece, as totally delusional. Understandable. I’m actually finding it difficult to write. But as someone who has traveled extensively in the region, has family who lives in the United Arab Emirates and who’s witnessed a lifetime of television misrepresenting the Middle East, the latest installment in Bravo’s juggernaut reality franchise is a surprising change of pace from the insulting “Sex and the City 2” or the fearmongering “Tyrant.” Or maybe my expectations were so low that when Episode 1 wasn’t just a swill of Orientalism and xenophobia, it felt like a small victory. The bar is low, of course. I can’t think of another American reality show set in the region, or a scripted drama that’s as comfortable moving around the gulf. And this show is not about war or terrorism. The only Middle East conflict here is among the women.

Though there are numerous international spinoffs of “Housewives” — as is common with reality formats, such as “Big Brother” — this is the first time Bravo’s mother ship has gone international, setting the new season in an Islamic region that shares a border with Saudi Arabia and a waterway with Iran. The multinational Housewives aren’t afraid or in awe of their surroundings, perhaps because they’re afraid of one another and in awe of themselves. But whatever the reason, the fact that the Persian Gulf metropolis is their home rather than an exotic tourist destination or a war zone is itself a victory for a TV series set in the Arab world.

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The stilettoed, airbrushed Housewives frequent the same designer boutiques and high-end restaurants as covered women and men, moving around the city with the same arrogance and hubris of spoiled folks in New York and Orange County. “The Real Housewives of Dubai” opens with a primer explaining that Dubai is one of seven emirates in the UAE, a former fishing village transformed into the City of Gold. Its blend of gulf tradition and global opulence has since rendered it a playground for the wealthy international set.


The season kicks off in Arabic, with the only Emirati cast member, Sara Al Madani, saying: “I’m blessed that I grew up in Dubai and saw it before it became Dubai and after it became Dubai.” Like the emirate, the new Housewives are outlandish, cosmopolitan and obsessed with appearances. They also include Nina Ali, Chanel Ayan, Caroline Brooks, Lesa Milan and Caroline Stanbury. Occasionally their South Asian and East Asian nannies, servers and maids make it into the shot. Together the women represent the population of the emirate, in which expats make up 88% of the population.

In expanding their junk-food franchise, Bravo has run into protest from a coalition of human rights groups who’ve called for the network to publicly oppose the violence against women and homophobia perpetrated by the rulers of Dubai and the United Arab Emirates. “Dubai is an absolute monarchy that is part of the dictatorship of the United Arab Emirates,” read their open letter to the network and production company. “By setting the ‘Real Housewives’ franchise inside Dubai, you are helping the UAE dictatorship hide its male rulers’ misogyny, legalized homophobia and mass violence against women.”

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The issues these groups raise are valid, but the bigger question is how the show will treat the help. The region is renowned for importing cheap and indentured laborers from countries such as the Philippines and then violating their human rights. And while no one expects any sort of real-life drama on a constructed reality show like “Housewives,” it does address a few things upfront in the series premiere, showing an awareness that the franchise is stepping into deeper waters than usual.

When Ali is asked why most people think women in Dubai are submissive, she replies: “They obviously haven’t been to Dubai.” And a comment from Al Madani, who’s Muslim, is used to counter both the valid complaints about misogyny in the UAE and the Islamophobia coming from the West: “When people see women covered up, they think it’s Islamic. It’s not. It’s cultural. You can come here and dress the way you want.”

Jamaican American Milan juxtaposes the hypocrisy of upholding America as a shining example of freedom and justice when she speaks about the safety the UAE offers her three boys. “Dubai is safe, especially for little Black boys … that is actually the main reason I am here.”

Of course, like the franchise’s treatment of race and religion in “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” or “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” these more serious subjects are not the main event. It’s still about wealthy female frenemies treating one another like trash. “The Real Housewives of Dubai” just imports more heat to the gulf. As if anyone needed that.

‘The Real Housewives of Dubai’

Where: Bravo

When: Wednesdays, 9 p.m.

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)