Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Kuwaiti Soap Opera industry: History and Censorship

Although the Kuwaiti soap opera industry has a long-standing heritage, it has recently been confronted with many challenges like censorship.

Kuwaiti Soap Opera industry
Kuwaiti Producer and filmmaker Walid al-Awadi (L), actors Saad al-Faraj (2nd L) and Khaled Ameen (R) pose during the photocall of “Tora Bora” movie in the opening ceremony of the Gulf Film Festival in Dubai on April 10, 2012. KARIM SAHIB / AFP

Youssef Sharqawi

The remarkable success of Kuwaiti television dramas started in the 1960s. Its long and rich legacy is still ongoing. However, some argue that the Kuwaiti soap opera industry has lost its influence in the Arab world and Kuwait is no longer the “Hollywood of the Gulf.”

Its diminished influence is the result of several factors, including strict government control and the lack of resonance between Kuwaiti drama and Kuwaiti societal issues, such as challenges experienced by the Bedoons, immigrants and Kuwaiti women.


Kuwaiti actor Mohammed al-Mansour says that Kuwaiti soap opera represents its soft power: “Kuwait began to work on this power early in its independence from the British Mandate. A rich cultural movement covering many sectors has been established.

As a result, TV and radio in Kuwait attracted numerous innovators from the Arab world that contributed to vitalising the country. It was this seed that launched the Kuwaiti drama.”

Kuwait started television broadcasting officially in the early 1960s. The first state television network in the Gulf Peninsula was established on 15 November 1961 in Kuwait.

According to Kuwaiti writer Youssef al-Braik, alongside Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, Kuwait is one of the Arab countries with a pioneering role in the television drama industry. Al-Braik says Kuwaiti drama has emerged from the theatre.

In the early 1960s, Kuwaiti theatre excelled in two directions: school theatre and improvisational theatre. Kuwaiti school theatre emerged in 1938 with troupes from the Mubarakiya School and Ahmadiyya School. Improv appeared in the 1950s with prominent actor Muhammad al-Nashmi.

With the introduction of TV in Kuwait, viewers were introduced to TV drama through series and late-night shows that were packed with actors from Kuwaiti theatre and Arab stars.

Kuwaiti critic and journalist Fahad al-Handal believes that TV drama in Kuwait is an extension of the interest in theatre. In an interview with Fanack, he said that the interest in theatre catalysed social interest in acting.

He further explained that the evolution of Kuwaiti drama was gradual, starting with theatre troupes. This was followed by the emergence of radio drama, which drew upon the experiences gained from previous endeavours, eventually leading to the development of television drama.

In the early years of Kuwaiti television, dramas had no designated segments. Saad al-Faraj presented the first drama segment in 1964.

Al-Handal said that Kuwaiti drama truly took off with the launch of Kuwait Television in the 1960s, especially after the establishment of an acting institute in Kuwait. He added that Zaki Talimat was invited to mentor the first classes, who thereby vitalised theatre and drama in radio and TV.

Mohammed al-Nashmi presented the first Kuwaiti TV drama to be broadcasted live: an improv in which he reenacted a slice-of-life event followed by social commentary.

Subsequently, al-Namash Theatre Troupe presented Diwaniya al-Televezyoun. In each episode, they tackled a social issue using a comedic format.

Over time, the momentum of Kuwaiti drama began to take shape. Saad al-Faraj wrote the screenplay for Resalah. Additionally, The Arab Theatre Troupe and Folk Theatre Troupe participated in the Family Segment and the Children’s Segments, presenting sketches for families and children. The Abu Jassoum Theatre Troupe presented sketches during Ramadan.

The Kuwaiti Television Archive revealed that, by the late 1960s, the number of programmes on Kuwait TV had reached an impressive 65, a notable achievement considering the limited resources and the existence of just one studio. Among the productions from this period was Mothakerat Bou Alioui in 1964. In 1967, eight short plays and ten late-night TV shows were produced, including notable titles such as Mahkamat al-Freij and Madinet al-Nour.

Faisal al-Qahtani, a drama professor at The Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Kuwait, views the period between the mid-1970s and the end of the 1980s as the golden age of Kuwaiti drama. He believes screenplays of TV dramas had become very professional by that time.

Kuwaiti drama has witnessed a remarkable development since the mid-1970s. Kuwait TV began financially and technically supporting private productions in the Gulf. It also brought in Syrian, Egyptian and Iraqi directors. Kuwait TV paid for scholarships to Cairo and London to qualify technical personnel in various fields.

It must be noted that there are no recorded data on this stage of Kuwaiti drama’s history. Information is thus reliant on the recounts of Kuwaiti actors. Notable early Kuwaiti dramas of the 1970s include al-Malgouf from 1973, Hababa from 1976, al-Ebreeg al-Maksour from 1976, Darb al-Zelig from 1977, and Mothakerat Juha from 1979.

The scholarship graduates began to release their work after returning home. These works were the hallmark of Kuwaiti drama in the 1980s. Notable examples are 1980’s Kharaj wa Lam Yaoud and Ela Abi wa Ommi ma al-Tahiya, 1981’s Dars Khosousi, 1982’s al-Attawia, 1983’s Khalti Gomasha and al-Aswar, 1984’s al-Ghouraba, and 1986’s Roqaya and Sabeeka and Ala al-Dunya al-Salam.

According to al-Handal, the 1970s and 1980s were the golden age of Kuwaiti drama, in particular after attracting local and Arab talents for acting, writing, directing and other production roles.

During the 1990s, Kuwaiti drama experienced a notable decline, especially following the invasion of Kuwait. However, it promptly returned more robust than before, with new unconventional scripts and ideas and unwavering support from Kuwait TV. The most famous works of the 1990s are 1998’s Zaman al-Eskafi and Daret al-Ayam and 1995’s Zari’ al-Shar.

According to a study by researcher Bader al-Dalah, the 2000s saw 87 series with exclusively local production. However, researchers, critics and artists agree that the quality of the content of Kuwaiti drama has declined since. Interviewees in researcher Ali Doshi al-Aradah’s study Status and Image of Women in Kuwaiti TV explicitly express this opinion.

According to al-Qahtani, in the 1990s and 2000s, Kuwaiti dramas could not maintain the lead. At the root of this issue lay the absence of most professional writers and screenwriters, either because of their passing or as a result of the crises that followed the Iraqi invasion.

Al-Handal notes that despite the fluctuation in quality in the 1990s, the number of works per year did not decrease.

This situation persisted after the advent of satellite channels. Producers were fiercely competing for prime time, ads and sponsorships. “After the race for sponsorships, exclusive TV dramas arrived. New now entered the stage of online platforms that cranked up exclusivity,” al-Handal added.

Al-Handal does not expect Kuwaiti drama to return to its former glory anytime soon, particularly since the style of today’s dramas is highly exaggerated.

Al-Handal believes these works have become popular because they spark controversy on social media: “The most prominent disadvantage of Kuwaiti drama today is its reliance on previously discussed topics, especially crime rates and the prevalence of verbal and physical violence. I believe these works now reflect an unrealistic image of Kuwaiti society.”

Kuwaiti Soap Opera industry
Kuwaiti actor Abdulhussein Abdurrida attends The 7th Gulf festival for Radio and Television in Bahrain 02 February 2001. ADAM JAN / AFP


Censorship is a major issue in Kuwait, as showrunners and censors hold opposing points of view. On the one hand, censors stress the need for oversight. On the other hand, showrunners are calling for less censorship. Some call for abolishing censorship altogether because of its ineffectiveness, as it cracks down on and hinders creative work.

According to numerous interviews with Kuwaiti artists and producers, censorship affects the script and production and may even lead to the removal of entire scenes.

The lack of clear standards or legislation regarding censorship adds to the pressure. Some showrunners describe it as “the mood of the censorship committee.”

The impact of censorship does not stop at local productions but also involves the prosecution of Kuwaiti artists working abroad. According to Kuwaiti journalist Anwar al-Rogi, the Ministry of Information responds to the negativity surrounding Kuwaiti artists on social media. The Ministry sometimes condemns the artist, at times taking legal action even if a show was not produced in Kuwait.

In 2007, the National Assembly passed Law No. 61 on audiovisual media. The Act dictates that:

The licensee shall be prohibited from broadcasting or rebroadcasting anything that would prejudice Allah, the angels, the Holy Qur’an, the prophets, companions of the Prophet, the wives of the Prophet or the Prophet’s family with slandering, ridiculing, defaming or by any other mean of expression. It also prohibits incitement to overthrow the regime in the country or to urge a change of the regime by force or by illegal means, to call for the use of force to change the existing social and economic order in the country, or to embrace doctrines aimed at destroying the basic foundations in Kuwait by illegal means.

The law also prohibits “criticising His Highness the Emir or attributing a statement to Him except with special permission from the Amiri Diwan.” The same law prohibits:

Insulting or contempt for the state’s constitution, or inciting to violate its text. And insulting judges or public prosecutors or anything considered a violation of the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary. It is prohibited to offend public morals or incite to violate public order or laws, or commit crimes. It is also forbidden to harm the private life of an official or person entrusted with a public service or to attribute incorrect words or actions to him that involve insulting or offending him.

Kuwaiti showrunners are especially affected by this law as it lacks an explicit clause that allows for the discussion of social issues, including the Bedoons, immigrants, women and children, Kuwaiti Christians, Shiites and ethnicity.

For example, censors removed parts of a dialogue referring to a Bedoon character in Sag al-Bamboo in 2016. The action destroyed his identity and obliterated the human suffering he endured. In 2019’s La Mosiqa fel Ahmadi, censors removed a scene depicting a Shiite woman making vows.


Due to its strictness, censorship has resulted in a lack of Kuwaiti drama addressing sensitive topics and issues. Writer Fahd al-Aliwa supports this statement, “It is due to censorship which allows or prohibits work without clear reasons and based on the background of the censor.” He continues, “There are some issues that we would like to raise in a different way or from a new angle, but we can’t because of censorship.”

Hani al-Nassar says, “The role of censorship is influential, and some topics, such as the naturalisation of children from Kuwaiti mothers, are avoided altogether.”

Writer Abdullah al-Roumi talks about his intention and ambition to raise several social issues, such as honour killings, which have not been fully criminalised by law. However, he was asked to delete parts covering these issues from his work.

Producers Abdullah Boushahri and Abdullah al-Salman also stated that censorship plays a major role in obstructing Kuwaiti shows. Boushahri demanded a return to the old system when there was no committee to approve every word.

In contrast, director Manaf Abdal and producer Abdul Aziz al-Musallam support censorship because it preserves society’s values, customs and traditions. They opposed the idea of abolishing the Content Approval Committee.

Al-Handal told Fanack, “We suffer from strict censorship.” He also stressed the need and importance of appealing to a sense of self-monitoring and not succumbing to the temptations of streaming services, producers and higher viewership without good content and treatment.

Noura al-Attal, a member of the Content Approval Committee, said most content presented to the committee is neither mature nor insightful. In an interview with Fanack, al-Attal said, “There are some good works. However, most content relies on violence, obscene dialogue and philistine concepts, indicative of amateuristic writing and writers.” Al-Attal believes that Kuwaiti drama must take a step back because the current level clashes with the expected standards the industry once pioneered.

Al-Handal stressed that laws to regulate censorship developed by legislators and art specialists in Kuwait do exist. He also hoped that serious efforts would be made to pass laws regulating professional drama works to elevate the industry’s quality.

Al-Handal called for adopting laws that regulate drama to increase the Artists Syndicate’s role in Kuwait and its administrative and financial independence and diversify drama and theatre festivals at the level of schools, institutes and universities.