No doubt there will be teenagers queuing around the block when the Arab Idol tour hits the Dubai World Trade Center on Thursday night and the Palestinian winner Mohammed Assaf performs alongside the second season finalists.
While reality talent shows have been popular in the West for well over a decade, they have only recently exploded in the Arab world and many are imitations of western franchises.
Arab Idol, for example, is based on the high-rating British show Pop Idol. The Arab version follows a similar format as the search for a winning contestant is reached through an audition process involving judges and viewer votes. Arab Idol is currently ranked as the second most popular show in the UAE.
X Factor Arabia, based on The X Factor in the UK, is a rival show to Arab Idol and searches for outstanding groups, as well as solo artists. The Voice Arabia gets its twist from the fact contestants audition “blind” – the judges can’t see them when they perform. And then there’s Arabs’ Got Talent which debuted in 2011 and is based on Britain’s Got Talent. The show features contestants with a wide variety of talents such as break dancers, comedians, magicians and rappers.
The eastern stamp
While the show formats remain very similar to their western counterparts, cultural differences lie in the participants. In the western incarnations politics are taboo, whereas the contestants in the Arab shows are political by simply appearing in the competition. In the UK, no one would ever dream of asking a contestant their political views, whereas the Emirati singer and judge, Ahlam, for example, voiced her opinions on current affairs on Arab Idol.
In the UK and the US, the overarching message running through these talent shows is: “If you want fame badly enough, you can make it happen.” Fortunately (or unfortunately), contestants on Arab shows don’t share the same delusions. In the UK much of the entertainment is derived from judges laughing at bad auditionees, pulling faces and dishing out cutting criticism, unlike the warm and largely pleasant judges in the East.
What’s so bad about light entertainment?
The region is divided over the effect of reality shows. Sheikh Abd Al-Rahman Al-Sudais, the imam of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, has reportedly called the shows, “weapons of mass destruction that kill values and virtue”.
Taking a more moderate viewpoint, Clare Smart, an adolescent mental health counsellor at Lifeworks, Dubai (www.lifeworksdubai.com ), says: “There is a concern that shows which promote fame could give young people the idea that only fame equals success and this could lead to unachievable -expectations.”
Another concern is the effect on the children who “fail”. “The UAE is a collectivistic country and being on national TV means, in many cases, that you represent your entire family of three generations,” explains Naeema Jiwani, a developmental psychology specialist at the Human Relations Institute, Dubai (www.hricdubai.com ). “Losing face is therefore a much more significant challenge than if perhaps an American child lost their spot on a show. The pressure on the child to compete, excel and win can be tremendous and when they don’t make it their whole world comes apart – whether or not they ever recover from this experience seems like quite a big risk to take during such a crucial age in their development.”
Additionally, Jiwani fears that dropping a western show, format intact, into the UAE could be to the detriment of eastern culture. “Shows such as Arab Idol may be overly focused on the child’s sense of individualism, on how unique they are,” explains Jiwani. “Reality shows inspired by western philosophies change the values of the younger generations in the UAE to a huge degree, replacing values of interdependence with independence, collectivism with individualism, perhaps causing a little bit of eastern culture to be lost along the way.”
Why a little bit of nonsense is no bad thing
Some believe the shows can be good for family bonding. “I have worked with young people who enjoy watching these shows with their whole family and it has been a valuable way of spending time together,” says Smart. “Choosing their own favourites, developing their debating skills by discussing why their favourite should win and experiencing emotions together as the contestants go through highs and lows, all play a part in this.”
The chance to reach for the stars is considered another plus point. “These shows give a sense that anything is possible and that if you have dreams of fame then the show is one way of achieving it,” says Smart. “However, it’s important that a sense of perspective is kept and that young people have other interests and goals to keep a sense of balance.”
The parent’s perspective
“My kids don’t follow any reality shows, but they will pull up highlights from time to time on YouTube when they hear about a remarkable performance or what they refer to as a complete ‘fail’. My son is a bit of a comedian and likes to re-enact auditions from American Idol from years ago to make us laugh. I’m pleased neither of them spend a lot of time watching reality TV. They prefer playing sport, hanging out with friends and reading. “We have a friend who is an Olympic medallist and the kids know that professional athletes and performers put a lot of time and effort into their craft, and that fame can fade quickly. If either of them wanted to become a singer, actor or athlete, I would make sure it was something they truly wanted to do and something that was realistically obtainable for their talents and abilities. It isn’t fair to tell a kid who ‘can’t carry a tune in a bucket’ that they are going to be the next Adele or Bruno Mars.”
Cristy Eubanks-Williams is an American who lives in Abu Dhabi with her husband and two teenagers. Cristy blogs at yabbadhabidooooo.blogspot.co.uk 
“My daughters don’t really keep up with reality TV, but they often watch selected episodes on YouTube. I think kids learn from these shows that even if you do your best, there will be times in life when you still don’t win and that it’s OK. On the negative side, I feel reality TV programmes are designed for mature minds, as children often mistake the artificial tension created on stage as real. My main concern is that these shows can make kids believe that singing and dancing are the greatest things on Earth. They need to know that it is cool to do particle physics, social service or car repairs – every individual is different.”
Denis Eugene Arackal, Dubai. Father to Amritha, 8, and Annie, 4