DUBAI, United Arab Emirates ( Associated Press) – Cameras zoom across a vast expanse of desert before looking out at an artificial island dotted with luxury homes in the Persian Gulf. Terrible melody sounds, as if warning the audience: This ain’t your “Real Housewives of Orange County.”
For the first time in its 16-year history, the American franchise, which has become an institution of reality television, will take its glamor and soap operas overseas – specifically, to Dubai’s skyscraper Sheikhdome. While the franchise has sold countless global spinoffs from Lagos to Vancouver, none have been produced by the Bravo network before.
“Real Housewives of Dubai” debuts Wednesday, featuring six new women in the network’s crown jewel of catfights and marital meltdowns beloved, ditched and hated around the world.
Dubai may be about 13,000 kilometers (8,000 mi) from the California gated community where the reality-show Empire premiered in 2006, which is illustrated by a cameo appearance in the series’ teaser.
But as Dubai’s “housewives” gossip over lavish lunches, sipping from stemmed glasses and arriving at casual gatherings surrounded by designer logos, it turns out they’re not far from Orange County.
This is the message women want to give. The actors say that showing their extravagant, party-tough lives on screen defies stereotypes about the United Arab Emirates, a Gulf Arab federation where Islam is the official religion.
Sarah Al Madani, a serial entrepreneur and single mom, told the Associated Press from her quaint villa adorned with portraits, “It’s an opportunity for me to show the Western world, or the world in general, how a modern Arab woman can be. ” A room full of her favorite irreplaceable tokens and trophies in memory of her career.
Instead of the traditional black abaya, Al Madani wore a wide-brimmed suede hat. With a nose ring, tongue piercing and arm tattoo that read “rebel,” she was the first to admit: “I’m not your typical Arab or Emirati.”
Al Madani is the only Emirati artist – a ratio that is no surprise in a country where expatriate locals number around nine to one.
The other “housewives” saw the glow of Dubai from afar. Caroline Stanbury, a reality star who stirred up drama in Bravo’s “Ladies of London” series, moved to Dubai with her children after getting divorced and remarried to a former football player.
Carolyn Brooks, an Afro-Latina businessman from Massachusetts, rose to success in Dubai’s jackfruit real estate industry. “It’s too expensive to cheat on me,” she tells the audience in the trailer. “Ask my ex.”
Nina Ali, an ultra-glam Lebanese mother of three children, founded Fruit Cakes, a fruitcake business. Lesa Hall, Jamaican designer and former beauty queen of luxury maternity clothing, recently posted an ice cream cone on Instagram—with 24-karat-gold leaf on top.
Kenya-born model Chanel Ayan, who shuns prejudices in the UAE to run for top-tier European fashion houses, is now developing a makeup line. She described herself as “outgoing, funny, crazy and extremely hot” in an interview with the Associated Press.
Like the American stars of the franchise, women in Dubai are not housewives in the traditional sense, but socialite business owners trying to define their brand. And Dubai, a city that is constantly trying to market itself on the world stage, provides a fitting backdrop.
With zero income tax, gleaming skyscrapers and countless malls, the emirate was poised as a global destination for the super-rich. Fortune-seekers, rich and poor, flock to Dubai from all over the world, including migrant laborers from South Asia, Africa and the Philippines, who work long hours for low pay. However, the franchise takes its attention only to a small subset of wealthy womanhood.
The cast members described Dubai as a western playground where women are free to have fun and do whatever they want.
“You have the glitz, you have the glamour, you have the fashion,” said Stanbury, pitting her black Pomeranian named Taz against her sequined Prada crop top. F on his coffee table. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Beautiful and Damned”.
“You don’t understand how much it’s worth living in a country like this,” she said.
But in the United Arab Emirates, women are legally obliged to obey their husbands under the country’s Islamic law. Despite major legal changes, public cursing, drinking and kissing can still get you in trouble. Homosexuality is taboo, as is crossdressing. Officials stamped on signs of political discontent.
Executives stressed that the UAE’s traditional values and speech restrictions, which had long hindered the oil-rich country’s efforts to become a regional entertainment hub, did not hold housewives back.
Fans can still expect alcohol-soaked celebrations and dramatic confrontations, said Cézine Cavusoglu, the Bravo executive in charge of the series. But drink-throwing, table-flipping, hair-pulling or otherwise ostentatious fighting in public will not.
“They stay there. They know what’s acceptable, and what’s not acceptable,” Cavusoglu said. “They still gave us amazing material about who they are and having really honest and difficult conversations.”
Dubai’s government-run media office did not respond to the Associated Press’s requests for comment. The Dubai Tourism Board and Film Commission approved the series and facilitated its production.
This is already a significant change from a decade ago, when the Dubai government cited ethical concerns in rejecting the makers of the “Sex and the City” film sequel.
Not everyone in the UAE is happy with “Real Housewives” headlines. Annoyed by the misogynistic, bikini-clad women in the trailer, Emirati social media influencer Majid Almari lashed out at the series on Instagram last week.
“We are a tolerant country, but that doesn’t mean others can follow our morals,” he said in a viral clip. Local media also profiled more and more Real Housewives in the UAE, demanding “more accurate representations.”
But the reality franchise was always escapist fare, cast and executives say, detracting from the reality of the general audience.
“It’s just for fun,” Stanbury said from her pristine kitchen, where on a clear day she can watch elephants rise above the desert to a nature preserve and the world’s tallest tower. “You guys gain insight into all of our crazy lives.”
Follow Isabel Debre on Twitter at www.twitter.com/isabeldebre.