MTV's Arab Prizefight

Jordanian singer Diana Karazon being interviewed for the launch of MTV Arabia at the MTV Arabia offices in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Richard Allenby-Pratt / Arabianeye for TIME
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It's just after sundown and a sweltering 104º (40ºC) at a racetrack in the middle of the desert outside Dubai, and Joseph Hobeika, 24, from Lebanon, wants to live Al Helm (The Dream). He's trying to become a race-car driver, and he's got two experts to help him: Khaled al-Mutawe, winner of the Dubai Racing Academy's 2007 cup, and Rasha al-Emam, the Saudi production director for MTV and a race-car driver herself. Hobeika struggles and at one point admits, "I spent seven years at university, and I can't find a job. I just want to achieve something and impress everyone."

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MTV Arabia

Watch promos and clips from MTV Arabia

This is all part of a reality show, after all, and every reality show needs its epiphany. Al-Emam is part of the team developing MTV Arabia, a channel for the Arab world that will make its debut on Nov. 17, and Al Helm is the local version of the popular MTV show Made. Al Helm, however, is more than just youthful wish fulfillment. "It's very powerful and unusual for an Arab man to admit failure like that on TV," al-Emam says. And in Saudi Arabia, MTV's largest market in the Middle East, the episode quietly subverts the Saudi law prohibiting women from driving. As a Saudi female race-car driver, al-Emam is an impossibility.

With its careful mix of aspirational glamour and boundary-pushing, the new channel is crucial to MTV's global expansion: in its target markets in the region, 65% of the population is under 25. Connecting with those young people means more than just promoting pop culture, says Abdullatif al-Sayegh, 35, the CEO of Arab Media Group (AMG), which holds the MTV license in the region. "We are not introducing a music channel," he insists. "We are introducing a platform for youth, where we can bring up a lot of issues and solve them."

Beamed from Dubai, MTV Arabia targets 15-to-35-year-olds from Bahrain to Cairo. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the channel's most important market for advertising but also the most conservative, so K.S.A. 2.0, as the youngest MTV executives call it, is the default setting for how far is too far. The launch team, a mix of Saudis, Palestinians, Emiratis, Iraqis and Lebanese, decided on a 60-40 split between music videos and reality programming.

They ruled out some big hits--racy dating shows, such as Parental Control and Date My Mom--and will test subtitled versions of others like Cribs, a peek inside the private lives of celebrities--tricky here since young people revere their stars and don't really want to look behind their curtains. But the producers green-lighted local versions of the extreme-sports and street-skills show Barrio 19--one early episode features "dune-bashing," driving ATVs fast through the desert--and the Candid Camera-style Boiling Points.

Even after rolling out 52 other international versions, MTV is working hard to fit in. The creative team is cooking up graphics announcing the call to prayer--MTV Indonesia already has them--and on Thursday evenings, ladies'-night music programming encourages female viewers who are not allowed to go out to instead organize parties at home with girlfriends. Over in the editing suite, Western music videos are cleaned up according to the "4-3-2-1 rule": close-ups of a bikini are O.K. for 1 sec. but not 2; 3 sec. in a moving shot works but not 4.

While MTV may have popularized the music video, in the Middle East it is chasing its clones. Competitor Rotana has four Beirut-based music channels, financed by Saudi billionaire Prince al-Waleed bin Talal. Melody, out of Cairo, is controlled by Egyptian telecoms magnate Naguib Sawiris. Mohammed Yanez, MTV talent and music director, says his channel will be different. Sure, there will be stars like Elissa, Nancy Ajram and Amr Diab, but Yanez wants a little less melodrama. "We are always weeping in Arabic music," he complains. He plans to mix it up with Arab hip-hop, a genre that thrives in the Middle Eastern club scene but has been ignored by the music channels. A new MTV Arabia show, Hip HopNa, travels to four cities looking for the best local talent. In the last episode, audiences pick the best act.

The new channel is just the start for MTV. The launch will swell its reach to 36 million households that get MTV Arabia via satellite, up from 200,000 who now get MTV on pay TV, and MTV will earn an estimated $10 million annually for 10 years in licensing fees from AMG. MTV also has deals with AMG and its parent, TECOM Investments, both controlled by the ruler of Dubai, to launch an Arabic version of Nickelodeon kids' channel next year. A Comedy Central channel, film co-production deals with Paramount (a unit of MTV's parent, Viacom) and a Nickelodeon hotel are also under discussion. "Our vision in the long run is to create a global media hub out of Dubai," says Abdullatif al-Mulla, a former Microsoft executive who is TECOM's CEO.

But first, MTV Arabia has to find the right mix of old and new. On a recent afternoon, producers reviewed a commercial featuring a traditional Arabic music ensemble, with one musician on the lutelike oud. Little by little, the oud player went wild and trashed his instrument, Jimi Hendrix-style. The meeting erupted. "You don't just break an oud," said a producer. Another chimed in, "We don't want it to be seen that MTV is coming from America and breaking your oud." An alternate ending is in the works.

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