Interview: Oman’s Shock Jock

Zawan al-Said has broken the mould of Arab broadcasting – twice. She presents a controversial and opinionated radio talk show, and she is a member of Oman’s ruling royal family.
(The Times (London), T2 section, Thursday, January 15, 2004

AS A MEMBER of Oman’s Royal Family, Her Excellency Sayyida Zawan al-Said might be expected firmly to support her country’s government, or at least to keep a low profile where matters of domestic politics and international relations are concerned. This is the Gulf, after all, where women are meant to be seen and not heard.

But although the Sayyida presents the splendorous picture one expects from a Gulf royal—when she strides into the lobby of the Grand Hyatt Muscat to meet me, it’s in a Dolce & Gabbana denim waistcoat and jeans that hug her curvy figure, with a Chanel handbag swinging from her arm—her voice, with its distant hint of a lisp, is a different matter. When Zawan speaks, she hardly blends into the background—though this is due mostly to the fact that she can be heard every day on Oman’s only English-language radio station, hosting a breakfast show on which she regularly takes the Government to task and fields listeners’ calls on everything from male injectable contraceptives to women’s rights, Madonna’s latest change of style or whatever else might also cross her mind.

Far from being a quiet face in the royal crowd, Zawan has taken on a calling few in the Arab world—whether women or men—would dare to try: after a dozen years of work she has transformed herself into an American-style “shock jock”, with two popular and eyebrow-raising English-language radio shows each day that have just completed their first year on the air. When I meet her she is on her way to London for a well-deserved break, and to seek out foreign broadcasting talent who might be able to help her expand her offerings beyond Early On, the breakfast show she hosts from 7am to 9am five mornings a week, and Later On, the afternoon drivetime show she produces.

And far from earning the wrath of Omani society, her candour has been widely appreciated by listeners who call in to her shows or even drop by to be part of her studio audience—once they get over their shock.

Though her subject matter might seem unremarkable to a Western audience, the relatively autocratic Gulf does not yet have many presenters who question things—such as whether it’s fair to have the police hiding speed cameras behind the bushes—or who ridicule Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said’s “meet-the-people” tour (“not a single woman among these so-called people”).

The 39-year-old BBC-trained broadcaster describes her show as “a bit of a wake-up call for a lot of people”. A typical comment from a caller: “I’m so glad someone is saying that at long last”—though a segment on the search for female Viagra inspired one listener to call in with the news that “we’re so sick of faking it”, a comment that itself must have been something of a wake-up call for many listeners.

Though there is no ratings service in Oman to track Early On’s popularity, it is “the most listened-to programme”, according to Zawan, and has even attracted media attention in neighbouring states such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

At the same time, Zawan is aware that much of its success is due to a lack of choice: “It’s the only breakfast show on the only radio station for the British expatriate and English-speaking Omani communities,” she says.

But compared to what came before it, Early On is “extremely, extremely popular”, Zawan adds. “It was just a nothing breakfast show before. You had a string of songs and there was no one saying anything and it had no name and no specific presenter. I just waited and thought, gosh, what a goldmine this is.”

When she approached Oman’s Minister of Information about taking over the show, he was sceptical at first, but finally offered her the slot—with no support and no pay. After the first three weeks of funding, producing, co-ordinating and presenting the show herself, as well as raising three children, Zawan was ready to quit. But with some encouragement from her husband, a retired Omani brigadier—and in light of the fact that the show was a runaway hit within days of going on the air—she persevered, eventually striking a deal with the Ministry of Information under which she would continue to provide free programming to the station in return for the freedom to seek her own commercial backing.

Six months later she signed up HSBC to sponsor Early On, and soon after that landed Bank Muscat as a sponsor for Later On. Except for some bells and whistles that she says give her shows a more professional feel (things like the programmes’ jingles, voiceovers and other effects, which she pays for herself), the sponsorships cover most of her costs, and the salaries of ten people who work for her.

While it probably hasn’t been hard to outdo Radio Oman’s traditional fare, Zawan has also been lucky in that she hit the airwaves at a time when the country is hungry to be engaged by a liberal dialogue on politics and current events.

October 2003 saw all Omanis get the vote for the first time. But turnout to elect the Majlis al-Shura, or consultative council, the country’s parliament, was hardly stellar, coming in at less than 25 per cent of the 800,000 Omanis eligible to vote. Political analysts in Oman and the United States say the low numbers are due to the fact that most Omanis still do not feel they have a political voice, despite Sultan Qaboos’s token steps toward democratisation. The Majlis—like most in the Arab world—is not empowered to make any laws but only to comment on those proposed by the Sultan’s Cabinet. And political campaigns are forbidden to use the mass media, making it difficult for the more than 500 candidates who were standing to reach more people than they could shake hands with.

Zawan does what she can to move the political dialogue along with comments on things like the Sultan’s meet-the-people tour, but even she is constrained. “At the end of the day, I would have liked to know who these candidates were,” she says. “But how could you move towards a more publicised, political comment when you actually have a huge big notice stuck on the board saying ‘No one is allowed to talk to any of the candidates standing for election on any of the programmes’? How do you react? That just says it all, really.”

Nevertheless, for the Arab world she remains an unusually freewheeling presenter. Some have chalked this up to her royal heritage: her father was an Omani government minister and brother of Sultan Qaboos’s father, making the Sultan her first cousin.

Zawan, of course, disagrees with the notion that her royal blood has given her more latitude, and holds that anyone could say what she says on Omani radio. When I ask why she feels the freedom to speak out when others don’t, she gives an answer that is odd to hear, coming from royalty: “I feel I have nothing to lose.”

Though her lineage probably helped her gain access to the Minister of Information to propose her show, she did not simply walk into a career in radio. After taking advantage of London University’s external degree programme to study English literature at Oxford, Zawan cast about for direction before trying Radio Oman in 1991. Having found her passion, she went on to take a graduate degree in broadcast journalism and has pressed ahead with her ambitions ever since.

Now, with five hours of independent commercial programming on Radio Oman, Zawan has created what she calls “a radio station within a radio station”, and hopes to take it even further. While in London she will be looking for a presenter with a lively enough personality to take over her duties with Early On (her search in Oman proved fruitless), which would allow her to start a third programme in the lunchtime slot. At that point, she says: “The next step is to open my own radio station.”

Her dreams include even more than that. She is currently drafting a proposal for an English-language television entertainment show (“a really massive big programme”) to offer to an Arabic station, and hints that she would like one day to be in the business of commissioning such fare, rather than producing it. So how long will it be before we’re tuning into Zawan-TV? “I’m trying actually to be less of a control freak, so I don’t get hurt,” she laughs. She is committed to Oman and to helping to develop the media there, but admits to the possibility that her ambitions might one day take her abroad again: “At the end of the day, does it really matter where you base yourself if you are able to have your own satellite TV station?”