The first original Kuwaiti series to hit Netflix, The Exchange, is a reminder of the vast underrepresentation of the emirate with the oldest history in TV production (since 1961) in the Gulf region.
Set in the capital city’s male-dominated stock market in 1987, the six-episode mini-series, which started streaming on 8 February, is inspired by the real-life story of the first women to enter the bourse. The opening scene bookends the finale with one of the two protagonists, the 30-something Farida, leaning on the fire alarm panel, which reads in Arabic: “In case of fire break glass.” It’s a reference to the fires, both figurative and literal, that unfold in between as social taboos are broken.
Farida cuts a lonely figure as she awaits her divorce behind the closed doors of a Kuwaiti court while her father — the male guardian — finalises the procedure on her behalf. But even he, a prominent editor in a leading newspaper, is subject to extortion. Farida’s ex-husband, the only party in this divorce legally entitled to compensation, obtains a hefty fee from him.
When her ex-husband refuses to pay their only daughter’s expensive tuition fees, Farida is inspired by her ambitious and shrewd cousin Munira — the first female clerk in Kuwait’s thriving stock market, who is rolling in money — to find a job in the field. Despite the family-rooted competition between the two women, they successfully team up while learning the secrets of the trade and its complex machinations, investing in growing shares in defiance of their condescending male co-workers. Even as their bosses notice their skills, the women are still not taken seriously until a small crash hits the stock market.
When her manager collapses with a heart attack on the trading floor, Munira takes matters into her own hands, stepping in to protect the interests of her bank. Farida for her part intuitively sets off the fire alarm which forces the now panic-stricken stock exchange to shut down, thus saving stocks from further decline and financial ruin. It is then that the two women are acknowledged and rewarded with senior jobs.
Co-written by the Kuwaiti media professional Nadia Ahmed and the Americans Anne and Adam Sobel, The Exchange is inspired by Ahmed’s own childhood. In interviews, Ahmed said she was raised by a single mum — “an economic genius” — who fought her way through the male-dominated stock market of the 1980s. Ahmed describes the feisty character of Munira, Farida’s independent, career-focused and sexy cousin, as an embodiment of that strong-willed women, who challenged the status quo she grew up under.
The Exchange does a good job of recreating 1980s Kuwait: tall, boxy luxury sedans in sepia-toned streets, Pakistani drivers, Egyptian public-school teachers, vast, kitsch wall-papered villas, Filipino house help, and even the 1980s hit Egyptian TV drama series Layali Al-Helmiya. Better still is its creative resurrection of the era’s big and bold fashion aesthetic — shoulder pads, volumised hair, and bright makeup — meaningfully embraced by the characters.
In her first appearance, Munira steps out of her convertible red Mercedes — which she drives by herself in defiance of social norms at the time — in a plunging neckline dress with shoulder pads, wrapped in a fuchsia shawl and wearing giant earrings and black arm-length gloves contrasting with her diamond bracelet: a detailed curation of 1980s glam fashion and a nod to Munira’s vixen temperament.
At that time Kuwait, overflowing with the massive influx of oil money, was the Middle East’s financial centre. The stock market of the small-oil rich emirate which was the first to modernise in the Gulf was launched in 1977, and by the 1980s ranked third in the world.
The series presents a nuanced depiction of rich Kuwaiti families, like Farida’s, whose wealth was undermined, prompting the father to encourage her to seek financial independence. In doing so, the show also attempts to shake off entrenched stereotypes in the region and elsewhere about the inexhaustible wealth of Kuwaiti people.
But the greatest appeal of The Exchange is its freshness. Take its premise (a single, native, mother struggling to provide for her only child): not exactly the story to be expected from one of the richest countries in the world. More significant is the show’s main theatre: Kuwait’s vibrant stock market, a venue that has rarely if ever been seen in the long history of Arab entertainment.
A small but influential Gulf emirate that keeps a very low regional profile, Kuwait is made visible by The Exchange. The vast audience of the global streaming service can be introduced to facets of life in the emirate, during a sensitive political time, seven years into the war between neighbouring Iraq and Iran. While the focus is on the real and growing community of powerful Kuwaiti businesswomen at the time, the show’s writers skilfully interlace it with the growing political tensions in the region.
Set three years before Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the events highlight how the reverberations of the Iraq-Iran War were felt in the emirate, as it came closer to home. Farida’s father mentions the 20 oil tankers bombed that year. Towards the end of the series, the family wakes up to the sound of an Iranian missile hitting an oil tanker with a US flag. It was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 that brought attention to Baghdad’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction, which escalated to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The Exchange is one of the few productions by Netflix’s Arabic Originals unit that stand out. The unit debuted in 2019 with safe, unoriginal remakes of European shows and American sit-com templates that brought little ingenuity to the Arabic or global audience.
This might be changing in favour of more exciting endeavours. The series’ executive producer Abdullah Boushahri told Variety magazine that Netflix sees Kuwait, the oldest TV production hub in the region, as a gateway to the Gulf region.
“That’s why they chose Kuwait as the first country in which to do this type of show,” he said.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly