The Real Housewives comes to Dubai

The blingy TV franchise is coming to the emirate with a reputation for extreme luxury. It might be an awkward marriage

Mark Smith, The Times
November 8, 2021

“Life is different in a gated community.” In the 15 years since The Real Housewives of Orange County first buttonholed its loyal, tinsel-hungry audience with this magnificently F Scott Fitzgeraldian opening line, the Real Housewives reality TV franchise has laid its scene in extravagantly upholstered enclaves from Athens to Johannesburg. Even Cheshire.

Until now, though, none of the show’s international iterations has been hand-crafted by the team behind the American mothership. Rather they have been farmed out to foreign caretakers like so many of its cast members’ designer-clad children, or brazenly counterfeited like an alleyway Birkin bag.

So there were raised eyebrows last week when Bravo, the originator of the long-trundling reality juggernaut that documents the turbulent lives and platinum-plated imbroglios of geographically clustered female frenemies, announced that it had received permission to film its own first international version of its splashy format in Dubai.

In getting the green light from the notoriously controlling UAE regime to film on its shores, Bravo has succeeded where even the relentlessly sanguine Carrie Bradshaw failed. Despite being set almost entirely in Abu Dhabi, 2010’s execrable Sex and the City 2 movie had to be shot in Morocco, having failed to gain governmental clearance for a script that relied on jokes about “Lawrence of my labia” and whose holidaying white protagonists patronised the indigenous population of its ostensible setting.

The contrasting titles (Sex versus Housewives) probably has much to do with their respective fates. Under the sharia that governs Dubai and Abu Dhabi, sex outside marriage is forbidden, particularly for women. Muslim men can have four housewives if they like — as long as they’re treated equitably.

Filming on Real Housewives of Dubai is yet to begin, but the executive producer and host Andy Cohen was in full chicken-counting mode when he appeared on NBC’s Today show to announce it. “We are going to the billionaire’s playground, the city of gold, the desert oasis,” he opined, promising a “great group of friends” who would make the denizens of Beverly Hills (another Real Housewives mainstay) look poor.

There followed a teaser film of a leggy woman striding across the dunes in a diaphanous gown as a female voiceover marvelled of Dubai: “It’s the land of opportunity, it’s the new American dream.”

Caroline Stanbury, another rumoured star
Caroline Stanbury, another rumoured star

Rumoured cast members include Caroline Stanbury, the 45-year-old breakout star of the reality show Ladies of London and ex-girlfriend of Prince Andrew who hosts a podcast called Divorced Not Dead and generates champagne-sodden TikTok content with her boyfriend, the former Real Madrid footballer Sergio Carallo, and their array of customised vehicles and fluffy dogs.

It seems likely that the cast will be comprised mainly of expat women from Stanbury’s circle, although an Emirati name in the mix is the entrepreneur Sara Al Madani, a single mother who has described herself as a “goal digger, not a gold digger”.

On the face of it Dubai — the ultimate city of conspicuous excess, which coined the term “six-star luxury” when the traditional five proved insufficient — is the perfect locus for an advertiser-pleasing “constructed reality” format in which shopping for supercars and fussing over $25,000 “gold python” sunglasses (the latter appeared on the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Dana Wilkey) pass as plot points.

In fact, Dubai is constructed reality avant la lettre. As Becky Wicks, the ex-expat author of Burqalicious: The Dubai Diaries, puts it: “Living in Dubai was a bit like starring in a cartoon — you know, where everything’s exaggerated and the lines between fiction and reality are blurred.”

It’s a strangely addictive state. For months after her return to Europe, Wicks recalls feeling affronted at “having to clean my own bathroom” — cheap domestic labour from southeast Asia being part of the “Dubai deal’’ — and harbouring the residual nagging belief that “a house is not a home unless it has an outdoor swimming pool and a gold-crested marble bird perching on the ledge above the doorway”.

I too lived the Dubai dream during the city’s most audacious stage of expansion in the late Noughties and can attest that the producers of Housewives should find no shortage of the “over-the-top opulence, jaw-dropping modern architecture and wild nightlife scene” they are touting.

In my days as an expat journalist I regularly attended dinner parties hosted by “Jumeirah Janes”, the collective nickname for the affluent women who populated the beachside villas of Dubai’s most desirable district at the time. Pretty much all of these women were there as “plus ones” on the visas of their husbands, who worked in finance or property development. But even in 2007 the home counties-esque Jane tag seemed outmoded and monocultural, given the dazzling diversity of my nominally “housewife” hostesses.

They included a Sri Lankan-Australian model agent who had served as Portia de Rossi’s bridesmaid at her wedding to Ellen DeGeneres, a slew of Indian and Lebanese businesswomen, and Linda Davies, the British investment banker turned writer who suffered a two-week kidnapping ordeal when her catamaran was hijacked by Iranian pirates.

Their tales would surely beat “Kimberley thinks about breast implants” as reality show fodder. Nevertheless, Dubai being what it was, the chat generally revolved around staff, event swimwear and The Secret — the bestselling self-help tome that treats the universe as a sort of spiritual branch of Argos.

In some ways, then, Housewives plus Dubai is the ultimate no-brainer. But according to Radha Stirling, an international lawyer whose firm, Detained in Dubai, specialises in helping expats and tourists who fall foul of the UAE authorities, that’s precisely the problem.

“One-dimensional, unproblematic depictions of Dubai’s glamorous lifestyle, the beachside dining and the shopping exert a powerful pull. I fear the conversation hasn’t been had about what happens to money when they invest here,” she tells me.

“High-net-worth individuals are at significant risk of either losing their life savings or being imprisoned. Women who live here on their husbands’ visas are in a very precarious position, and even visitors who innocently rent a luxury car can be subjected to extortion scams that land them in jail.

“They might be involved in cybercrime cases, where they’ve posted something rude or offensive on social media. We’ve recently seen models arrested for exposing themselves on balconies, and I think it’s entirely possible we’ll see an uptick in that kind of liberal behaviour after people watch this show.”

Looming over Dubai’s reputation like smog is the case of Princess Latifa, daughter of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum whose life seems more Squid Game than Princess Diaries now we know something of the dramatic lengths to which she has gone to flee her father’s kingdom — and the tactics he has used to keep her there.

Then there are the newly revealed details of the same sheikh’s alleged illegal monitoring of his ex-wife, Princess Haya Bint Hussein of Jordan, using Israeli spyware to hack her mobile phone during a bitter international custody battle.

For Brian Moylan, the author of the book The Housewives: The Real Story Behind the Real Housewives, these inconvenient realities sit uncomfortably alongside what he sees as the show’s message of female empowerment and autonomy. “Despite the title, these aren’t actually housewives,” he says. “Many of them have their own businesses, they’re dating. I just don’t know that’s going to translate to Dubai, where unmarried women aren’t always allowed to make their own decisions, where dating can be really fraught and there are all these restrictions on drinking and dress.”

What’s more, Moylan says that it remains to be seen how the Dubai spin-off will sit with the show’s loyal gay fanbase, given the emirate’s homophobic laws. “The figurehead of the whole franchise is a gay man,” he says of the aforementioned Cohen. “They’d better host that reunion show in New York,” Moylan says of the format’s end-of-season recap shows, which always end in tears.

As a work of drama — confected or otherwise — the success of The Real Housewives of Dubai will ultimately depend on the quality of its casting, Moylan says. “The most important thing these shows need is a group of dynamic women with organic connections to each other, where the chemistry is going to be fraught and shifting and interesting to viewers at home.”

Louise Nichol, the Dubai-based Harper’s Bazaar Arabia editor turned indoor cycling trainer, knows Stanbury and some of the other putative Housewives of Dubai personally.

For her, the shoes-and-skyscrapers world it seeks to depict is just one facet of a state thathas changed significantly in the past decade. “There is so much more to Dubai these days,” she tells me, pointing out the proximity of nature, a vast array of sporting pursuits and the existence of Artsclub Dubai — the “completely wonderful” international outpost of the London private club that counted Charles Dickens and Franz Liszt as members. Then there’s long-awaited Expo 2020 Dubai, she says, which is pitching the emirate as a front-runner in culture, innovation and business.

Though not a viewer herself, Nichol sees the arrival of Housewives as a largely benign gauge of the Middle East’s continuing social evolution. “Who knows, maybe in five years’ time we’ll have The Real Housewives of Riyadh,” she speculates. “And that one I would definitely tune in for.”