Nayla is not the only Saudi woman to feel a special connection to the American media mogul. When “The Oprah Winfrey Show” was first broadcast in Saudi Arabia in November 2004 on a Dubai-based satellite channel, it became an immediate sensation among young Saudi women. Within months, it had become the highest-rated English-language program among women 25 and younger, an age group that makes up about a third of Saudi Arabia’s population.
In a country where the sexes are rigorously separated, where topics like sex and race are rarely discussed openly and where a strict code of public morality is enforced by religious police called hai’a, Ms. Winfrey provides many young Saudi women with new ways of thinking about the way local taboos affect their lives — as well as about a variety of issues including childhood sexual abuse and coping with marital strife — without striking them, or Saudi Arabia’s ruling authorities, as subversive.
Some women here say Ms. Winfrey’s assurances to her viewers — that no matter how restricted or even abusive their circumstances may be, they can take control in small ways and create lives of value — help them find meaning in their cramped, veiled existence.
“Oprah dresses conservatively,” explained Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, a co-owner of a women’s spa in Riyadh called Yibreen and a daughter of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States. “She struggles with her weight. She overcame depression. She rose from poverty and from abuse. On all these levels she appeals to a Saudi woman. People really idolize her here.”