Saudi Telecom Stops Text Vote for Arab Talent Show

By Andrew Hammond

Saudi mobile operator Mobily has stopped users from text message voting for an Arab "Star Academy" competition because of an Islamic decree branding the reality show immoral, the company said on Monday.

Saudi religious scholars last May condemned the hugely popular talent show aired by Lebanese channel LBC as a crime against Islam when a young Saudi returned to a hero's welcome after winning in the Lebanese capital Beirut.

"The decision was taken last night because of a fatwa (religious decree) issued last year, since the program is culturally inappropriate," spokesman Humoud Alghodaini said.

"It shows men and women living in one house, sometimes semi-naked and in inappropriate situations," he added.

The program entered its third season last week with two 21-year-old Saudi men among the 19 contestants from around the Arab world who will share a house 24 hours a day in a bid to win a recording contract.

Saudi Arabia, home to the puritan Wahhabi school of Islam, requires women to be fully covered and accompanied by a male relative in public. Mixing of unmarried men and women is forbidden.

Saudi Telecommunications Co. (STC), the main mobile firm in the conservative kingdom, said last January it would block customers from voting by text message.

STC has around 10 million subscribers compared to the two million of new-comer Mobily, which is owned by United Arab Emirates' telecom firm Etisalat.

"We will definitely lose money, but how much, I don't know," Alghodaini said about the decision. "If we don't (stop messaging) it would backfire on us and affect our brand."

April's victory by Hisham Abdulrahman triggered the closest thing to pop hysteria in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, as admirers rushed to shake his hand or even kiss him at a public appearance in a Riyadh shopping mall.

Users in a Saudi Web chatroom often used by Islamists praised the messaging ban. "We have to say thank you to these companies for their initiative and for respecting young people," one said in a posting.

Some music fans say they managed in the past to vote via the Internet, bypassing the government server which controls access.

Copyright 2005 Reuters Limited.

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