Abir Sabri, celebrated for her alabaster skin, ebony hair, pouting lips and full figure, used to star in racy Egyptian TV shows and movies. Then, at the peak of her career a few years ago, she disappeared—at least her face did. She began performing on Saudi-owned religious TV channels, with her face covered, chanting verses from the Qur'an. Conservative Saudi Arabian financiers promised her plenty of work, she says, as long as she cleaned up her act. "It's the Wahhabi investors," she says, referring to the strict form of Sunni Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia. "Before, they invested in terrorism—and now they put their money in culture and the arts."
Egyptians deplore what they call the Saudization of their culture. Egypt has long dominated the performing arts from Morocco to Iraq, but now petrodollar-flush Saudi investors are buying up the contracts of singers and actors, reshaping the TV and film industries and setting a media agenda rooted more in strict Saudi values than in those of freewheeling Egypt. "As far as I'm concerned, this is the biggest problem in the Middle East right now," says mobile-phone billionaire Naquib Sawiris. "Egypt was always very liberal, very secular and very modern. Now ..." He gestures from the window of his 26th-floor Cairo office: "I'm looking at my country, and it's not my country any longer. I feel like an alien here."
At the Grand Hyatt Cairo, a mile upstream along the Nile, the five-star hotel's Saudi owner banned alcohol as of May 1 and ostentatiously ordered its $1.4 million inventory of booze flushed down the drains. "A hotel in Egypt without alcohol is like a beach without a sea," says Aly Mourad, chairman of Studio Masr, the country's oldest film outfit. He says Saudis—who don't even have movie theaters in their own country—now finance 95 percent of the films made in Egypt. "They say, here, you can have our money, but there are just a few little conditions." More than a few, actually; the 35 Rules, as moviemakers call them, go far beyond predictable bans against on-screen hugging, kissing or drinking. Even to show an empty bed is forbidden, lest it hint that someone might do something on it. Saudi-owned satellite channels are buying up Egyptian film libraries, heavily censoring some old movies while keeping others off the air entirely.
Some Egyptians say the new prudishness isn't entirely the Saudis' fault. "Films are becoming more conservative because the whole society is becoming more conservative," says filmmaker Marianne Khoury, who says Saudi cash has been a lifeline to the 80-year-old industry. From a peak of more than 100 films yearly in the 1960s and '70s, Egyptian studios' output plunged to only a half dozen a year in the '90s. Thanks to Saudi investors, it's now about 40. "If they stopped, there would be no Egyptian films," says Khoury.
At least a few Egyptians say Saudi Arabia is the country that's ultimately going to change. "Egypt will be back to what it used to be," predicts the single-named Dina, one of Egypt's few remaining native-born belly dancers. And it was a Saudi production company that financed a 2006 drama that frankly discusses homosexuality, "The Yacoubian Building." Sawiris has launched a popular satellite-TV channel of his own, showing uncensored American movies. He's determined to win—but he's only one billionaire, and Saudi Arabia is swarming with them.