“Al Liwan” and the Construction of the National Narrative

Television programs are an important part of Ramadan across the Arab world. Every year, different shows compete against each other to win the loyalty of viewers, promising daily doses of entertainment for thirty consecutive days. This Ramadan, however, television programs have been tainted by the political climate in the region. Some shows went the extra mile by satirically portraying regional rivals, asserting through humor the need to recognize and support national interests.

One television program, Al Liwan, is generating much debate this Ramadan. The host, Abdullah Al-Mudaifir, has been interviewing different guests from across the social and intellectual spectrum. The idea of Al Liwan is to allow guests to narrate and re-evaluate their own stories of success and failure. Al-Modaifir usually directs questions, some considered sensitive in the current climate, to his guests who are prepared to provide fast and abrupt answers. There seems to be an understanding between the host and the guests of the program’s direction. Some themes keep recurring in different episodes which allows guests to provide their own accounts on issues such as Sahwa, feminism, extremism and regional hostilities. Therefore, guests are not only narrating their own individual stories, but are also reaffirming and contributing to the emerging national narrative. As Ramadan is coming to an end, reflecting on some of these interviews could give a clearer picture of how the national narrative is being shaped.

Sahwa as the culprit

The first episode, and the one that generated the most debate, was the interview with Sheikh Aidh Al-Qarni. A pioneer of Sahwa movement, Al-Qarni caught viewers off guard when he apologized to the Saudi population for the Sahwa era. During his interview, Al-Qarni spoke extensively of Sahwa and considered it the real culprit behind decades of social oppression and regression.

Ali Al-Faqasi and Adel Al-Labbad were interviewed from prison to narrate their own personal accounts of extremism. Al-Faqasi talked about his role as a member of Al-Qaida in Afghanistan and how he was sent back to Saudi Arabia to carry attacks against foreign interests. Al-Labbad, a Shia poet who was active during the protests in the Eastern Province following the Arab Spring, talked about his time in Iran and his activities with the Organization for the Islamic Revolution in the Arabian Peninsula.

Al-Faqasi and Al-Labbad both blamed Sahwa for their violence and extremist views. When Al-Mudaifir asked Al-Faqasi to name the scholars who contributed to his extremist views, Al-Faqasi mentioned Safar Al-Hawali, Salman Al-Odah, Saad Al-Buraik and Aidh Al-Qarni (the scholar who apologized earlier for Sahwa). He said that the religious discourse exaggerated “sins and punishments” which eventually allowed a buildup of resentment and anger towards the state.

Al-Labbad also blames Sahwa and named a few scholars, including Nasser Al-Omar, for alienating the Shia community which also led to resentment towards the state. However, he also argued that the state was “probably hijacked” by the Salafi influence which contributed to the atmosphere of hate against other religious minorities. Al-Labbad said “if you want to promote any idea, just wrap it with religion.” The General Department for Counter Extremism tweeted two detailed lists of the most important remarks by both Al-Faqasi and Al-Labbad following their interviews.

Feminist as “psychologically unstable”

Kawthar Al-Arbash, member of Shura Council, talked mostly about the situation of the Shia community in Saudi Arabia. However, as the only female interviewed so far, her views on feminism were discussed widely on social media. She argued that those who adopt feminist views in the Arab world have “psychological problems.” She also said that feminism at its core is “an opposition movement” that aims to clash with the state, making it similar to the mindset of terrorist organizations such as Daesh. Al-Arbash said that “there seems to be a relationship between demanding for rights and losing one’s senses.” She also named some women’s rights activists whom, she argued, approached her to take a stance against the ban on driving in 2011. She said that she declined to join the driving campaign because she did not agree on the methods campaigners were following, even though she believed in their cause.

Al-Arbash’s views were reaffirmed by another guest, psychiatric Abdullah Al-Subaie, when asked about the situation of women in Saudi Arabia. When Al-Mudaifir showed Al-Subaie a tweet he published in 2016 regarding the deteriorating situation of women, the latter explained that he was solely referring to women who are denied seeing their children or not allowed to pursue their education, arguing that he sees such cases frequently in his clinic. However, he then argued that his tweet was taken out of context and used “against the nation.” Al-Subaie said that his tweet should not be understood as supportive of dropping the guardianship law, arguing that feminism has become “exaggerated” and perhaps is manipulated by foreign powers. Women who follow the feminist trend, he said, and demand more rights are “most of the time psychologically unstable.”

Dissidents and hostility to the state

Kassab Al-Otaibi, a former Saudi dissident who spent years in the UK before returning to Saudi Arabia in 2014, discussed in detail the situation of Saudi dissidents in diaspora. He argued that their work is often disorganized and are easily manipulated and used by foreign powers and regional rivals.

Al-Arbash also contributed to this discussion during her interview, arguing that she represents the nationalist Shia voice that many in her community are “afraid of.” She said that she encourages her community to turn away from Iran and Khomeini by adopting a nationalist stance. However, she argued that her efforts have only unleashed continuous attacks against her in an attempt to eliminate “the voice of moderation and the voice of nationalism” that she represents.

Al-Qarni also discussed extensively the issue of regional rivals and hostility against the Kingdom. He stressed the importance of three red lines “moderate Islam, the nation and the leadership” that Saudis should maintain to protect themselves from mounting regional tensions. Al-Qarni repeatedly emphasized that “there is no grey zone” calling himself “the sward of the nation” in the face of “Erdogan, Al-Ikhwan and Iran.” Al-Qarni also emphasized the importance of not being neutral and considered doing so “an act of treason.” He also said that any Saudi who does not defend the nation “has no dignity and no conscious.”

Reaction to the Show

Al-Liwan is perhaps one of the few shows that generated much debate. However, skepticism over the genuineness of the show were often expressed. This is perhaps triggered by the readiness of guests to provide answers that do not clash with the current narrative, making the show predictable and monotonous. Some have even criticized the choice of guests and considered them “radicals of thought” that many Saudis do not relate to. Nevertheless, talk shows have always been an important tool to emphasize certain themes or test the population’s reaction to different ideas or potential plans. However, the growing lack of trust in intellectuals and narrowing the space for debate on social media can render these tools ineffective.

Bu Rashid, Dawood Al-Shirian and the Importance of Talk Shows in the Gulf

Talk shows can play an important role in influencing public opinion and providing platforms for discussion. They are even more crucial in societies that lack alternative means for free expression. In the UAE and Saudi Arabia, talk shows have been instrumental in allowing some room for debate while also absorbing public anger and discontent.

Bu Rashid 

Abdallah bin Khusaif, commonly known as Bu Rashid, is the host of Al Rabia Wal Nas on Ajman’s Radio. The show has been on air for more than a decade. Callers from across the UAE use this outlet to discuss the shortcomings of government services.

The way the host handles these calls demonstrates the function of these programs. Usually, the host identifies the government body or official responsible for the caller’s plight and confronts them on air. Bu Rashid’s method allows him to publicly address problems experienced by UAE citizens while channeling the anger towards government employees.

Last year, Ali Al-Mazrouei called the program to express discontent over his low income. The co-host at that time, Yaqoub Al-Alwadhi, criticized Al Mazrouei and mocked him on air. Al-Awadhi told the caller that he should be grateful for the government instead of criticizing it. The confrontation between the two escalated to public outrage, causing Al-Awadhi to lose his job at the request of the Crown Prince of Ajman, Sheikh Ammar bin Humaid Al Nuaimi. Following his dismissal, Al-Awadhi said that he was merely trying to protect the UAE’s reputation.

Moreover, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Ruler of Dubai, also stepped in to demonstrate his disapproval. He requested a detailed report from the Ministry of Community Development and a plan to address the problem of UAE nationals with limited income. Sheikh Mohammed also commented on the importance of media “as a tool for catering to the wellbeing of citizens“.

Dawood Show 

Dawood Al-Sharian returned to television with a new show on SBC, a state-run channel that was launched last year. Al-Shirian’s appointment as the head of the Saudi Broadcasting Corporation in 2017 ended his equally controversial show, Al Thaminah, which was broadcasted on MBC. Unlike Al Rabia Wal Nas, Al-Shirian’s show focuses on a specific social problem, and hosts a number of affected individuals and experts to discuss it.

Dawood Al-Shirian (via Arabian Business)

The first episode dealt with the issue of women fleeing the country. Al-Shirian blamed the Ministry of Labor and Social Developments for failing to protect women who are subject to abuse. He also criticized the guardianship system imposed on women. In the second episode, one of the issues discussed was the widespread use of drugs in Riyadh’s poorer areas. During the episode, he had a heated exchange with Rashid Al-Ardhi, an official from the General Directorate of Narcotics Control. When Al-Ardhi said that they follow the orders of the King, Al-Shirian interrupted him and said, “I’m talking to you, not to the person who ordered you.”

Why are these talk shows important? 

Talk shows act as mediators between citizens and governments in the absence of real political representation. The hosts have mastered the art of redirecting blame by calling government officials and holding them accountable for their shortcomings. This constant re-shifting and disassociating channels anger towards government employees who can be criticized on air, or even sacked.

If the leadership steps in, similar to what happened to Ali Al-Mazrouei, it reaffirms the patriarchal tradition in the Gulf, by extending a helping hand to citizens in need. In the case of the UAE, talks show can even target ministers. A former Minister of Health, Hanif Hassan, was sacked after an episode discussed a misdiagnosed Emirati patient. During the episode, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid called and offered to pay the full cost of the treatment abroad.

What makes Bu Rashid’s show unique and effective is the small population of the UAE, especially in comparison with Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the half-elected Federal National Council as well as some influential social media personalities play a role in public debate, even if the topics discussed remain relatively limited.

Dawood Al-Shirian’s latest show came in at a time when the space allocated for public debate has changed dramatically. The rise of nationalism and takhwin has led some enthusiasts to attack the show, arguing that it promotes unrest and destabilizes the society. It is no wonder then that Al-Shirian’s show has divided public opinion. On the one hand, some have voiced optimism, arguing that Al-Shirian is raising the bar of freedom of expression, while others have criticized the show’s discussion of sensitive issues, demanding that the it must be stopped. In any case, the public debate that follows Al-Shirian’s show seems to have achieved its objective by channeling anger away from the current climate, and allowing room for expressing views on issues assigned by the program and its host.

The Gulf (of Mexico) Crisis

Disclaimer: The following text is not purely fictitious, but loosely based on history and recent events around the Gulf of Mexico. Any resemblance to persons or actual events in any other Gulf is purely coincidental.

The current stand-off between the US and Venezuela over the constitutional crisis in the latter demonstrates how long-simmering tensions can quickly escalate, and have regional implications across the Gulf. Today’s confrontation is just the latest episode in a deep rivalry between important Gulf states. At stake is the regional balance of power, including ideological hegemony. Thus, the Gulf crisis has become an issue of pride and prejudice, affecting international scholars studying the region, and casting a spell of silence over entire populations.

The alliance of US and Mexico

After years of cold relations between the US and Mexico, the sudden closeness between the two nations has fundamentally changed the dynamics of the Gulf. Donald Trump and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) have struck an unusually cozy relationship to the surprise of many. US tourists have always flocked to Cancun for its sunny beaches, fancy hotels and big malls. Now, however, Mexico is no longer only a weekend destination for its neighbor, as it has become a close ally – some would even say a mentor on foreign relations – contributing to a more assertive US foreign policy in the region.

The Bolivarian Revolution

Even though Venezuela is on the other side of the Gulf, it has long been considered a threat to the stability and regional aspirations of both the US and Mexico. As a socialist country – in competition with a capitalist US – Venezuela has tried to export its Bolivarian revolution across its borders as a way to counter American imperialist ambitions. This socialist-capitalist regional and ideological struggle has affected the relationship between the two countries for decades, but direct confrontation has usually been avoided. Instead, proxy wars in the region have been frequent.

Enter Cuba

Strategically placed between the US and Venezuela, Cuba has long been a maverick actor on the regional scene. Relations with both the US and Mexico have been tense for a long time, due to among other things Cuba’s closeness to Venezuela. Its active foreign policy, centered on its communist ideology, has been perceived as an affront by its bigger neighbors. As a result, Cuba has long been considered as “punching above its weight” in the region and beyond.

After decades of Castro rule, the transition to new president Miguel Diaz-Canel in 2018 gave a glimpse of hope to Cuba’s historic rivals in the Gulf. However, only two days after his inauguration, Diaz-Canel received the Venezuelan president, as the first foreign leader to visit him. This was a strong confirmation of the mutually important and strong relations between the two countries. Key to this relationship has been Venezuela’s instrumental role in supplying aid and support amid the embargo on Cuba, just as it has itself recently received help from Turkey.

Television, football and drug lords

The peoples and states of the Gulf share a number of things in common. They appreciate telenovelas (soap operas), are passionate about football, and have been deeply impacted by drug trafficking for years. Competition in the field of media has pitted the US-backed TV Marti against Cuba’s Institute of Radio and Television. The two networks have been regurgitating propaganda material which has escalated in the last few years, much to the dismay of their audiences. Some also argue that a less discussed reason for the deterioration of relations between the Gulf states is their rivalry and ambitions related to sports, especially football.

What is more, drug trafficking and other transnational illicit activities have been a common concern for the Gulf states. Cuba claims that it has taken seriously the fight against drugs. However, the US and Mexico argue that a number of high profile drug lords have been seeking refuge in Cuba for years. Dismay over what its neighbors perceive as Cuba’s double-standard approach to combating illicit activities, and its active role in fostering cross-border networks, have contributed to the current crisis in the Gulf region and beyond.

Ayatollah Khamenei receives Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro (via the Office of the Supreme Leader)

The bottom line: what about the people? 

For the average Venezuelan, the sub-plot to the current crisis – pitting the states on the other side of the Gulf against each other – is the least of their concerns. Economic hardship, especially soaring inflation, has crippled life in the country, making it harder for people to live. On the other hand, the people of the other Gulf states have to a larger extent been impacted by the ongoing rift in the region, despite limited direct repercussions or hardships at home.

Americans are caught between, on the one hand, the ambitious “America First” vision and its economic transformation project and, on the other hand, the Trump Administration’s aggression and chauvinism, especially on social media. In this context, many Americans remain skeptical about discussing the crisis openly, causing a deep polarization of views. Moreover, the Administration has come under fire due to accusations of possible collusion with Russia, especially after a series of exposés by the Washington Post. This has led to the arrest of former insider Paul Manafort, who might be thrown under the bus accused of being a “rogue lone wolf”.

Some experts and scholars of the Gulf, both local and foreign, are themselves caught up in the crisis by openly taking sides in the conflict. In the era of “fake news” and biased analysis (and re-tweets), many citizens of the Gulf are losing interest in the crisis due to the lack of reliable news sources and genuine analysis. Some analysts from the region have also decided to keep quiet, so not to get entangled in the fatal nets of the Gulf waters.

Notwithstanding the real potential for further escalation, the possibility of the crisis withering away suddenly cannot be ruled out completely. In such a scenario, and in line with the typical twists and turns of the region’s soap operas, photos of Gulf leaders might once again cover the front pages of national newspapers under the headline: “One Gulf, One Nation.”

Into the Twilight Zone

When satellite dishes began to appear on the rooftops of Saudi homes in the early 1990s, entertainment options were scarce but managed to deliver to the eager audience. On MBC, Rania Barghout would read letters written by Arab viewers with song requests. ART’s Liliane Andraos would engage in small talk with callers, mostly from the Gulf, who enjoyed the opportunity to talk on television with her. Arab series and American movies added more diversity to the list of guilty pleasures.

At the turn of the millennium, increased travels allowed Saudis to seek more entertainment options abroad. King Fahd Causeway has stood as a witness to the weekend exodus to Bahrain, one of the main destinations for entertainment. During the Saudi school holiday last December, Saudi holiday-goers were allowed to cross over to Bahrain without the usual border procedures due to the high traffic.

Saudi cars on King Fahad Casway (via Saudi Gazette)

Keeping Saudis in

The new Chairman of the General Entertainment Authority announced last month that stopping the exodus for entertainment is high on his priority list. The new entertainment agenda was unveiled in a glitzy press conference that witnessed Saudi singer Muhammad Abdu and sheikh Adel Al-Kalbani literally rubbing shoulders. Following the conference, Al-Kalbani wrote an article in Al-Riyadh newspaper praising the authority’s efforts and encouraging Saudis to seek entertainment. In his article, Al-Kalbani explains that recreation and worship complement each other, citing an incident between the Prophet and Abu Bakir to back his argument. The entertainment agenda witnessed a number of events that would be suitable for conservatives and non-conservatives alike. However, allowing restaurants and cafes to host musical and other entertainment events was received with a mixed reaction.  

The process of normalization

At first, entertainment seemed to be one of the tools of “shock therapy” to change the society and make it accept social reforms. However, looking now at the pattern of entertainment since concerts were allowed more than a year ago, one can see that gradual normalization has been part of the strategy of entertainment. For example, the tickets for Tamer Hosney’s concert in March 2018 included a line stating that “dancing is strictly prohibited during the concert”. However, on Tamer Hosney’s upcoming concert this February, the prohibition is nowhere to be seen on the new tickets. In the space of one year, dancing became normalized after it was first witnessed during the Formula E events in Riyadh last December. The initial shock among Saudis soon died out as more dancing was seen again during the concerts in Jeddah last month.

Another example of normalization is allowing musical performances to take place in a wider range of venues. Up until recently, certain entertainment options were exclusively available and not easily accessible. Even before the establishment of the General Authority of Entertainment, certain events took place in big cities but were usually by invitation only and catered to small and exclusive groups. Therefore, when concerts were first announced, the conservative backlash was countered by Saudis eager for entertainment. Their argument was that conservatives do not have to go to concerts and should frequent other places such as restaurants and malls. Now that a wider range of entertainment performances are expected to take place at restaurants and cafes, options for conservatives are even more limited. Last week, a musical parade headed by a woman dancing took place in one of the malls in Jeddah. The parade seems to be one of the normalization efforts that will start targeting malls to expand the circle of entertainment outlets.

Availability and exclusivity

The debate on the availability and exclusivity of entertainment options gets even more complicated when looking at Winter at Tantora festival that is being held in Al-Ula. A big number of foreign tourists visited the festival and posted photos of the Instagrammable site which were widely circulated on social media. This prompted Saudis to question whether the site is being promoted mostly for non-Saudis visitors. A video of a woman running to Qasr Al-Farid also raised the question of exclusivity, arguing that if a Saudi woman visits these sites and posts a similar photo of herself on Twitter she might be prosecuted. However, there were also a number of Saudi men and women who took part in the festival to attend performances by Andrea Bocelli and a holographic Um Kalthoum. Some have complained about the high prices which can cost more than $5,000 for packages including flights and accommodation. Nevertheless, ِthe site is expected to expand and host more events as part of “Vision of Al-Ula” which was launched on Sunday.

The issue of “space” 

The music parade in Jeddah coincided with another dancing incident at Souq Al-Mubarakiya in Kuwait as part of the Hala February annual festival. Souq Al-Mubarakiya has always been a traditional shopping area, despite attempts to turn it into a hip hangout with the addition of SoMu’s new and trendy cafes. The dancing competition was received negatively by some conservative members of the Kuwait National Assembly. As a result, the activities at Souq Al-Mubarakiya were stopped. This drastic approach in Kuwait was perplexing to Saudis who often considered Kuwait to be an open and relaxed society. It also served as a reminded that conservative factions are present and active in other Gulf countries, and not only exclusive to Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, Kuwaitis observing the Saudi entertainment scene compared the two incidents, arguing that the conservatives in Kuwait are pushing back due to the curtailing of their influence in Saudi. The issue of “space” seems to be the problem in both examples. It would have been acceptable to see a dancing competition in other venues in Kuwait such as malls, but not in Souq Al-Mubarakiya. This brings to memory an incident that happened in the Riyadh International Book Fair in 2017 when Malaysia was the annual guest of honor. As part of their performance during the fair, a man walked in and interrupted the show, arguing that the book fair is the wrong venue for such a performance. As entertainment will start spreading to other venues in Saudi Arabia, the issue of “acceptable spaces” might become the new challenge.

Entertainment in Saudi Arabia will always generate mixed reactions due to the big and diverse population. A year ago, allowing women to enter football stadiums was considered a bold step. Now, it does not generate much resentment anymore. Dancing during the Formula E concerts last December raised many eyebrows. Today, it has lost the shock effect that was prevalent when it first happened. On social media and in private discussions, the issue of entertainment seems to worry a faction of society that sees the efforts as invasive and immoral. For others, attending entertainment events in Saudi Arabia is a chance to cross over into the twilight zone.

Special thanks to Abrar Al-Shammari for her helpful insight on Kuwait.

Why the Outrage? The Case of Rahaf Al-Qunon

The case of Rahaf Al-Qunon, the Saudi woman who fled to Canada earlier this month, generated public and private debate among Saudis. The international support she received was faced with equal criticism at home. The social media outrage demonstrates the various constrains women face in the patriarchal society.

Saudi Feminism as Radicalism

Saudi feminists have gone through periods of ups and downs in their quest for rights and equality. However, after the case of Rahaf, a growing hostility against Saudi feminists became highly visible on social media, framing the movement as a “danger to national security” under the hashtag (#النسويات_خطر_امني). A Saudi columnist in Okaz newspaper called for the government to “eradicate” feminists like it did before with terrorism.

A Saudi photographer depicted the current climate against Saudi feminists in a photo he posted on Twitter titled “recruitment” with the hashtag #10yearchallenge. In an attempt to illustrate how terrorism has evolved since 2009, he shows a man wearing a suicide belt and is blindfolded with a cloth emblazoned with the Islamic declaration of faith. In 2019, a woman is the one wearing the belt, however, a microphone is in seen attached to it. Similar to the suicide militant, she is also blindfolded, but with a Canadian flag. The artist seems to suggest that military radicalism has evolved into radical feminism which is being instrumentalized by foreign powers.

The photograph has generated mixed reactions. Some argue that Saudi women are victims of foreign agendas, whereas others believe that Saudi feminists themselves are responsible for the current crisis by breaking down the family structure and weakening Islamic traditions and values. On the other hand, Saudi feminists agree that the photograph is an attempt to undermine their struggle and label it as a form of radicalism and Western interference. Comparing a suicide militant to a woman seeking freedom demonstrates the polarization of views on women’s rights.

The social media backlash did not only target Saudi feminists but also included Egyptian feminist Mona Eltahawy. Eltahawy was portrayed in a number of newspapers as an activist with an agenda targeting Muslim women, and especially Saudis, to rebel against the system “under the guise of freedom”. 

The Rentier State Mindset

Even though Saudi Arabia is trying to decrease its dependency on oil and diversify its economy, the cultural and social habits associated with the rentier state do not seem to follow a similar path. The case of Rahaf Al-Qunon confirms that the rentier state mindset remains unaffected.

Gulf millennial (celebrities and non-celebrities alike) were fast at denouncing Rahaf’s action in a number of videos they posted on social media. Their reasoning relies almost fully on the benefits the government and the family provide, despite the discomfort one might encounter at home. A Kuwaiti social media celebrity said that the West “only has freedom” but lacks strong family ties and domestic labor that ensures “clothes are ironed and beds are made”, arguing that such comfort of living will not be available elsewhere.

Freedom of Choice?

Upon her arrival to Canada, Rahaf accelerated the backlash when she shared photos of herself drinking and smoking. As a result, some expressed skepticism about her real reasons for leaving the country. Being a domestic violence victim was largely dismissed by the public, even though Rahaf stated in an interview that she suffered from abuse by her mother and brother. Others have expressed relief that she decided to leave, arguing that she does not represent Saudi women. Such reasoning sheds light on the existing culture of exclusion that ostracizes individuals who openly exhibit preferences and choices that are alien to the norms of the society and culture.

The backlash Rahaf generated demonstrates how the society at large can impose even more constrains on women. Saudi feminists might face now more pressure from social media users after comparing them to radical groups. This will put yet another obstacle in the road of feminists who have been calling for removing the guardianship system that imposes shackles on women. Moreover, more women might try to follow Rahaf’s path which will ultimately lead to more similar cases in the future. Rahaf considered herself a “lucky one” because she managed to run away. However, the success rate of such drastic measures remain low, judging from the previous failed attempts by other Saudi women. Women will continue to battle the restrictions imposed on them, whether by attempting to flee to another country, or by fighting their guardians at home.