Category Archives: The Gulf

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.”