“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.

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