Friends become foes as Gulf rift bursts into pop culture

The latest hit Saudi song has the swaying rhythms and sparse vocals typical of the Gulf Arab pop music, but its message is an unusually forceful attack on former ally Qatar – and the gloves are off.

“We stab in the face, not in the back … twenty years of rumors, treachery and conspiracies – we know what they’re all about,” Saudi singer Abdulmajeed Abdullah croons on the track, called “Teach Qatar (a lesson).”

A diplomatic feud that erupted over the summer between Qatar and some Arab neighbors has inflamed citizens on both sides, with social media becoming a platform for vitriolic exchanges.

Now the enmity has begun to seep into popular culture, and even poetry, rooted in the region’s traditional bedouin culture and prized by rulers and citizens alike, has been fashioned into a weapon.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut trade and travel ties with Qatar in June 5 for what they say is Doha’s meddling in their internal affairs, promotion of Islamic extremism and friendship with their arch-foe Iran.

Qatar denies the charges and calls the economic boycott a “siege” aimed at neutering an independent foreign policy it says promotes peaceful reform in the region and fighting terrorism.

Animosity toward Qatar had been bubbling in official circles for years but, but ties among people and artists had remained warm.

But now even those who once extolled Qatar’s praises are harsh critics.
Just few years ago at a concert in Doha, singer Abdullah from the hit new anti-Qatar song professed his love for Qatari ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and his father in a ballad called “I swear by Allah, I love Qatar!”

Tightly controlled media in all countries appear to have been given free rein in a protracted campaign to savage each other’s perceived faults and misdeeds.

Political cartoons in Doha depict Gulf Arab rulers as in thrall of their supposed American masters. One depicts fiendish-looking Uncle Sam with a dead dove of peace on a platter, while another in another US President Donald Trump is conjured from a genie’s lamp.

Meanwhile UAE newspapers show depictions of Qatar’s peninsular outline wearing the black turban of Iran’s theocratic rulers, or shaped like a squid with tentacles smothering the whole Arabian Peninsula.


Mutual respect for shared Gulf Arab culture once made any displays of disapproval unthinkable, and their apparent endorsement by officialdom was even less conceivable.

An official court poet stood before Saudi King Salman and other top leaders in a televised event this month and fired off florid rhymes which appeared to liken Qatar and its friends to barking dogs, cawing crows and a devious fox.

The rare public insult outraged Qataris, and poet Ali Mirza Mahmoud performed a barbed riposte on state TV.

“Dunk your body in like swines, cover your faces with as much filth as you want. Drag your robe through the mire … you imbecile, bray on about whoever you want, just not Qatar.”

Social media-addicted youth in Gulf states largely rallied to defend national policies and deride their adversaries.

Speaking up for Qatar, however, is risky in countries that brook no dissent and are especially sensitive mid-spat. The UAE recently made expressions of sympathy for Qatar punishable with up to 15 years in prison.

But not everyone is in favor of art and culture being hijacked for this dispute.

“Despite all these events and problems,” Kuwaiti electrical engineer Ghaliya Tabtabtai wrote on Twitter, “art and song need to remain a beacon for peace.”

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