May 20, 2013

Arab Idol and Policing Identities

Popular Emirati singer, Ahlam, also a judge on the Arab Idol singing show, made the following comments in reference to a contestant's Kurdish identity: 
I'm against when they always say we support Morocco, we support Iraq, we support Syria, we support the Khaleej ... But today, really, I want to send a message of love to Iraq ... I'm against when Parwas's [contestant name] is written saying she is from Kurdistan, because Kurdistan is part of Iraq and from today, I want you [pointing at Parwas] name to be Parwas from Iraq and not from Kurdistan. 
The show itself showcases the musical talents of people from across the region. Whether from Morocco or Iraq, all singers competing in the show sing in Arabic--meaning, the show is supposed to be a pan-Arabic show not a "pan-Arab" show. However, clearly from the statement of Ahlam, we see how identities and language are examined through media and entertainment industries in the region.

A Weapon of Racial Exclusion
Arab Idol reflects multiple layers of the interconnectivity of pop culture and politics. The show is broadcasted on the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC), a company that was initially founded in London and whose headquarters later moved to Dubai. Its owner is Waleed bin Ibrahim, a member of the Saudi royal family through the marriage between his sister and the late King Fahd. Considering the extent to which "private sector" and authoritarian regimes operate so closely, especially as they are often sustainers of one another through a close marriage of patronage, political loyalty, and nepotism, MBC can hardly be called a private network.

Understanding the network through this lens allows us to view Arab Idol as something beyond a mere singing competition. Ahlam's comments are not simply hers--they are positions propagated by hegemonic discourses that aren't confined to just punditry, but play a major role in policy-making. The GCC regimes do not have direct relations with Kurdish populations or statements on the Kurdish struggle; when Saddam was supported by the Gulf rulers for his fight against Iran, this made them make no comments on his massacre against the Kurds. The same goes with their position towards events facing Kurds in Syria and Turkey. For the Gulf regimes, Arabic and Arab are only understood as racial fronts for their propaganda and power, specifically linked to tribalism. This is why minorities and rebellious voices are criminalized by referring to them as not Arabs or Arabized or race-traitors etc.

Singing against the Uprisings
The timing of these singing competitions also raises questions, which almost all entirely sprung up around the time the uprisings began in the region-- they have since multiplied. In addition to Arab Idol, which began in December 2011, it was soon followed by The Voice (September 2012), and more recently X-Factor, which was relaunched this year following about a 6-year hiatus. All these singing competitions share a common factor in that funding and production is supported by major Arab networks (either MBC or Rotana), whose majority shareholders are Gulf-based businessmen with ties to the Saudi government.

Beyond the fact that these singing competitions offer (mostly young) contestants a shot of regional fame and money prizes, they have quickly become a platform for nationalism and identity politics. Since participants come from across the region, fan participation evolves into a brand of nationalism through the process of voting in, for example. This inevitably opens the door for co-optation through authoritarian politics, which was exemplified through the success of Moroccan contestant, Dounia Batma. Upon her return to Morocco following the completion of Arab Idol (in which she was as runner up), she was seen singing the praises of King Mohammed VI, fans paraded around her carrying portraits of the king, and she quickly got an endorsement deal with Morocco’s biggest telecom company, Maroc Telecom. Billboards of her soon appeared in major roads throughout the country’s major cities, and commercials featuring her in Maroc Telecom ads became frequent on state media. She also spoke on Morocco's state run media channel.

There is a history of Gulf money playing major political roles in the region. Lebanon was a central example when TV channels or publications got their funding from Saudi Arabia flooding the region with entertainment shows objectifying women. Since then, those policies were not enough and now we see these music contests coming to serve the same policy in which identity is used to create a hegemony over different populations while emphasizing a hierarchy topped by the Gulf and imposing an orthodox understanding of representation, identity, and art.

By Mona and Samia

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