Satire and Public Expression in the Middle East

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The Pan-Arabia Enquirer is The Onion or Private Eye of the Middle East. Run out of Dubai it constantly runs ridiculous stories with enough truth and parody in them to make you snigger, giggle and laugh out loud. Its coverage of Dubai’s not-so-subtle EXPO 2020 bid was brilliant hinting at the endless bribery taking place. The endless and terrible photoshopping of Mahmoud Ahmedinejah into photos of the British Royal Family claiming he and Pippa Middleton are in a relationship, an obvious nod to Princess Diana, make me chuckle daily. But most of their stories reflect the spoilt, pampered reality of the expats who constantly moan about any inconvenience to their lives, be it, the maid is sick, the new coffee shop is closed or the lack of some item in the shop.

White expats are the most noted feature of the UAE. The towers that gleam (and most sit empty) were designed and project-managed by the white folk who come and live in Dubai for a few years and yet spend most of their time either telling people how much they are ‘loving, loving, loving it’ or morosely complaining about it. They tend to come from the same backgrounds psychologically. Under-educated and over-paid, their knowledge of the world around them is limited by their intense interest in the new mall that’s opened. They live in a bubble, meeting for brunches and leisure and remain constantly surprised when someone like myself comes around and sees little value in what they do. They are not offended but confused, eyes darting to each other seeking some confirmation what they thought is valid. They fail to understand how overvalued they are.

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But what the Pan-Arabian Enquirer really exposes is the hierarchal nature of the political systems in the Middle East and hence the tight grip on media. The PAE is satire. Its stories are all made up. It states so in the title. And yet too many commenters on the stories fail to grasp this. A story stating glamour model Jordan was planning to suit the country of Jordan for breach of trademark elicited hundreds of response from Jordanian saying she needs to get educated as they were there first. An article on a potential roped off lane on the motorway in the UAE for those with VIP passes allowing them to drive 10km/h faster brought equally confused results. An article about a whining expat finally leaving after 15 years of hell/luxury was followed by comments saying he should go home if he doesn’t appreciate it. It’s that completely failure to understand that what is stated in the media from a seemingly genuine source is not true that baffles. There is simple little history of it.

Most expats have a healthy distrust of political authority especially within hereditary systems. How would regimes react here to Spitting Image where Thatcher was an alcoholic and Prince Phillip a racist. Or The Daily Show in the US. In these forums, the power is on the other foot. Politicians dare not touch them. Criticising them shows a lack of respect for the public’s judgement.

But the word regime is the key here. Regimes don’t like and can’t manage political openness. In Egypt, a well-known political satirist was jailed for mocking the President. In Turkey, a democracy under tight control, its greatest modern novelist was put on trial for asking historical questions. A poet in Qatar was first sentenced to hang and then given 15 years for reciting a poem on democracy. Could they imagine the reaction to David Cameron opening a Twitter account? The first 10 posts all contained the word wanker! The political stricture, control over the media, lack of critical thinking and in the Gulf, buying off of political dissent mutes self-expression.

As mentioned, the PAE regularly highlights the complaining behaviour of the expats in the Middle East but never does it mention the Sheik. The Gulf Times and Dubai News are embarrassing mouthpieces of Gulf governments here, purporting to real journalistic enterprises but with every opening story a self-congratulatory update on what the Sheik has done today it is best ignored. The expats themselves seem to live in a non-political bubble. Everyone is a blogger, marketing executive, in construction or landscape gardening, all essentially to gentrify and glorify the place in some kind of Truman Show pastiche.

After a while you have to understand true value, what has true worth and why you should know that taking the money and deflecting your eyes to the 7-star brunch is not good enough.

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