TV Tells the Wiki-Truth About the Arabs, Israel and Iran

TV Tells the Wiki-Truth About the Arabs, Israel and Iran

We Israelis tend to see the Arab world as a unit; they all think the same, especially about us. Which is true to some extent; hatred, or at least denigration, of Israel is far more the rule than the exception in Arab media and Arabic language websites. But the rulers in many Arab states have a strong sense of self-preservation – and if they believe Israel can help them retain their hold on power, then working with Israel they will.

That’s been the theory until now in Israeli policy-making circles – and it’s a theory that’s proved true, at least when it comes to Iran. The regimes in the Sunni Gulf, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are all deathly afraid of Iran’s Shi’ite tentacles, according to Wikileaks cables that have been published over the past several weeks – to the extent that some of them have even urged the U.S. to either directly attack Iran itself, or to encourage Israel to do so.

Why can’t they all just get along? The bottom line is that the Sunnis are running scared from the Shi’ite Iranians – which, it would appear, would be just another chapter in a history full of strife between the two groups. But after having thoroughly studied the TV broadcasts from the Arab world over the past months, I think I can say that it’s not the Shi’ites the Sunnis fear – it’s the Shi’ite’s fanatical resistance to modernization.

Although “fear of Shi’ism” and “fear of Shi’ite fanaticism” sounds like the same thing, it isn’t. The Egyptians, the Kuwaitis, Abu Dhabians, and Dubai-ites would certainly consider themselves to be as good Muslims as the Iranians; certainly, with a little goodwill, you’d think that the relatively small differences between Shi’ites and Sunnis could be bridged, and a united Muslim front could be established.

But they can’t – and won’t – get together. Iran and the majority of the rest of the Muslim world want two different things. If Iran ever did get control of the Muslim world, the leaders of the western-leaning states in the Gulf, Egypt, and even Jordan would find themselves on the firing line. Not because they’re Sunnis, but because they encourage a western lifestyle, at least to some extent, among their citizens. And, the more western-leaning the country, the more likely it was to speak against Iran, as quoted by American diplomats in the Wikileaks documents. It’s a package deal: The more a Muslim country seeks to modernize the more likely they are to speak out against Iran – and the more open their TV broadcasts.

Unlike in Israel or the U.S., most Arabic-speaking residents of the Middle East are treated to free TV broadcasts, via satellite. Of course, there are cable and DBS pay systems, but unlike many other places, residents of the Middle East can enjoy a rich diet of news, entertainment, movies, and TV series – both in Arabic and English. In fact, there are any number of TV stations, especially in the Gulf states, that could give YES and HOT a run for their money, broadcasting for free the same TV series and movies that Israelis have to pay to watch. The major satellites serving Arabic-speakers – Nilesat, Arabsat, etc. – carry about 600 channels, and each country’s stations have their own “personality” – with a direct correlation between the “modernity” of the broadcasts, the western-leaningness of the country, the fear of Iran by the country’s leaders, and their openness to dealing with Israel.  Here are some examples:

Dubai: Without doubt, the most Western of Middle Eastern states, Dubai is home to the MBC network, the premier free-to-air broadcaster in the region, and perhaps the world. While a private network, the fact that an ostensibly conservative regime like Dubai’s lets MBC broadcast the latest American sitcoms, dramas, and movies, with no censorship whatsoever (even rough language isn’t cut out) makes it clear where the regime stands on the question of how modern Dubai should be.

MBC channels run commercials, many for Western products like Ford cars, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Close-Up toothpaste, and a host of others.  If you turn down the sound, you will have a hard time believing you are watching commercials aimed at residents of a conservative Muslim country; none of the women are wearing veils (although some of the men are dressed in jalabiyas and the like), and there is plenty of physical contact between men and women. Dubai’s leaders have strongly advocated U.S. action in restraining Iran, and it’s “well-known” that Israel and Dubai have pursued relations on an unofficial level for years.

Egypt: Having signed a peace treaty with Israel decades ago, the Egyptians have stuck to the letter, if not the spirit, of that agreement. But despite leaving much to be desired when it comes to our relations with them, Egypt most certainly would prefer Israel’s company over Iran’s.

As the most populous and influential Arab country with a substantial fundamentalist population, Egypt treads a fine line, and comes off a bit more conservative than Dubai on TV. The country has only a couple of English-language free-to-air TV stations (one of them government-sponsored, with another dedicated to, of all things, horror movies!).

The Egyptian government runs the county’s main TV entertainment network, called Nile, which has a mix of comedies, drama, and sports, depending on the channel. Here the actors are dressed a little more conservatively, and the shows appear to be homey-type dramas with original programming (in Dubai, Kuwait, and other more modern places, many of the shows are from Turkey, dubbed in Arabic, and many are rather “racy”) that don’t fit the Nile formula. However, Egypt has several private networks as well, such as Melody Entertainment, which plays MTV-style music videos and Turkish dramas.

Saudi Arabia: You won’t find much on official Saudi Arabian TV, other than live broadcasts of services in the Mecca Masjid and Koran readings. But the largest entertainment network in the Arabic-speaking world, called Rotana, is owned by none other than Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. A media conglomerate, Rotana broadcasts everything from western movies and TV shows (in cooperation with the News Corporation’s Fox networks, a 9% owner of Rotana) to western music videos, to religious programming. The Saudis, as we noted, were the ones that called for the U.S. to “get Iran.”

I could go on, but you get the idea. When it comes to Iran, Muslim countries like Egypt, Saudia Arabia, Dubai, and others have much in common with Israel – and when it comes to TV, they have much more in common with our western lifestyle than with the Iranian alternative. Who says you can’t learn anything from TV?

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