Gulf culture emerges as new voice of Arab world


But as the mostly mustachioed contestants stood on stage in their flowing gowns and traditional headdress, half-nervous, half-eager, the Poet of Millions competition became an example of a shift occurring in Arab pop culture.

Instead of love ballads sung by scantily clad singers, the contestants offered the rhyme and rhythm of a flowery style of the Bedouin poetry known as Nabatipopular in the Gulf but largely forgotten in much of the rest of the Arab world.

"You traitor of the tribe, my punishment to you is that I am sitting on this dark chair," began one contestant in a poem dedicated to Iraq. The audience roared and hooted as he continued. "You want to see me, but I have not yet settled the score."

The cultural rise of the Gulf is analogous to that of the U.S. South in recent decades, as country singers and Southern cooking have become part of broader pop culture. Much like the Southern drawl, the Gulf accent has fast entered the mainstream.

"Ten years ago the only dialect you heard in the media was the Egyptian one, and later the Lebanese," said Nashwa al-Ruwaini, executive producer of Poet of Millions and several other shows and film series in Abu Dhabi. "With satellite TV, the people in Egypt now hear and understand what people in the Gulf say. And the Gulf has started going to the Egyptian market and the mainstream."

When people used to speak of culture in the Arab world, they meant Beirut or Cairo, the biggest producers of films and music. Cairo’s streets were automatically the "Arab street," and what happened there and in Syria or Beirut often defined the mainstream.

Oil-rich states like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, resented for their wealth and tainted by the stereotypes of spendthrift sheiks, were often ignored as little more than sources of cash.

Now, the sheiks and business titans of the region are seeking to come out in the open.

Throughout the Middle East, media companies and government projects have worked to elevate Gulf talent and bridge a longstanding divide between the region’s conservative ways and the comparatively more liberal attitudes found elsewhere.

Gulf singers, with their more conservative ways, have also reflected a more appealing image to a region growing ever more conservative and refusing of the West’s influence. Where Lebanese and Egyptian singers show off skin and sex, Gulf singers highlight a more conservative version of life, more covered, often featuring children, while still eschewing the austere.

Poet of Millions, soon to be entering its second season, proved an instant hit that has spawned new poetry competitions including Prince of Poets, also on Abu Dhabi TV, and similar shows on Lebanese and Egyptian television. It has even spawned a television channel dedicated to poetry.

The show, produced for $14 million, is part of a broader campaign by Abu Dhabi to build museums, sponsor book prizes and encourage publishers to relocate to that Gulf emirate, capital of the United Arab Emirates, in addition to sponsoring the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, operated in a joint venture with the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Most of all, Poet of Millions has thrust another aspect of Gulf culture into the Arab mainstream.

"People in the Gulf want to prove to the world – to the Arab world especially – to think past their pocketbooks," said Hussein Shobokshy, a columnist with the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al Awsat. "There is lots of commercial interest in this cultural machine that produces music, books, TV stations and newspapers and brings in readers, listeners and a lot of money. But at the same time, it has raised the curtain on a society that for a long time had to read, dance and listen about others, and is now doing so about itself."

In Dubai, once a dusty trading town, the sprawling media city complex has turned the emirate into a center for broadcasting and publishing, hosting hundreds of Arabic- and English-language publications and satellite TV channels beaming throughout the region. Deeper into the desert, the massive Production City is growing into a sprawling movie and TV production zone, seeking to do for Dubai what Hollywood did for Los Angeles.

In nearby Abu Dhabi, which produces Poet of Millions as part of an initiative to preserve heritage, the emirate has begun a $10 billion plan to build and operate Middle Eastern branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim museums on a sprawling arts and culture development meant to preserve Gulf culture even as it embraces the arts and culture of the West.

And in Saudi Arabia, Rotana Music, the region’s largest media company, owned by the billionaire financier Prince Walid bin Talal, has worked to acquire more than 80 percent of the Arab world’s music libraries, and almost as much of its film libraries, and to put talent from the Gulf in the spotlight.

In music and entertainment, Gulf singers have edged their way into mainstream Arabic music in recent years. Gulf singers, with their more conservative ways, have also reflected a more appealing image to a region increasingly more conservative and uncomfortable with the West’s influence.

Men like Abdul Majeed Abdullah from Saudi Arabia and women like Ahlam from Bahrain sing wholesome ballads focused on crushes but avoiding the skin and infatuation singers from other parts of the region may gravitate to.

Their look is modern but decidedly not Western: slick but clean and typically centered on family. Children feature prominently in many of their videos.

"It is rare to find a Gulf singer whose voice is not nice or a female singer showing off her body," said Sarah Tabet, a writer with Al Jaras, a Beirut-based magazine, who writes about Arab singers and artists.

"They are there because of their talents, and it’s quite possible that their audience will continue to grow because they are displaying real talent: beautiful music that we have not been able to produce and lyrics that have deep meaning," she said. "We, on the other hand, often display only shallow words accompanied by seduction."

Nada Bakri contributed reporting from Beirut and Mona El Naggar from Cairo.

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