Two days ago the news about Kuwaiti Ministry of Communications blocking You Tube for carrying offensive content provoked a certain turmoil on the Arab media. Issues were raised as those of censorship, freedom of expression, etc. Blogger communities had felt of course very attacked.
The origin of all this “ado” is believed to be some videos posted on You Tube, one of them featuring a man signing verses from the Quran while playing oud (a traditional Arab music instrument) and another showing caricatures of the Prophet.
The content was judged offensive, expecially during the holy month of Ramadan (in traditional Gulf countries having music played together with holy Quran could be interpreted as offensive to religion).
But, according to Global voices and other sources like Itp.net, the ban should be lifted soon as the Ministry of Communications decided yesterday to revoke the decision.
“To ban or not to ban”, this is the question.
But at a deeper look it could be a “much ado for nothing” issue, as Gulf countries are used to be supportive of media revolution while banning it at the same time.
It happened with Saudi Arabia at the beginning of the satellite era when, while banning dishes at home, the country was financing the boom of satellite networks abroad, opening Arabic tv stations in European countries like Italy and UK. Movie theatres are still banned throught the country, while Saudi capitals are heavily financing the still developing but promising movie industry all across the Arab region. And, now that Wall Street and hedge funds are facing the economic crisis, US companies are making deals to produce English language movies in the Gulf with local funds plenty of pocket money not to be found in Western countries.
UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait itself are at the forefront of the Internet revolution in the Middle East. They are financing big projects -like the Internet City in the Dubai area-, inviting web investors, sponsoring high level conferences on telco and IT issues, opening first class training courses for enterpreneurs and trying to support innovation and digital creativity.
At the same time, Skype is banned in the UAE as it is in Kuwait (even if people largely use those services), probably just for telcos monopoly reasons, not for the censorship or freedom of expression argument. Liberal Dubai also does censor contents on the popular photo sharing web platform Flickr.
Is it possible to support innovation and digital revolution while at the same time putting limits and conditions to it? Is this the new model that will take place in the rich Gulf states that now control many key sectors of world economy? A “walled garden” innovation, under certain conditions and constraints?
Or is it simply the “Arab way” to do things? Which is: a “much ado about nothing” strategy.
The Saudi Arabian grand mufti in July released a fatwa on Turkish soap operas, followed by millions of Arabs, just because they are considered to be immoral and “evil”. It happens that those soaps operas are distributed on MBC screens, a very influencial tv network based in Dubai but backed by Saudi Sheikh Walid Al Ibrahim‘s capitals. The Sheikh is a relative to the ruling family, so everything happening seems to be an “internal discourse” among the country different establishments.
On the one hand there is a push to change and invest in the new; on the other hand, a pressure to block it which is coming from the same – or very much related- internal powers. Is it a real struggle happening among different powers going in opposite directions, or is it just the way things progress in the Middle East? By being banned formally to “keep the facade” while in reality everybody is doing the contrary and being tolerated?