How one TV show describes today's Middle East
Published Thursday 02/08/2012 (updated) 04/08/2012 19:57
Palestinians watch television at a barber shop in the Gaza Strip.
Historical and religious dramas are considered part and parcel of the traditions of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Wide selections of shows are offered to Arab viewers, from short satires and parodies to multimillion-dollar productions dealing with major historical, cultural, and political figures and events in the region.
This year's biggest and most expensive production -- $50 million and two years of work -- deals with the historical ascendancy of Omar Ibnal-Khattab, one of the four Caliphs in the Sunni tradition, and a despised figure in the Shia world.
Omar is to say the least a controversial choice, but an obvious one for the Saudi-owned MBC channel and Qatar Media incorporated that jointly collaborated on this project.
At the heart of the earliest split in Islam is the role of the four Caliphs and the political struggle that ensued after the death of prophet Mohammad. The altercation was between the Shiites who supported the ascendancy of Ali (the fourth Caliph) and the Sunnis who argued for the preeminence of the companions of the prophet such as Abu Bakr and Omar.
The Shiites view Omar, Abu Bakr and Othman Bin Affan in a negative light as usurpers of God's choice for a successor. They resolutely believe that Ali, the prophet's cousin and son-in-law, and his descendants were chosen by Mohammad to succeed him.
The mythology surrounding Omar's character is another area of contention. Sunnis believe that Omar was evenhanded, astute and princely while the Shiites view him with suspicion, contempt and to this date refrain from naming their children after him.
The cataclysms in the Arab world especially in Egypt, Syria and Bahrain have taken a sectarian tinge -- a Sunni uprising against an Alawite dominated regime in Syria; a Shiite rebellion against a Sunni dominated monarchy in Bahrain; and an Egyptian power struggle, in which the Muslim Brotherhood is placing its eggs in Saudi's Sunni basket.
Egypt's President Muhammad Mursi's first official international trip was to Riyadh, declaring firmly that "Gulf security is a red line." Hamas, the Brotherhood’s affiliate in Gaza, has largely distanced itself from the Iranian-Syrian axis and has shifted to closer ties with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Persian Gulf counties are at the forefront of this strategic upheaval. Large sums of money are poured to countries keen on cementing closer ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council -- including $1 billion in aid to Egypt -- and millions are dispatched to rebel groups engaging in the civil war in Syria.
This strategy of toppling Iran-friendly governments and actors led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia is dramatically shifting the power balance in the region, altering the landscape of Iran's influence that extended from western Afghanistan to the Eastern Mediterranean. Although little is known about recent coordinated attacks targeting Iraqi Shiites, they are meant to undermine the Shiite-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki and invigorate the power struggle in the Iraqi arena.
This regional cold war could turn hot at any moment. The recent addition to US forces in the Gulf indicates America is preparing to counter the much talked about "Iranian threat" with a possible strategic strike on its nuclear reactors. Or at the least in counteracting a possible Iranian rejoinder to a conceivable Israeli strike.
The propaganda arm of this policy is not confined to Gulf-financed news channels such as Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya, but extends to the choice of drama programs watched by millions across the region. The portrayal of Omar in this TV show was not an accident and is part of a wide ideological and religious confrontation with Iran.
Aboud Hamayel is a commentator on Palestinian and regional affairs based in Ramallah.