TV tells the Wiki-truth about the Arabs, Israel and Iran

The bottom line is the Sunnis are scared of Shi’ite Iranians, which, it would appear, would be just another chapter in a history full of strife between the two groups.

December 13, 2010 22:14
Map of Arab communications satellite coverage

311_map of Arab satellite TV. (photo credit: Courtesy)

We Israelis tend to see the Arab world as a unit; i.e., 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 they’ll work with it.

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 United States 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 scared of 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 TV broadcasts from the Arab world over recent months, I think it’s not the Shi’ites the Sunnis fear: it’s the Shi’ites’ 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 US, 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:


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 MBC is a private network, that an ostensibly conservative regime like Dubai’s lets it 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 such as 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 US action in restraining Iran, and it’s wellknown that Israel and Dubai have pursued relations on an unofficial level for years.


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 it 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.


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 News Corporation’s Fox Network, a 9 percent owner of Rotana) to Western music videos and religious programming.

The Saudis were the ones that called for the US to “get Iran.”

I could go on, but you get the idea. When it comes to Iran, Muslim countries such as 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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