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There’s another war in the Middle East, and it’s where soft power matters

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Shtisel is among the now many Israeli shows that made Israel the kings of television culture in the Middle East

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In 2010, I was at the family home in Syria, while trying to watch the opening game of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. I say “trying”, as all through the match the signal from the Qatari owned Al-Jazeera satellite channel that was broadcasting the event kept getting interfered with. Instead of watching South Africa and Mexico, all we got were black screens and pixellated images. It turned out that someone in Jordan was intentionally aiming signals into space to mess up the broadcast.

Such are political rivalries in the Middle East among Arab countries. Al-Jazeera owned the rights to broadcast the tournament to the Arab world, therefore the Jordanians were making sure to muck things up for the channel as much as possible. All throughout the World Cup, Al-Jazeera had to change the frequency of their broadcasts to allow its viewers to watch the games. After all, a subscription to watch the tournament was quite expensive.

I remembered this incident when I read a report by MEMRI, on how the prominent Lebanese journalist Nadim Koteich was bemoaning how Israeli TV shows had become so prominent internationally.

Israel has important shows on Netflix. This is soft power. We are talking about a scientific power, an economic power, a cultural power.”

Soft power. It most definitely matters a lot in the Middle East. While the Arab world has dozens of different dialects, every Arab alive knows the Egyptian dialect, thanks to the predominance of Egyptian TV shows and movies up until the early 90s, when Syrian TV shows started to become more prominent, with their sophisticated storylines and values that were more in line with those of the Gulf States. Today, the Israeli TV show Fauda is the most popular show in the region (much to the chagrin of Israel’s detractors).

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Fauda. Shtisel. When Heroes Fly. Hostages, adapted into the hit TV show Homeland. While Israeli TV shows and movies gain prominence and win international awards, the Arab World’s response has been… to engage in the biggest act of digital piracy in history, courtesy of the political rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

beIN Sports is a sister channel to Al-Jazeera. It owns the regional broadcast rights to such prestigious sporting events as the FIFA World Cup, the British and Italian soccer leagues, Formula One racing, and the UEFA Champions League. Basically, if you are a sports fan in the Middle East, a subscription to beIN is a must. Qatari soft power in every meaning of the word.

A state of affairs intolerable to Saudi Arabia, Qatar’s political rival. In 2018, beIN was banned from selling subscriptions in Saudi Arabia, the Middle East’s most lucrative market for home entertainment.

Instead, a service called beoutQ appeared for sale in Saudi Arabia. Basically, all it does is broadcast in almost real-time the very same broadcasts of beIN, with their own logo superimposed (the name as well seems to be a dig at Qatar).

After the Qatari beIN television channel was banned in Saudi Arabia, the beoutQ channel was created, which was pretty much beIN in disguise | Photo: Screenshot

Recently, the World Trade Organization ruled that beoutQ was “operated by individuals or entities subject to the criminal jurisdiction of Saudi Arabia,” and that since for years the Saudi authorities had failed to take action against the channel, it was Saudi Arabia that was in breach of international intellectual property rights. Despite repeated attempts, beIN has not been able to convince any law firm in Saudi Arabia to take on its case in the kingdom.

Soft power. So intolerable is the thought of Saudi citizens watching the world’s most prestigious sporting events on a Qatari channel, that the kingdom is prepared to suffer the wrath of the WTO to mess things up for the Qataris.

Up until the 1980s, Chaim Topol was Israel’s only internationally known actor. How far the Israeli entertainment industry has come since then. Israeli actors such as Gal Gadot, Lior Raz and Natalie Portman are now as familiar to viewers in the Arab world as the legendary Egyptian diva Um Kalthoum was to Israelis back in the 60s.

It is ironic that, as ties between Israel and the Gulf states have warmed to an unprecedented degree, those between the major Arab camps resemble something more like the Arab-Israeli conflict of the old days. As a beIN source told The Hollywood Reporter, when trying to get other regionally organizations on board to confront beoutQ’s blatant piracy, “It’s like the Arab-Israeli conflict. If you start the conversation with [beoutQ] then the meeting is over.”  

Soft power. In the long run, it means a heck of a lot in the region.   

Aboud Dandachi is a former Syrian refugee who arrived in Canada in 2017 through the Canadian Refugee Resettlement Program. He has been published, interviewed and cited on Syrian issues in numerous outlets, including the BBC, NPR and the Israeli and Turkish press. He has been published on Tablet Magazine and the CJN. 


Follow him on Twitter at @abouddandachi

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

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