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“The Distant Early Warning System”: The Online Public Sphere and the Contemporary Artistic Movement in Saudi Arabia

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 November 2019


“Social media,” Saudi artist Abdullah al-Shehri (known as Shaweesh) observes, is the “best tool we have available to showcase and express our art,” because it allows millions of Saudis to share and comment on a given work of art simultaneously. Building on this insight, this essay argues that Saudi artists, who have among the largest followings on the country's social media, have used the online public sphere to build a new social movement. They have adopted a role akin to Antonio Gramsci's concept of organic intellectuals – namely, men and women who are not part of the traditional intellectual elite, but who, through the language of culture, articulate feelings and experiences the masses cannot easily express. To paraphrase Ezra Pound, Saudi artists are the “antennae” of the kingdom's society, whose work is not “mere self-expression,” but, in the words of Marshall McLuhan, the “distant early warning system that can always be relied upon to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.” As a leading Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem observed in June 2019, “people need to listen to the artist.”

Special Focus: The Online Public Sphere in the Gulf
Copyright © Middle East Studies Association of North America, Inc. 2019

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1 Monira al-Qadiri, “The New Saudi Wave: Digital Landscapes and Future Institutions,” Ibraaz, December 9, 2016,

2 Abdulnasser Gharem, “El arte es una forma de ‘poder blando,’” interview by Ángeles Espinosa, El País, June 30, 2019,

3 Ayyam Gallery, “Shaweesh,”

4 Entwistle, Harold, Antonio Gramsci: Conservative Schooling for Radical Politics (New York: Routledge, 2009), 72Google Scholar.

5 Froula, Christine, “Ezra Pound and the Contemporary Literature of the Present, or, Triptych Rome/London/Pisa,” in Ezra Pound in the Present: Essays on Pound's Contemporaneity, eds. Stasi, Paul, Park, Josephine (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), 151Google Scholar.

6 Coupland, Douglas, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! (New York: Atlas, 2010), 168Google Scholar.

7 Foley, Sean, Changing Saudi Arabia: Art, Culture, and Society in the Kingdom (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Press, 2019)Google Scholar.

8 Art has long been recognized as an important political force in the Arab World outside of Saudi Arabia. For recent examples of this literature, see Shabout, Nada M., Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2007)Google Scholar; LeVine, Mark, Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2008)Google Scholar; Nieuwkerk, Karin Van, ed., Muslim Rap, Halal Soaps, and Revolutionary Theater: Artistic Developments in the Muslim World (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011)Google Scholar; and Van Nieuwkerk, Karin, LeVine, Mark, and Stokes, Martin, eds., Islam and Popular Culture (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016)Google Scholar.

9 Madawi al-Rasheed, “No Woman, No Drive: Finding Expression Among Repression,” The Times Literary Supplement, June 18, 2019,

10 For an excellent overview of the recent Saudi and Western scholarship on the Kingdom's politics, see the essays in al-Rasheed, Madawi, ed., Salman's Legacy: The Dilemmas of a New Era in Saudi Arabia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018)Google Scholar.

11 For more on this issue, see Robin Pogrebin and Sopan Deb, “Museums Forced to Reassess Saudi Ties Amid Uproar Over Journalist's Fate,” New York Times, October 12, 2018,

12 Gharem, “El arte es una forma de ‘poder blando.’”

13 Al-Qadiri, “The New Saudi Wave.”

14 For Said, dualistic structures were not only too common in Western thought but also rest on an assumption that he challenges: Oppositional forces must be in conflict, and, in his own words, “difference implies hostility, a frozen reified set of oppressed essences.” Edward Said, Orientalism, 2nd Ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 350.

15 While writing this essay, I benefited from the helpful feedback of an anonymous reviewer along with Jocelyn Sage Mitchell, Geoffrey Martin, Jörg Matthias Determann, and Heather Ferguson. I also thank Erick Viramontes for reviewing my Spanish-language translations and Stephen Stapleton for providing photographs of Saudi art.

16 There had been earlier generations of Saudi artists, but none of them had been able to gain significant local or international recognition. For more on these artists, see al-Senan, Maha, Mu'attirat Ar-Rawiya fi At-Taṣwir Tashkili As-Sa‘udi Al-Mu‘aṣir (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Dar As-Sahafa lidi‘aya wa Al-‘Alan, 2007)Google Scholar; Salim, Muhammad, “A Word for the Sake of Art (1976),” in Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents, eds. Lenssen, Anneka, Rogers, Sarah, and Shabout, Nada (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018), 413–14Google Scholar; and Muhammad Salim, “Exhibition Statement (1976),” in Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents, eds. Lenssen, Rogers, and Shabout, 414.

17 Jasmine Bager, “I'm a Young Saudi Journalist. Jamal Khashoggi's Disappearance Will Not Silence Us,” Time, October 19, 2018,

18 Author in conversation with Ahmed Mater, January 2014.

19 David Calverley-Morris, “People Weren't Ready for Us,” Esquire Magazine, September 1, 2013, 126.

20 Faruq Yousef, “Abdulnasser Gharem Fanan Su‘udi fi Tariqhi ila al-‘Alamiya,” Al-‘Arab, June 2, 2019,

21 Aimee Dawson, “Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem to have first solo US show at Lacma,” The Art Newspaper, March 8, 2017,

22 Abdulnasser Gharem ), “Sometimes when you become a mirror as an artist and you show your society who they are, they get upset,” Tweet, June 29, 2017, 4:10 a.m.,

23 Chris Dercon, “Ahmed Mater, Doctor and Artist: A Manifesto for Saudi Art,” April 2013,

24 Mater, Ahmed, Desert of Pharan (Baden, Switzerland: Lars Müller, 2016), 577Google Scholar.

25 As multiple Saudi artists have noted to me, red lines are far from clear, but there has been universal agreement that the authorities and society would react negatively if a work of art directly insulted the state. In 2016, Ahmed Omran and Margherita Stancati explained in a Wall Street Journal article on Saudi artists that “taboos include nudity, anything that insults the state or Islam, and sculptures of living beings.” Ahmed Omran and Margherita Stancati, “Bold Contemporary-Arts Scene Emerges in Saudi Arabia,” Wall Street Journal, March 15, 2016,

26 Gharem, “El arte es una forma de ‘poder blando.’”

27 For more on the floods and their political impact on the Kingdom, see Aarts, Paul and Roelants, Carolien, Saudi Arabia: A Kingdom in Peril (London: Hurst, 2014), 7273Google Scholar.

28 Author in conversation with Abdulnasser Gharem, August 2013.

29 Hemming, Henry, Abdulnasser Gharem: Art of Survival (London: Booth-Clibborn Editions, 2011), 117–18Google Scholar.

30 Hemming, Abdulnasser Gharem, 117 and Foley, Changing Saudi Arabia, 41.

31 Hemming, Abdulnasser Gharem, 116–120 and Gharem, Conversation.

32 Author in conversation with Manal al-Dowayan, November 2013.

33 The guardian system has required women to secure the permission of their male guardian to do things like getting a job, travelling, or marrying.

34 Manal al-Dowayan, “Suspended Together,”

35 Catriona Davies, Rima Maktabi, and Aroub Abdelhaq, “How to Rebel, Saudi Style,” CNN, March 23, 2012,

36 For examples of his artwork, including Vader and the Delegation, see “Shaweesh,”

37 Darth Vader's presence in the photograph could also be tied to Saudi nationalism. There is a long-standing historical rivalry between Feisal's family, the Hashemites, and the al-Saud, the Saudi royal family. I thank Elizabeth Bishop for pointing out this possible interpretation of Vader and the Delegation in March 2018.

38 David Batty, “Contemporary Saudi Artists Break Down Old ‘Safety’ Barriers,” Guardian, October 4, 2012, and Stephen Stapleton, Facebook Instant Message to the author, June 29, 2018.

39 Author in conversation with Mississippi Ibrahim, October 2013, and Author's field notes from a visit to Luxury Comedy Show “Street Madness 2,” Riyadh, January 2014.

40 For more on Telfaz11 and its shows, see the company's YouTube channel:

41 Examples of these companies are BlackBerry, Dunkin’ Donuts, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Samsung, Saudi Telecom, and Unilever. Author in conversation with Hisham Fageeh, Alaa Wardi, and Abdulaziz al-Shalan, January 2014.

42 Unlike a Saudi television broadcaster, which requires licenses, Internet broadcasting was initially unregulated by the Saudi government. Matt Smith, “Young Saudis Getting Creative on YouTube,” Reuters, May 18, 2013,

43 StepFeed, “Our List of Top 20 Arab social media stars,” stepFeed, June 30, 2017,

44 Fida Chaaban, “The Digital Influencer: Fahad Albutairi,” Entrepreneur, June 22, 2015,

45 For more on 8IES and its shows, see the company's website: or its YouTube channel:

46 Examples are “LEHE” or “Lifestyle Samiri.”

47 Samri is a genre of Najdi dance common throughout the Gulf states. It involves singing poetry while the daf drum is being played, often while two rows of men, seated on their knees, sway and clap to the rhythm. The term Samri is related to the term samir, or night party, and Samri songs are sung at night. As Lisa Urkevich has observed, the “intensity of the songs can cause a dancer to fall into a trance-like state” in which he or she appears to be possessed. Urkevich, Lisa, Music and Traditions of the Arabian Peninsula: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar (London and New York: Palgrave, 2015), 71Google Scholar.

48 Charles Akl, “Majed Alesa & Misfer,” beehy, October 13, 2015,

49 Majedalesa ), Samiri King/Majid al-‘Isa– Kinq as-Samiri, YouTube Video, July 16, 2015,

50 Sulaiman bin Sharim was a leading Saudi poet who lived from 1883 until 1944. He often utilized religious themes in his poems and songs and was famous for his humorous poems. He was also well known for his literary exchanges with Kuwaiti writer Saqr al-Nasafi Abdullah bin Sabil. Ahmad Hadi, “Waqafat ma‘a Sha‘ir: Sulaiman bin Sharim ahad abraz shu‘ara al-Qarn ar-Rabi‘a ‘ashar,” Alriyadh, August 29, 2014,

51 Akl, “Majed Alesa & Misfer.”

52 Alaa Wardi ), No Woman, No Drive, YouTube, October 26, 2013,

53 Majed Alesa ), Hawajis, YouTube, December 23, 2016,

54 For example, see “Trending: The story behind No Woman, No Drive,” BBC Trending, October 28, 2013,, and Adam Taylor, “A Music Video Featuring skateboarding women has Saudi Arabia entranced,” The Washington Post, January 3, 2017,

55 Martin Chulov, “Saudi Arabia to allow women to have driving licenses,” The Guardian, September 26, 2017,

56 For example, see Courtney Freer, “Book Review – ‘Changing Saudi Arabia: Art, Culture, and Society in the Kingdom’ by Sean Foley,” Middle East Centre Blog, April 29, 2019, Courtney Freer, ”.

57 Alex Ritman, “Whatever Happened to Fahad Albutairi, the ‘Seinfeld of Saudi Arabia?’” The Hollywood Reporter, January 1, 2019,

58 For more on MiSK, see Foley, Changing Saudi Arabia, 165–171.

59 The piece is 600 cm × 400 cm × 400 cm. (236.2 in × 157.5 in × 157.5 in). “Abdulnasser Gharem: The Safe, 2019,” Art Basel,

60 “Abdulnasser Gharem: The Safe, 2019.”

61 To see an excellent picture of the table, see Dorian Batycka, “Imagining the Last Moments of Murdered Journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” Hyperallergic, June 27, 2019,

62 For a good picture of these stamps, go to Batycka, “Imagining the Last Moments of Murdered Journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”

63 There are also other quotations from Shakespeare's King Lear along with Macbeth and Measure for Measure.

64 For more on the quotation and the history of the border clashes, see Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881–1998 (New York: Vintage Books Edition, 2001), 276.

65 Notably, Jared Kushner, who is said to have close ties to MbS and other Saudi officials, reportedly called Khashoggi “a journalist masquerading as a terrorist.” For his part, Kushner has vehemently denied that he ever referred to Khashoggi in that way. Shane Croucher, “Jared Kushner Dismissed Killing of Saudi Dissident Jamal Khashoggi: ‘This was a terrorist masquerading as a journalist,’ claims book,” Newsweek, May 30, 2019,

66 “Highlights from Art Basel: 14 Middle East Artists,” Harper's BAZAAR Arabia, June 19, 2019,

67 Kate Brown, “Art Fairs: A Saudi Artist Is Debuting a Daring New Work About Murdered Dissident Journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Art Basel,” Artnet, June 11, 2019,

68 Abdulnasser Gharem retweeted this tweet: El País Cultura (), “Abdulnasser Gharem es un artista saudí con el que hablamos de las nuevas actividades de ocio que permite su país,” Twitter, June 30, 2019, 3:13 a.m.,

69 Gharem, “El arte es una forma de ‘poder blando.’”

70 Gharem, “El arte es una forma de ‘poder blando.’”

71 In recent years, James Fallows, Mehdi Hasan, Jon Meacham, Andrew Sullivan, Michael Tomasky, and a host of other public intellectuals have regularly warned about the dangers of tribalism to America and to Europe. In his 2018 book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Meacham even forcefully calls on Americans to avoid tribalism. Meacham, Jon, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels (New York: Random House, 2018), 267–68Google Scholar.

72 Wolfson, Susan J., “Popular Songs and Ballads: Writing the “‘Unwritten Story’ in 1819,” in The Oxford Handbook of Percy Bysshe Shelley, eds. O'Neill, Michael and Howe, Anthony with the assistance of Callaghan, Madeleine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 341Google Scholar.

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