Western celebrities – including pop singers and rappers – often visit the United Arab Emirates for either work or pleasure. And almost as often, these appearances spark controversy because of their general lack of knowledge of local cultural traditions and Islamic laws.
During the recent Formula 1 event in Abu Dhabi earlier this month, several Arabic and Western singers were invited to perform, including Jay-Z, The Muse, and the British band, Depeche Mode. Jay-Z was notable not just for his performance, but for his inability to stifle his swearing.
In addition, some people consider Jay-Z’s music as sexist because of the names he uses to describe women in his lyrics. Others describe his music as aggressive.
“I’m not allowed to go to these concerts and I choose not to,” Salama al-Nuaimi, an Emirati national said. “A lot of drinking takes place and that goes against our religion – also I don’t want to encourage sexist music.”
Despite frequent controversies, whether over the language, dress or just the fact they represent an entirely different world, foreign performers continue to receive invitations to Gulf countries and they continue to come.
“I don’t see any harm in sharing other cultures through their performances,” said Mashael al-Absi, a Bahraini national. “Also, we have lots of fans who appreciate Western celebrities.”
I'm not allowed to go to these concerts and I choose not to.
The period of Western domination over the Gulf has long since ended. However, it sometimes appears that Western countries are spreading a form of Western cultural domination to the detriment of the GCC states – Saudi Arabia, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain – all Islamic states that govern according to sharia law.
GCC stands for the Gulf Cooperation Council, which was founded in May 25, 1981 whose main objective is to promote coordination and unity between member states. These countries share similar religious and political systems as well as similar customs and traditional beliefs.
Sharia law is a legal system that covers all aspects of life, and is based on the Quran, the holy book of the Islamic religion.
All of the GCC states have experienced tremendous economic growth and urban development in recent years, allowing them to attract foreign workers and tourists from around the world.
In the UAE, foreigners account for over 88 percent of the population and according to the World Economic Forum’s 2011 Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report, it is ranked 30th among 139 countries for tourism.
But, of course, the workers and tourists from the West don’t always know about the culture they are working in or visiting.
“Some western celebrities don’t have any knowledge of our culture or Islamic laws,” said Suhaila Al Mansoori, an Emirati national. “Since they come for business which is to sing or do whatever and get money.”
Following an appearance in October 2013, Rihanna visited a mosque in Abu Dhabi and posed for professional photographs. Rihanna usually wears tight clothes and likes to show a lot of skin in both her concerts and in her daily life. But she dressed much more according to Arabic and Islamic dress codes during her photo shoot at the mosque.
Still, some people immediately took to social media to express their disapproval of the photos. Not everyone thought she was being offensive to Islamic or cultural laws. Nevertheless, authorities at the mosque asked her to leave.
Ahlam Al Shamsi, an Emirati singer, expressed her frustration through Twitter and Instagram, saying, “I wish if Rihanna’s legs would break before she was able to enter our beloved holy mosque of Sheikh Zayed.”
Al Shamsi thought the idea of a photo shoot in a mosque was offensive to both the country and the religion, even though Rihanna had covered her head and body in black.
Shortly after the controversy arose, Ahlam deleted her comments from social media and she apologised, saying that she didn’t want to participate in anything that could offend the reputation of her country.
“I can understand why people were offended about the Rihanna thing,” said Afra Al Khazraji, an Emirati national. “But honestly she actually showed respect [with the way she dressed] coming from someone who is ignorant about the world that we GCC Arabs live in.”
Justin Bieber was another celebrity who ran afoul of cultural norms in May of 2013. Bieber performed in Dubai for his “Believe” world tour. But, at some point during his performance, one of his crewmembers showed up on stage wearing the local dishdasha and ghutra head gear and started dancing along with Bieber.
The customary dress for men in GCC countries is the dishdasha that covers the body, and the ghutra that is worn on the head. To men from the Gulf, this way of dressing represents custom and tradition, and the pride of a nomadic way of life.
The Bieber incident wasn’t the first of its kind. Two years ago, American rapper Snoop Dogg appeared on stage wearing a dishdasha and the hamdaniya, which is head gear similar to the ghutra but tied in the Emirati style.
“People in different parts of the world became familiar with the Arabian dress code and that’s a plus,” Mohammad Al Hajeri, a Qatari national, said. “But the way he was dancing as he was wearing our clothes showed mockery, as if he was a clown. Also, foreigners might think that we want to be like them and that’s not true.”
Nicki Minaj revealed another cultural misstep. In January of this year, in an interview with Jimmy Kimmel, the rapper talked about how flattered she was to have global popularity. Kimmel asked Minaj on how people responded to her in Dubai.
Minaj is a rap artist who writes her own music but the lyrics sometimes include foul language and she dresses in sexually provocative clothes, all of which conflicts with Islamic social norms. But her appearance in Dubai was somewhat muted.
“Nicki did not use one single swear word because the concert was open for all ages,” Layla Al Mazroui, an Emirati national said. “She changed, like, five times, but her clothes were not revealing that much because she wore leggings every time.”
Still Minaj didn’t get away unscathed. “I almost got into so much trouble,” Minaj told Kimmel on his show. “One of the rules is that you can’t hug a man if you’re not married to the man.”
She went on to explain that she did not know about the laws and in her enthusiasm she almost hugged a man who turned out to be a police officer, which, she said, could have ended up with her going to jail.
Kimmel responded with astonishment, “For hugging?”
Despite the cultural onslaught from the West, national identity is being preserved and strengthened in all of the Gulf countries. But no doubt, the tension between beliefs and cultural practices in the West and the Gulf countries will continue.
“I do not doubt that some Emirati youth are drawn to these western performers and listen to their music,” said Kristian Alexander, a professor of international relations at Zayed University.
“However, I would not go as far as to say that they are being colonised by western thoughts… just exposed to them which allows them to experience, reflect and pick and choose.”