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Why an Israeli comedian went viral in the Arab world

A catchy Arabic satire, explained.

A caricature by Jordanian cartoonist Emad Hajjaj depicting the leader of the United Arab Emirates holding a dove with Israel’s flag on it spitting in his face with Arabic writing referring to Israel’s opposition to the sale of US F-35 aircrafts to the UAE, on August 27, 2020.
AFP via Getty Images
Jonathan Guyer covers foreign policy, national security, and global affairs for Vox. From 2019 to 2021, he worked at the American Prospect, where as managing editor he reported on Biden’s and Trump's foreign policy teams.

It’s rare that an Israeli song goes viral in the Arab world, but such was the power of comedian Noam Shuster-Eliassi’s recent satire, “Dubai, Dubai.”

Maybe it was because she crooned in flawless Arabic. More likely it was because of her biting punchlines about how Israel and the United Arab Emirates have in recent years normalized relations at the expense of Palestinians.

For decades, Arab countries would not entertain diplomatic relations with Israel until the rights and self-determination of Palestinians under Israeli occupation were realized. But the Emirates, which had quietly developed economic and military connections with Israel, stridently broke with that convention.

In 2020, the Trump administration shepherded the Abraham Accords, a series of diplomatic wins that Israel has signed with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. Boosters celebrated them as a breakthrough. It was the first time Israel had established new ties with Arab states since it made peace with the neighboring Kingdom of Jordan in 1994 and Egypt in 1979.

“Dubai, Dubai” is among the most public and blunt examples of a satirist lampooning the deal, since the UAE doesn’t tolerate dissent and its power in the Middle East has stifled other public criticism. That’s how an Israeli number became an unlikely Arabic sensation.

Shuster-Eliassi jokes that it’s easier for Israel to make peace with a country 1,500 miles away than Palestinians next door. “In Dubai, they forgot the siege on Gaza,” she sings. “How nice would it be if only all the Arabs were from Dubai.”

Her Eurovision-style performance — with backup singers framed by spectacular aerial views of the Persian Gulf megalopolis — puts a catchy pop tune to incongruously sarcastic lyrics.

“Dubai, Dubai” resonated. The song, written by Razi Najjar for a comedy show this month on Israel’s Arabic network Makan, was picked up by regional TV giant Al-Jazeera and Arab news outlets, and then traveled all over social media. Shares and retweets filled a void in the otherwise rich field of Arabic satire.

Critics of the deal have noted that in the Abrahams Accords Israel merely formalized already existing contacts with autocratic governments, and the millions in those Arab countries had no say. Businessmen, social-media influencers, and some tourists now shuttle between Israel and the UAE, but this is a cold peace forged largely around the two countries’ shared anxieties about Iran’s regional power and interests in exchanging tech and financing. Polls suggests many Arabs oppose normalizing relations with Israel, but are afraid to express those opinions.

But despite that antipathy and a textured history of Arab satire, relatively few jokes, cartoons, or memes about the Abraham Accords have appeared in Arabic media. Those who take a stand, like a Jordanian cartoonist who mocked the deal, have been censored or arrested, chilling further discourse.

Much of this relates to the immense influence that the United Arab Emirates exerts across the Middle East, where many countries depend on its financial largess. Dubai, one of the Emirates’ seven nation-states, is a repressive absolute monarchy with regional power. So dissident voices in the Emirates and the country’s partners have largely been absent. “No one can say it directly, so this song gave everybody a chance to express how they feel about it without them actually saying it,” said Khalid Albaih, a Sudanese cartoonist who lives in Qatar.

Shuster-Eliassi wants to draw attention to the dire situation in Palestine. “My Palestinian friends are suffering and we are suffering because of the situation here,” she told me. “In the course of history, I’m not going to be willing to be listed among the people who were just silent about these issues.”

Can you speak out in Dubai?

The Arab world has a long history of editorial cartoons and a rich legacy of satirists taking on the powerful, including humorists who have found ways to make fun of Israel and its policies without verging into anti-Semitic territory. But their relative quiet on this issue points to a larger trend.

The red lines are hazy. The website Al-Hudood, the Arab answer to the Onion, has satirized the Emirates, but its authors remain anonymous. Though some cartoonists, especially Palestinians, have published strong barbs about the Abraham Accords, such perspectives have been denied the biggest media platforms of the Arab world.

The global financial capitals of Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the UAE are synonymous with luxury, celebrity, and wealth. But neither are part of a democracy. The United Arab Emirates doesn’t have a free press or free speech; while the country recently reformed some aspects of its criminal and financial laws, there has been no political reform.

In response to peacemaking with Israel, protesters took to the streets of the small kingdom of Bahrain, and Emirati exiles put together petitions and hosted seminars. “There was opposition to the Abraham Accords,” said Dana El Kurd, a scholar of authoritarianism at the University of Richmond. “But in the Emirates, it’s so effectively controlled that people can’t really speak up in opposition.”

It’s basically illegal to mock Emirati leaders. Vaguely worded laws prohibit “disruptive propaganda intending to prejudice the public security, or to spread fear among people or to inflict damage to public interest.” Even April Fools jokes are off limits. The government has shut down spaces that had long fostered independent voices, such as student unions and Islamist groups. Activists, like the democracy advocate Ahmed Mansoor, sit in the country’s jails.

Those who have denounced Emirates-Israel relations have faced consequences. After speaking out, poet Dhabiya Khamis was banned from travel. Last year, dissident Hamad al-Shamsi and other exiles established the UAE Resistance Union Against Normalization. The government then labeled them as “terrorists,” and the group cannot meet inside the country. “This fear-infused atmosphere imposed by the government has prevented Emiratis from expressing their real position on normalization with Israel,” al-Shamsi wrote.

“You cannot criticize the government of the Emirates”

The risks are real for Emiratis, and jokes about the Abraham Accords have been restrained in other Arab countries, too.

In August 2020, the prominent Jordanian cartoonist Emad Hajjaj drew a caricature of the Emirates exchanging peace for Israeli fighter jets. In the cartoon, a dove’s droppings land on the face of an Emirati who looks a lot like the Abu Dhabi crown prince. The image was considered illegal under Jordan’s counterterrorism law for “disturbing relations” with a partner country.

After several days in jail during a Covid-19 surge in his country, Hajjaj was released, but the arrest nevertheless sent a strong message.

Hajjaj told me that now he would not risk it again because the small country of Jordan depends on the Emirates financially and politically. “A Jordanian cartoonist criticizing Emirates will not be tolerated unfortunately,” he said. “You cannot criticize the government of the Emirates.

He wishes that the “Dubai, Dubai” song could be broadcast throughout the Arab world.

Shuster-Eliassi was anxious when I spoke with her. Right-wing Israeli members of the Israeli Parliament had issued a complaint against the TV network for airing “Dubai, Dubai,” and she said that due to complications at the channel, her skit for last Thursday’s show had been put on hold.

She understands that the muted response to the Israel-UAE accords is in large part due to restrictions on expression. The song is subtitled in Arabic, English, and Hebrew, she says, to made sure it could reach everyone, especially “people who disagree with me” and those “who have critical thoughts about what’s going on, but they’re unable to say it.”

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