“Globalization” is currently fashionable among privileged quarters of American society. It stands as the umbrella term for contemporary trends in culture, production, finance, marketing, technology, consumption, ideas, values and institutions that are variously celebrated, denounced, dissected and deconstructed.

The Middle East and other parts of the “post-Third World” are hardly insulated from such currents. Even those today identified primarily with resistance to globalization — for instance, Islamists in Istanbul and elsewhere — are devouring European post-modernist tracts. And views can differ dramatically. The superstar of Dakar, singer/performer Youssou N’Dour, wants his satellite dish in order to tune in “the BBC, CNN, MTV.” Meanwhile, Mohamed Sid-Ahmed warns in Cairo that satellite networks and other information technologies underpin a new order of “cybernetic colonialism.”

Saudi residents, who have had to dismantle their recently outlawed “un-Islamic” satellite dishes, are unlikely to be watching Youssou on MTV anytime soon, unless the government opts for the Singapore model, where the state runs its own cable network. Dangerous technologies are apparently best kept under the king’s lock and key. For instance, the German technology giant, Siemens, has built and installed in record time what was intended to be a secret mobile telephone network for exclusive use by an apparently chatty bunch of Saudi princes and princesses. A Western reporter discovered the network when he switched on his mobile phone in Riyadh and found live lines — which he was forbidden to use — in a country that supposedly had none.

The Saudi royals no doubt have lots to talk about these days. The refreshing (because so infrequent) round of critical Western reporting on the arms-hungry kingdom’s economic plight in 1993 was followed in 1994 by some attention to what a June 23, 1994 Washington Post editorial called “a repressive one-family state” running a “routine” torture regime shrouded in “feudal secrecy” — this from the newspaper that has received a large share of the Saudi media budget in the US. The king’s Capitol watchdog, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, is not getting good value for the hefty sums he is paying his public relations consultants, judging by the latest blitz of royal counter-propaganda. A full-page, open letter published in US newspapers in July 1994 under the ambassador’s signature casts him as a Rush Limbaugh wannabe, mocking “Western human rights” and “other politically correct groups” such as Amnesty International that have been reporting on the quainter aspects of Saudi Arabia’s “timeless culture” and “Islamic values.”

Unfortunately for Bandar, the Islamist-oriented Saudi exile opposition group, the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights in Saudi Arabia, has the advantage of being able to attack the regime’s dismal human rights record as a repudiation of Islamic values. Their invaluable reporting on the most recent wave of arrests and detentions should be read alongside updates by Amnesty. The Committee’s next profile in their “Prince of the Month” feature is King Fahd’s son Muhammad, “billionaire playboy” and governor of the Eastern Province.

Bahrain and Qatar have also banned satellite dishes, but in Iran a similar initiative ran into trouble, given the need for parliamentary formalities. The January issue of US-Iran Review reports that the Iranian Majles, on January 1, passed a bill banning private ownership of satellite dishes for three years. In an Islamic version of the “unfunded mandates” debate, the Council of Guardians, which reviews legislation for conformity to the constitution and Islamic principles, sent the bill back to the Majles saying that the legislature needed to spell out how it proposed paying for enforcement. The bill was finally approved in mid-February and owners of large rooftop dishes will now be liable for hefty fines and confiscation. This is probably why small 18-inch window dishes from Taiwan, easily installed and uninstalled, have been selling so well in Tehran over the past several months.

The Palestinian Authority has been busy perfecting its own approach to the information revolution by detaining journalists arid closing down the daily al-Nahar. But writers have not been the only Palestinians learning the high price of various “technologies of freedom.” According to al-Nahar, East Jerusalem residents mobbed the local telephone office after receiving bills as high as $2,600 for calls to the new Israeli Arabic-Hebrew phone sex lines.

Inside the West Bank, more “traditional” forms of entertainment are still the rule, according to Al’s sources. When Abu ‘Ammar and Madame Tawil recently announced the news of a coming child, it is said, Hamas and four other Palestinian factions issued statements claiming responsibility.

How to cite this article:

Al Miskin "Column: Globalization and Its Discontents," Middle East Report 193 (March/April 1995).

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