Walls of the GCC

Documentarian and researcher Rana Jarbou has been documenting the evolvement of street art in the Arab world, and in particular in cities and villages across the Gulf, since before the uprisings began. This is her collection of counter-narratives, graffitied on walls and houses between 2007 and today.

One can easily see the impact of the GCC cities’ rapid modernisation by looking at their visual culture and urban discourse, which are manifest in graffiti. However, finding graffiti in the Gulf states is challenging. Only a few buildings have become canvases for graffiti artists and writers, and they are mostly found in old villages in Bahrain, scattered among Kuwait’s abandoned pre-invasion structures or in Qatif, Saudi Arabia. With little-to-no open-air public spaces, one can go long distances searching for a mere expression or drawing.

It is no mystery why public spaces are impoverished or even nonexistent in such wealthy oil-rich countries. There are few green spaces and shaded streets, and thus there exists little street interface. These countries afford only isolated spaces, such as shopping malls and commercial centers, to which people most often need to drive. With the exception of the Dubai Metro, which only opened a few years ago, the poor public transportation systems in most Gulf cities cause over-dependence on vehicles. The lack of a rich and integrated graffiti culture reflects the ensuing absence of an urban ecosystem of social and public spaces, and thus the lack of outdoor activities and relations.

This is why graffiti has become confined to villages and residential areas, where there is a sense of community. Censorship and surveillance play roles, too. And yet even on the clean white walls of the new oasis cities, people have left their marks.

The walls of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain harbor some degree of social and political commentary, but for the most part themes like religion, love, poetry and song lyrics, tribal codes, nationalism (and nostalgia for one’s homeland), football, hip hop and digital codes (such as Blackberry pin numbers) seem to be dominating the graffiti culture of these “cities of salt.”

Bahrain

“Steadfast until victory,” a common slogan across the island’s dissenting walls. The pictorial hand showing the peace sign has been included in the post-uprising aesthetics. In Buri village, Bahrain.
"After you, let dust cover this world" (in reference to al Hussein), Abu Saiba, Bahrain.
“After you, let dust cover this world,” in reference to al Hussein, in the Bahraini village Abu Saiba.
"Karbala, still a distress and calamity", in Abu Saiba village.
“Karbala, still a distress and calamity,” in Abu Saiba village.
In conjunction with the beautiful calligraphy and paintings, dissenting graffiti is in abundance in Bahrain, marking the village communities’ ongoing struggle. Sectarian tensions are manifest on these angry walls, ranging from displays of unequal education and employment opportunities as well as undermined representation in the political process. This graffiti, at the entrance of Sar village, reads “Steadfast street” and marks the village boundaries. Police and protestors often clash at these village passageways.
"Allahu Akbar and justice will prevail" and "Justice": pre-uprising graffiti calling for the release of prisoners in Sar village in 2008.
“Allahu Akbar and justice will prevail” and “Justice”: pre-uprising graffiti calling for the release of prisoners in Sar village in 2008.
Isa Ahmed Qassim is commonly stenciled in his home village of Diraz. He is one of the leading Shi’ite clerics in Bahrain, who was known for his peaceful dissent until making a famous angry call on January 20, 2012, in Imam Al Sadiq Mosque in Diraz to “ishaqooh” (crush) whoever assaults women protestors. As of mid-2016, the Al Wefaq opposition party, of which Qassim was a spiritual leader, was closed and Qassim’s citizenship was revoked on the grounds of foreign interference (Iran) and inciting sectarian unrest.

Saudi Arabia

"Makka" with a skyline: a commentary on the construction around the holy site of the Ka'ba in Mecca, stenciled in al-Balad in Jeddah by Sarah al-Abdali.
“Makka” with a skyline: a commentary on the construction around the holy site of the Ka’ba in Mecca, stenciled in al-Balad in Jeddah by Sarah al-Abdali.
"305", refering to al-Mutairi tribe. See this story on the "kingdom codes".
“305,” refering to al-Mutairi tribe. See this story on Saudi’s “kingdom codes”.
“There is no god but Allah,” on a wall near a construction site in north Riyadh. A culture of Islamic guidance and phrases – whether stenciled propertly or sprayed quickly – is very common in the Gulf: “Allahu Akbar,” “Don’t forget Allah,” “Glory be to Allah,” and the shahada “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah,” are commonly graffitied even far into the desert on highway overpasses.
“You must cherish the one who cherishes you,” a verse of a poem by Saud bin Jum’an al Mutairi, written on a wall in al Suweidi, Riyadh. Lyrics of poetry and folk songs are one of the most commonly graffitied themes in the kingdom.
“We demand the fall of the male guardianship for Saudi women,” in Al Sihha road, Mugharazat, Riyadh. The campaign to end the male guardianship for women has been gaining momentum over the past 180+ days, has grown bold and all-inclusive, activating Saudi women of all walks of life. This is certainly not the only graffiti about the campaign, but they are quickly getting removed. At the same time that Saudi women have gained presence in the kingdom’s streets, these manifestations are quickly being erased.
“I am a Saudi citizen free and independent”. In female voice in Riyadh, Granada district, by Balqis al Rashed. Women’s visibility on Saudi Arabia’s street walls has been emerging in the past few years. These expressions are isolated and scattered, and are often very quickly crossed over or whitewashed.
"Oil an unemployment," on a wall in Qatif in the eastern province, which is rich in oil. Saudi Arabia has 12% general unemployment and 40% youth unemployment.
“Oil an unemployment,” on a wall in Qatif in the eastern province, which is rich in oil. Saudi Arabia has 12% general unemployment and 40% youth unemployment.
“Birds that breed in the cage believe that freedom is a crime,” a quote by Alejandro Jodorowsky and made by Su, who is a Saudi graffiti quote-writer. Sometimes he writes his own quotes, but often he engages his audience to submit lines for him to put out in the streets of Riyadh.

Kuwait

“Long live Kuwait,” in Kuwait City. Many abandoned buildings and houses from the Iraqi invasion in 1990 have become canvases for graffiti writers and street artists. It is unknown when these walls were graffitied, but their Western pop-culture aesthetics and influences are discernable. Some nationalist and religious graffiti can also be found among Western idols, popularised symbols and graffiti fonts.
Like other cities in the GCC, Kuwait’s graffiti is scattered across the city with aesthetics and written purposes ranging from the emerging popular art to the Bidoun (stateless people) writings calling for statehood. Still dominating is graffiti in the spaces where there are remnants of the Gulf war.
7 city is a very common tagger in Kuwait city. His graffiti can be spotted in different fonts on Kuwait’s abandoned buildings.

“I am gay,” written on a wall in Kuwait city. LGBTQ are stigmatised in Gulf countries, but still Kuwait’s abandoned buildings provided a space for individuals and communities’ deepest secrets.

Oman

"Precious nation," written on a door in Muscat.
“Precious nation,” written on a door in Muscat.
“In the name of Allah,” graffitied on an aluminum structure in the middle of Wahiba sands in the Rub’ al-Khali (Empty Quarter) desert in Oman.
Among the very little graffiti to be found in Oman, nationalism and rap are prevailing themes. One common phrase is “Oman is one pulse,” which can be found even on rocks, like this one near a secluded beach in Muscat’s outskirts.
"Allah," on a mud wall in Nizwa, Oman.
“Allah,” on a mud wall in Nizwa, Oman.

Qatar

In Doha’s outskirts and those areas inhabited by expat communities, much of the graffiti asserts one’s racial or national identity. “Baluch” is one dominant identity marked on Doha’s walls, even though Oman and the UAE are more populated by them. 50 Cent is celebrated here, in line with how many Western hip hop icons are esteemed in GCC cities.

“No wind shakes you, bu Azooz,” is a line derived from the old Arabic proverb “Oh mountain, no wind shakes you,” which signifies strength and resilience, and is a common expression used in numerous colloquial song lyrics. Bu Azooz is a name tag; also seen here are 3-digit tribal codes, a common graffiti practice in the Gulf.

United Arab Emirates

It is more common to find graffiti in UAE’s smaller local and expat communities and towns, where themes include hip hop, religion, rebellion and profanity as is depicted here in Al Qadisiya, Sharjah.
Religious graffiti, presumably written by someone from the migrant community, in Abu Dhabi’s short alleyways.
“Palestine”. Palestinian solidarity and belonging is a dominant graffiti theme in the Arab world, and in elsewhere as well. It is in less abundance in the Gulf than the Levant, yet it always sneaks up in the most unexpected places, like this sign in an underpass near the Abu Dhabi corniche.
“Jaded dreams of freedom,” by the infamous Dubai graffiti writer Arcadia Blank, near the Marina Mall in Dubai.

This photo essay was first published, in a shorter form, in Gulf Affairs, published by Oxford University’s Gulf and Arab Peninsula Studies Forum.

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