Most discussions of civil society and state relations in the GCC states rely on the rentier social contract as a mode of analysis. The rentier social contract is one in which “the state provides goods and services to society without imposing economic burdens, while society provides state officials with a degree of autonomy in decision making and policy.” While Rentier State Theory has evolved significantly from its 1970s articulations, it has nevertheless created a somewhat inaccurate image of the average Gulf citizen as a passive and unengaged social actor.
However, political cartoons from the Gulf tell a more complicated story, one in which the supposed acquiescence has given way to tension between the rentier state and the citizen. This is not to suggest that political cartoons in the Gulf are consistently or even outwardly critical of their governments – indeed, many cartoonists in the Gulf continue to closely align their artwork with the positions of their governments. Despite this, however, a closer examination of political cartoons published in the Gulf reveals a budding oppositional orientation that is strategically pushing the limits of what can be discussed in the public sphere.
Political Cartoons: A Strategic Device of Criticism
The emergence of Arab political cartoons coincided with the rise of the Ottoman press in the mid-nineteenth century. While the genre was influenced by its European predecessor, political satire has a long history in the Arab world region and can be traced back to the literary genre of hijaa’, a form of satire in the Arabic poetic tradition.
Historically speaking, political cartoons have always triggered the anxiety of the state. As a creative genre, political cartoons mobilize satire to offer commentary on social and political issues. The genre’s popular appeal can threaten a regime’s legitimacy by making it the subject of ridicule. Consequently, as drivers of dissent, political cartoonists regularly confront persecution and repression.
In the Arab states of the Gulf, political cartoons cover a wide array of issues, including foreign policy, domestic politics, and social and cultural concerns. Some cartoonists from the Gulf region find that the genre’s visual form, combined with its concise and sarcastic messaging, allows them to resonate with audiences beyond the reach of traditional print journalists. Likewise, cartoons can be critical in a less explicit manner than written text, giving cartoonists a wider margin of expression – particularly when governments employ censors to shape public opinion. The unique characteristics of cartoons enable political cartoonists to formulate strategic criticisms that challenge hegemonic ideas without necessarily crossing clear red lines.
A particularly sensitive topic that political cartoonists in the Gulf regularly cover is class relations. Unemployment, wealth disparities, and economic diversification are recurring themes. To many, addressing the economic inequality between the different communities of the Gulf is a form of advocacy. By highlighting issues of unfair compensation or employment discrimination, the cartoonists apply indirect pressure to deal with the everyday concerns of Gulf communities.
Gender is another popular theme that political cartoonists frequently grapple with. In recognition of International Women’s Day, cartoonists across the Gulf directed the public’s attention to the social and structural impediments hindering the full and meaningful equality of women. In these depictions, political cartoonists are not only encouraging their governments to implement legal reforms, but also inspiring change from below by questioning the social norms that allow for gender inequality.
Cartoonists also tackle concerns over domestic and international politics. This is the most controversial area; artwork within this category often puts cartoonists at odds with their governments. GCC governments are regularly scrutinized by the international community when it comes to human rights and political freedoms. The power of political cartoons lies in their occasional ability to confirm what governments will not. Cartoonists often issue charges of corruption and communicate the dissatisfaction with foreign policy positions on behalf of the public. Because such cartoons explicitly attack government policies, political cartoonists face significant pushback when their opinions diverge from the positions of their respective governments.
Navigating Censorship: State, Self, and Society
While political cartoons afford cartoonists an avenue to express their opinions, the genre is fraught with constraints that can restrict freedom of expression. Press and publication laws in GCC countries are very strict in terms of sanctioned content, and penalties for violation range from monetary fines to jail time. For example the UAE’s Decree No.23 of 2017 on media content forbids offending the economic system of the country and “disrespecting the culture,” a catch-all prohibition that could be used to target any politically sensitive material. Saudi Arabia’s Law of Printed Materials and Publications requires that critical publications adhere to shari’a law and do not “lead to a breach of public security, public policy, or serving foreign interests that conflict with the national interest.” With the principal foundation of political cartoons being the satirical critique of politics and society, these laws create a hostile environment for the genre and its practitioners.
Another challenging aspect of some of these laws is their conceptual use of the notion of “public interest” to regulate content. In 2016, Saudi cartoonist Abdullah Jaber was temporarily banned from publishing for drawing a cartoon criticizing blind allegiance to politicians. The broad definition of terms such as public interest and national security and culture leave the genre remarkably vulnerable to censorship.
Cartoonists are frequently also up against the cultural taboos of their societies. For this reason, drawing socially insightful cartoons is a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, cartoonists’ craft demands they be critical of what they deem as problematic in their societies. On the other hand, if cartoonists are extreme in their critiques, they might embolden reactionary responses that exacerbate the social problems they seek to remedy. As the Kuwaiti cartoonist Bader Bin Ghaith puts it “an artist should be aware that whatever art he is producing must be for the benefit of society, instead of to create a rift or wreak havoc.” Accordingly, the artistic survival of political cartoonists is also bound by the public’s reception of how they reflect society.
In order to minimize public controversy and political pushback, many cartoonists practice self-censorship. Cartoonists in the Gulf are fully aware of potential repercussions, as Saudi cartoonist Maher Ashour explains: “Most Gulf and Arab caricaturists tackle what is accepted and what agrees with their country’s policies in their drawings, since they are aware that they could encounter prosecution, penalization, or even investigation if they sketch otherwise.” Similarly, Sara Qaed, a rising star of Arab political cartoons from Bahrain, explains that artists mainly rely on guesswork in their political artwork, making self-censorship a necessary mechanism to avoid backlash. However, political cartoonists engage in varying degrees of self-censorship, with some electing to completely align with the political positions of their countries, while others opt for bolder, albeit calculated, artwork. The risk level and the historical orientation of the press in a given country are likely to factor into the choices of political cartoonists.
Political cartoons in the Arab Gulf region are an opportune medium for analyzing critical consciousness under authoritarian conditions. Observing the artwork of political cartoonists in the Gulf reveals a complicated political narrative that cannot be neatly packaged as either state propaganda or grassroots resistance. The challenging conditions under which political cartoonists from the Gulf find themselves leaves them no option but to engage their craft with the utmost prudence.
However, the act of cartooning in and of itself destabilizes the common perception of Gulf citizens as non-agents and passive political actors. While it is true that many political cartoonists align their artwork with the political positions of their governments, there must be a nuanced appreciation for their restrictive creative environments. At the same time, when political cartoonists produce oppositional and subversive content, even if implicit, they are owed respect and should not be dismissed for working within the scope of their limitations.
There is much to be learned from the artwork of political cartoonists and the insights they offer into the popular consciousness of the different communities of the Gulf region. However, none of this is possible unless political cartoonists are taken seriously as political actors, and the narratives that obscure their agency and the long history of popular political mobilizations in the region come undone. For now, political cartoons remain a severely understudied and underappreciated form of political engagement in the Gulf that continue to socially and politically challenge the status-quo in innovative ways under extremely inhibiting circumstances.
Leen Alfatafta is a Research Assistant Intern at the Gulf International Forum. Leen is a MA candidate at Georgetown University’s Arab Studies program, and an incoming PhD. student at George Washington University’s Cultural Anthropology program. Her research focuses on the relationship between political culture/popular mobilization and authoritarianism and neoliberal development in the Middle East
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.
 Definition borrowed from Quintan Wiktorowicz’s article The Limits of Democracy in the Middle East (1999)
 Khalid Kishtainy – Arab Political Humor (1985)
 Comments from Saudi cartoonist Fahd Al Khamisi in an interview with The Arab Weekly, https://thearabweekly.com/saudi-reforms-open-wider-horizons-cartoonists
 Comments from Omani cartoonist Fahad Al-Zadjali in an interview with Raseef22: https://raseef22.net/article/1080488-the-dangers-of-political-caricatures-in-the-arab-gulf
 For a detailed discussion of Censorship Laws in the Gulf see Mohammad J. Al Yousef’s article Controlling the Narrative: Censorship Laws in the Gulf
Comments of Kuwaiti cartoonist Bader Bin Ghaith retrieved from an interview with Raseef 22: https://raseef22.net/article/1080488-the-dangers-of-political-caricatures-in-the-arab-gulf
 Comments of Saudi cartoonist Maher Ashour retrieved from an interview with Raseef 22: https://raseef22.net/article/1080488-the-dangers-of-political-caricatures-in-the-arab-gulf
 Comments of Bahraini cartoonist Sara Qaed retrieved from an interview with Raseef 22: