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Pop Culture in the Arabian Peninsula: Societal Expressions, Commercial Issues and State Cooptations

Performing Khaleejiness on Instagram: Authenticity, hybridity, and belonging

Performer l’identité golfique sur Instagram : Authenticité, hybridation et appartenance
Corinne Stokes


Cet article explore le travail d'un groupe d'influenceurs Instagram du Golfe afin d'analyser la façon dont ils interagissent avec les discours institutionnels sur la diversité et la manière dont leurs performances réaffirment ou remettent en question ces discours. Je m'appuie sur une série de sketches comiques d'influenceurs qui décrivent des rencontres quotidiennes impliquant une altérité linguistique et/ou culturelle, en me concentrant en particulier sur les vidéos qui mettent en avant des exemples d'identification de soi et des autres. Les thèmes explorés par les influenceurs et la manière dont ils les présentent suscitent un vif débat parmi les commentateurs, ce qui fait de ces vidéos un lieu de négociation publique des dimensions linguistiques et sociales de l’identité golfique (khaleejiness). Grâce à une analyse détaillée des vidéos et des sections de commentaires associées, cet article montre que le travail des influenceurs promeut une identité khaleeji cosmopolite permettant d'épouser à la fois authenticité et hybridité.

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  • 1 Beeman, 2009; Peterson, 2014; Potter, 2009;2014.

1The Gulf region’s long history of migration and trade between the Arab and Iranian coasts and the port cities of the Western Indian Ocean led to the formation of hybrid, multilingual populations, which continued to diversify during the colonial era and the oil boom of the twentieth century.1 In the contemporary Gulf, however, carefully constructed nationalist discourses centered on genealogical Arabness render the hybridity of some Peninsular Arabic speakers absent from the public sphere, even while it remains a source of inspiration, pride, and conviviality. While genealogical Arabness has proven a powerful basis on which to build national and transnational narratives of Khaleejiness, hybridity is also an important source of affinity.

  • 2 I would like to thank my reviewers for their comments on an earlier draft of this article. A specia (...)
  • 3 Assaf and Montagne, 2019, p. 35.

2This paper is interested in contemporary portrayals and discussions of hybridity that take place in Khaleeji dialects on Instagram.2 Although Khaleeji influencers are more frequently recognized for their contributions to the fashion, beauty, and lifestyle spheres, they are also engaged in affirming, challenging, and re-working national and transnational identities. Their work may appear distant from the ‘high’ art of literary and cultural festivals, yet it represents a significant form of popular performance that reaches hundreds of thousands of people. In its creative interpretation of the everyday, it is an example of what Laure Assaf & Clemence Montagne describe as an increasing interest in the artistic rendition of cultural and linguistic complexity in the Gulf, which depicts the Gulf “from below,” to produce “a powerful alternative urban imaginary”.3

  • 4 These videos have been deposited in a folder, accessible through the following link: https://www.dr (...)
  • 5 Rampton, 2020 defines crossing as “the use of language that feels anomalously ‘other’ for the parti (...)

3In the paper, I analyze a curated corpus of 10 comedic skits created by influencers based in the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, who perform for an Arabic-speaking following.4 The skits depict moments of ‘crossing,’5 or excursions into and out of linguistic and cultural Arabness, drawing on affiliations with Bedouin, Indian, Filipino, Persian, African, and English-language identities. The skits are accompanied by extensive commentary contributed predominantly by speakers of Khaleeji dialects, which demonstrates the extent to which the influencers’ work is a key site for the negotiation of language use and social norms in everyday life.

  • 6 The UAE government both regulates and cultivates influencers, whose work is considered a crucial me (...)

4The influencers are active on a number of other platforms and their skits, in turn, are viewed and shared not only on Instagram but also via TikTok, YouTube, WhatsApp, and in television and film. Their influence is further amplified by high internet penetration and mobile phone usage in Gulf cities. Like other Khaleeji actors, comedians, and influencers, they often work from Dubai, which is the primary hub for Arab influencers and media agencies from the Gulf and larger region.6

  • 7 Eckert, 2000.

5The influencers’ activity shows that they follow one another’s work closely; their posts show evidence of dialogue, exchange, and collaboration. They imitate one another’s comedic formulae, perform in skits together, and appear frequently in each other’s likes and comment sections. I thus approach the influencers as co-participants in a virtual community of practice, in which stylized performances are key opportunities for negotiating Khaleeji identity, group membership, and positionality in local and regional social and linguistic hierarchies.7 In particular, I examine the way in which the influencers’ self-portrayals converge with and diverge from the monolingual and monocultural ideologies characteristic of official diversity discourses. Through comedic representations of multilingualism, hybridity, and unbelonging, I argue that the influencers model a cosmopolitan identity that challenges restrictive discourses of Khaleeji “authenticity.”

Arabness and Ordinary Superdiversity

  • 8 Limbert, 2014.
  • 9 ibid.
  • 10 Cole, 2003; Montigny, 1996; Potter, 2014
  • 11 Al-Nakib, 2016; Beaugrand, 2017; Ménoret, 2014.

6Scholarship in Gulf Studies has increasingly sought to explore the Gulf within the larger Indian Ocean World as well as to study populations with links between the Arab and Iranian coasts. A number of scholars have focused in particular on Arabness and salient identity categories within Gulf populations. Mandana Limbert highlights the way in which the term “Arab” has been used as a caste-like category to describe genealogically-conferred Arabness, at the expense of Omanis of lower socioeconomic status, even those understood to be of Arabian descent.8 She also notes the limits of linguistic Arabness when it does not intersect with inherited, elite Arabness.9 Similarly, work on Bedouin identity in the Gulf has highlighted the increasing use of the term “Bedouin” to mark the preeminence and indigeneity of those who can claim Central Arabian tribal origin.10 While the displacement and settlement of Bedouin in some Gulf states has led the term to be associated with unruly or marginalized groups,11 tourism, heritage and culture initiatives have assisted Gulf states in reclaiming Bedouinness in official narratives.

  • 12 Beeman, 2009.
  • 13 ibid.
  • 14 Al-Dailami, 2014; The term hawala refers to migratory groups who moved between the Arab and Iranian (...)
  • 15 ibid., p. 314.
  • 16 Moghadam, 2009; 2013.

7In his work on fluid Arab-Persian identities in the Gulf, William Beeman notes the usefulness of the term “Khaleeji” to capture the Gulf’s Arab and Persian hybridity, as well as its South Asian, East African, Portuguese, French, and English cultural influences.12 He argues that modern state structures, created in the context of territorial competition in the early colonial period, have obscured deep cultural communalities along the Gulf coasts, and that the persistence of these communalities, in turn, fuels ongoing controversy.13 Ahmed Al-Dailami, similarly, studies the hawala as a category of subnational identification, focusing on its shifting connotations in response to colonial, nationalist, and religious pressures, and in particular, its use in claims to Arab “authenticity.”14 He calls for further work that moves beyond a focus on official representations of idealized national identity to study the way in which Gulf nationalisms are “variously celebrated, internalized, or challenged.”15 Amin Moghadam, finally, explores multiple layers of Persian identity in Dubai; his ethnographic work has focused on new and old waves of migration as well as the transnational social, political and cultural activities of communities in Dubai with links to Iran.16

  • 17 Assaf, 2020, p. 838.
  • 18 Assaf, 2017.
  • 19 Almutawa, 2019.
  • 20 Almutawa, 2022.

8Other relevant work in Gulf Studies explores the ordinary interactions that characterize the lives of its diverse urban populations, with particular emphasis on sociability and (un)belonging in spaces like malls and public parks, as well as online discussions about such spaces. In her work on Arab youth in Abu Dhabi, for example, Laure Assaf argues that they create an “intrinsically cosmopolitan” locality through their engagement with internal linguistic and cultural diversity.17 Exploring a range of sites that act as meeting points for different members of society, she notes that forms of distinction and conflicts that arise over dress or behavioral norms are evidence of contact and overlap between Abu Dhabi’s various populations.18 Rana AlMutawa, likewise, examines meaningful sites for negotiating social and cultural norms; her work includes exploration of judgments of new and old spaces in Dubai as “in/authentic”, “superficial”, or “real.”19 She also studies the state of precarious attachment that characterizes the experience of long-term non-citizen residents, who see themselves as occupying a space between “citizen” and “expat.”20

  • 21 Hachimi, 2013.
  • 22 Schulthies, 2015.

9Several scholars working in the Arabic sociolinguistic context have contributed work on ideologies of linguistic Arabness. Atiqa Hachimi’s analysis of interactions between maghrebī and mashriqī Arabic speakers in Pan-Arab talent show Star Academy highlights the links between metalinguistic commentary on intelligibility and ideologies of pure and authentic Arabness.21 Becky Schulthies, similarly, examines linguistic diversity and language ideology in pan-Arab talent shows. She argues that corporate media have increased the legibility of non-“core” Arabics, such as Tunisian, Moroccan fāsī, and Emirati, thus helping to expand notions of what constitutes Arabic and linguistic Arabness.22

  • 23 The term superdiversity was coined by Vertovec in 2007.
  • 24 Rampton, 2016.
  • 25 Arnaut, 2016, p. 40.
  • 26 ibid., p. 65.

10Finally, in the broader field of sociolinguistics, a number of scholars have adopted the frame of “superdiversity,”23 answering its calls to engage with complexity beyond binary categorizations of the population as minority/majority and migrant/host.24 Scholars working in sociolinguistic superdiversity employ ethnographic methods to juxtapose top-down diversity discourses with investigations of everyday diversity. Karel Arnaut describes this dual engagement with “hegemonic diversity discourse” and “messy and creative commonplace diversity” as fundamental to a critical sociolinguistics of diversity.25 Arnaut also highlights the importance of engagement with ‘counter-diversity,’ which includes phenomena such as “countering, reworking, or simply escaping established identities, categories, standards, registers, styles, etc.”26

11To pave the way for analysis of the influencers’ work, the following section draws on the UAE as a case study to describe Arabic language ideologies as they relate to official diversity discourses in the Gulf. What are the top-down diversity discourses that influencers and their followers grapple with? How do their own depictions and discussions of everyday diversity affirm or resist them?

Language Ideologies and Diversity Discourses in the UAE

12Top-down diversity discourses in the UAE align with the traditional migrant-host dichotomies described earlier; migrant and host populations are depicted as discrete and easily distinguishable categories, with migrants a highly diverse and multilingual group and their hosts a homogenous and united Emirati Arabic-speaking citizenry. Recent state initiatives have sought to reinforce principles of tolerance, co-existence, and acceptance among the UAE’s diverse inhabitants, including a federal law issued in 2015 to combat discrimination and hatred,27 the introduction of a Minister of Tolerance in 2016, and the declaration of 2019 as the “Year of Tolerance”.

13The UAE government conceives of the Arabic language as a crucial means through which to construct and preserve a unified national identity and uphold the nation’s founding narrative. The state associates itself with three registers in particular, interweaving them in official initiatives and discourses: Standard Arabic (fuṣḥā); nabaṭī Arabic; and Emirati Arabic (al-lahja al-imārātiyya, imārātī, al-ramsa, ramsatna). The recorded speech, written quotes, and collected sayings of state leaders are a type of language that exists in all three registers, found in a variety of contexts: engraved on public monuments, displayed and broadcast at heritage festivals, posted on news and social media platforms, and played by government offices when callers are placed on hold.

  • 28 Sowayan, 1985, p. 1.

14Standard Arabic is widely believed to be the clearest and most correct form of Arabic and serves as an ideological link across a culturally, religiously, and ethnically diverse region. Nabaṭī Arabic, meanwhile, is the register of vernacular poetry performance in the UAE and wider Arabian Peninsula, with historical origins in the Central Arabian Najd region.28 Emirati Arabic, finally, refers to the varieties of Peninsular Arabic used in daily life interaction by Emirati nationals and other closely affiliated speakers.

  • 29 Milroy, 2001.

15As a standard variety across the Arabic-speaking world, fuṣḥā is marked by imposed uniformity, and associated with religious, literary, and educated discourse. It is maintained through means such as grammar books, dictionaries, linguistic research, historicization, association with the state, incorporation in national curricula, and discourses of concern over language loss.29

16The UAE government periodically launches initiatives to maintain and revitalize Standard Arabic in Emirati society, targeting areas such as K-12 education, online content, and the publication of Arabic-medium texts. A recent example is the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre’s 2020-2025 plan, which seeks to increase Arabic content online, develop new Arabic-medium digital platforms, encourage research into the promotion of Arabic language use, and review Arabic language curricula in Abu Dhabi schools.30 In Dubai, ongoing initiatives targeting Standard Arabic include The Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Knowledge Foundation (MBRF)’s "Bil Arabi [In Arabic]" initiative, as well as its Arab Reading Challenge (ARC), which attracted more than 24.8 million entrants from 46 countries in 2023.31

17Official discourses of the nation and its heritage extend beyond the pan-Arabic standard fuṣḥā variety to draw on the legitimacy of the vernacular poetic register of nabaṭī Arabic. Unlike fuṣḥā, nabaṭī Arabic does not index pan-Arabness, but rather Khaleejiness, Bedouinness or Emiratiness in particular. While fuṣḥā-medium journalism and literature opens to the larger world, vernacular poetry is performed for local and regional audiences, and is infrequently translated into other languages.

18Although nabaṭī poetry is a shared literary genre, it is also conceived as having a distinctly Emirati form. The nabaṭī poet Ibn Ẓāhir, for example, who lived several centuries ago in the areas that now constitute the UAE, is conceived as a national poet— “a proto-Emirati of Bedouin stock” who founded the UAE’s variety of nabaṭī poetry.32 Describing Ibn Ẓāhir as “Bedouin” allows his work to fit neatly into state narratives of Emirati heritage; such a label indicates the contemporary power of claiming Bedouin identity more than a substantiated ancestry or lifestyle.33 Indeed, nabaṭī poetry’s genesis among Najdi Bedouins makes it useful to nationalist narratives that depict the roots of the Emirati nation in the Najdi-origin Banī Yās tribe, who are the ancestors of Dubai and Abu Dhabi’s rulers and a number of other established Emirati families.34

19The espousal of nabaṭī Arabic as an Emirati register is also apparent in reference works of poetic and archaic terms, which are often described as dictionaries or encyclopedias of “vernacular Emirati Arabic”. Two examples of such works are Fāliḥ Ḥanẓal’s Muʿjam al-alfāẓ al-ʿāmmiyya fī dawlat al-Imārāt al-ʿArabiyya al-Muttaḥida [A Dictionary of Vernacular Words in the United Arab Emirates] and Khamīs Ismāʿīl Al-Maṭrūshī’s reference work, Al-lahja al-imārātiyya [The Emirati Dialect]. Nabaṭī Arabic is not readily understood by Arabic speakers unless they have been steeped in its archaic lexicon; it contains many words and phrases drawn from Bedouin ways of life that are not used in other contemporary registers of Standard and vernacular Arabic. For those who are not themselves avid readers or writers of nabaṭī poetry, understanding a poem may require consulting reference works or asking someone well-versed in poetry to explicate the poem.

  • 35 See Holes C. & S. S. Abu Athera, 2011 and Holes, 2014 for examples of nabaṭī poems that comment on (...)
  • 36 Vanpee, 2019, p. 195.

20Despite rapid urbanization and the shift away from Bedouin ways of life, contemporary nabaṭī poetry remains a powerful medium for commentary on contemporary social and political issues, making it an important arena for state involvement.35 State leaders compose and recite nabaṭī poetry on national TV and radio, and sponsor the Abu Dhabi-based televised poetry competition, Shāʿir al-Milyūn [Million’s Poet]. In an article on nationalistic poetry in Shāʿir al-Milyūn, Katrien Vanpee argues that state sponsorship of nabaṭī poetry is a political strategy intended to expand UAE leaders’ soft power, and describes the show’s narrative as portraying a “unified, homogenous, patriotic, and grateful citizenry under enlightened (Āl Nahyān) leadership.”36

21Nabaṭī Arabic is also set to music, and songs with nabaṭī Arabic lyrics come both in older and newer forms. Several of the influencers in this paper draw on nabaṭī Arabic in sung form to reinforce portrayals of “Bedouinness”. A frequent choice is singer and oud player Mḥad Ḥamad (1963-), famous for his renditions of nabaṭī poems.37 He is perhaps the only “old-timer” remaining among Emirati singers celebrated for a traditional style of performing local and regional vernacular poetry. Among his predecessors are Al bin Rōgha (1940-), who stopped performing in the late 80’s, and Jābir Jāsim (1952-2001).38 Several of the influencers also play contemporary Saudi shēlāt (sing. shēla) in the background of their videos. According to Saad Sowayan, the term “shēla” was traditionally used to describe the metered vocalization of nabaṭī poetry by an individual poet or performer, and was either unaccompanied or performed with the accompaniment of drums or traditional instruments, depending on the conventions associated with its meter.39 Shēlāt have more recently emerged as a commercially successful genre on platforms like TikTok, YouTube, and Spotify, and many feature synthesized instrument sounds and highly processed vocals. They are also performed in TV shows such as Sama Dubai’s Rāʿī l-shellāt, sponsored by Dubai Media since 2018.40

  • 41 Leung, Ntelitheos & Al Kaabi, 2021, p. 3-4.

22Emirati Arabic, finally, is a dialect descriptor based not on a cluster of homogeneous linguistic features, but rather on the politically-defined borders of the UAE, and thus encompasses all of the Arabic Peninsular dialects used by long-term inhabitants of the UAE. Many features of Emirati Arabic can be found in other Arabic Peninsular varieties, including those of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Yemen, and the Southern coast of Iran. Leung, Ntelitheos & Al Kaabi suggest that regionally-based variation within Emirati Arabic can be best understood by dividing the UAE into three approximate sub-regions: the Northern Emirates (Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-­Quwain, and part of Ras al-­Khaimah); the eastern part of the country (Fujairah, the Khor Fakkan region, and eastern Ras al­-Khaimah); and the Abu Dhabi region.41 However, since they move around the UAE for study, work, family, and vacation, and often set up multiple residences, speakers of Emirati varieties from these regions are in substantial contact with one another.

  • 42 Holes, 2018.

23Arabic dialectologists have traditionally classified dialects based on the extent to which they align with sets of linguistic variants that are considered to be typologically badawī [Bedouin] or ḥaḍarī [Sedentary]. According to Clive Holes, the Gulf’s socially dominant “Bedouin” type dialects were brought by tribes from the Najd region of Central Arabia in the 18th century; he also believes that older, “Bedouin” type dialects on the Gulf coast predated this 18th century migration.42 As for “Sedentary” type dialects, Holes argues that they likely originated and spread outward from Southwest Arabia, and he describes them as undergoing a process of recession. Emirati Arabic contains a mix of the traditional “Bedouin” type and “Sedentary” type variants.

24Emirati Arabic can be heard in spontaneous daily interaction as well as in programming and interactional speech broadcast on state television, radio, and social media. In the social media sphere, Emirati Arabic can be read and heard on YouTube channels, podcasts, and in the stories, reels, posts, and videos of influencers and everyday users. Ramsatna, a mobile app developed by the Abu Dhabi municipality, provides Standard Arabic translations of Emirati colloquial terms. Old and new family-oriented cartoons such as Eshhafan, Freej, Khosa Bosa, Hamdoon, Shaabiat al Cartoon, and Mansur are primarily rendered in Emirati Arabic, as well as a variety of TV series and films. Emirati-medium cartoons, series, and films sometimes feature archaic vocabulary and traditions and customs associated with the UAE’s heritage in an effort to revitalize and bolster an “authentic” national identity among youth.

Hierarchies of “Authentic” Speech

  • 43 Holes, 2016; 2018.
  • 44 Montigny, 1996; Potter, 2014; Al-Dailami, 2014.

25Features of Emirati Arabic that are conceived to be “Bedouin-origin” or “authentically Emirati” are privileged in the official and public sphere as higher prestige features than those associated with South Asian, Iranian, Baluch, East African, and other Arab ancestry. This phenomenon has been observed by Holes in Bahrain and the Gulf more widely; Holes argues that an ongoing process of linguistic homogenization has led to the emergence of a pan-Gulf koine, based on the Najdi-origin dialects of the Gulf’s ruling families.43 The standardizing energy within Emirati Arabic likely stems from what other scholars observe to be circumscribed state narratives of national culture and history, based on “pure” tribal lineage.44 Celebrating the indigeneity or contribution of linguistic varieties other than those conceived as “Bedouin-origin”— and especially Persian varieties— would undermine the nationalist project.

26The use of “authentic” speech, thus, may be conceived as an act of national pride; assuming forms of speech and behavior that index the speech of the ruling families is an expression of patriotism and a way to positively represent the UAE. Although the prestige variety of Emirati Arabic has not been well described, it is perhaps best defined by exclusion of vocabulary considered to be tangīʿāt or kalimāt dakhīla [mistakes or foreign words] in media or daily life prescriptivism. The construal of particular linguistic features as marked prompts speakers to develop awareness regarding the extent to which their linguistic behavior indexes central or peripheral belonging to Arab Emirati identity. Given this awareness, linguistic accommodation to prestigious, or at least more neutral linguistic forms in public spaces is common among Emirati nationals who engage in multilingual or multidialectal communication at home. Distinctive linguistic features associated with non-central belonging to Emiratiness, meanwhile, are often reserved for interaction with family members and friends with similar backgrounds. Since many speakers excel at avoiding stigmatized features in public, aspects of their ethnic and linguistic origins may not be apparent.

27Linguistic shame and discrimination are experienced by many UAE speakers, although seldom published in the public sphere. These experiences are in part a result of state-sponsored narratives that focus on the social and linguistic differentiation of citizens from non-citizen groups. Through narrative of a childhood incident, Mira al Hussein tells of losing trust in her family lexicon, and of a continuous preoccupation with erasing “foreign” words from her own speech. She recounts the following experience of linguistic shame:

  • 45 Al Hussein, 2021

Etched in my memory is an incident when my Ajami identity became a cause of shame and anxiety. I was around 7 or 8 and I was hanging out at our Balochi neighbours’ house, as I did most of my days after school, when a conversation came up about earrings. I used the word that I knew for earrings: Balbaki. My friends, three sisters, broke into hysterical laughter and asked me to repeat the word several times. I still feel a flush of embarrassment when I recall that incident. ‘That must be Iranian [sic],’ they said. It was probably that episode that first made me think I might be a faux Emirati. I went home that day and asked my mother reproachingly why she had taught me the wrong word. She dismissed my protests by stating matter-of-factly that, ‘Everybody has a different word.’45

28Fears of the “dilution” of Arab Emirati identity continue to be fueled by the ubiquitous presence of non-Arab domestic workers in the home, the prestige of international schools at the primary and secondary levels; and English-language higher education.

29The skits analyzed in this paper generate extensive commentary by representing familiar acts of identifying oneself and being identified, and giving followers the opportunity to discuss issues pertaining to hybrid identity, multilingualism, and belonging on a public platform. Identifying oneself and being identified by others is an inescapable feature of daily life encounters in the diverse urban settings in the Gulf; variations on the question “where are you from?” are ubiquitous in public spaces. Although such questions may be asked out of curiosity, they are also asked out of practicality, as accurate identification allows people to tailor their language and behavior to suit the dispositions of different colleagues, acquaintances, and customers. In this context, the revelations of identity and misidentifications depicted in the videos are highly relatable, resonating not only with viewers whose plural identities or linguistic varieties are stigmatized, but also with speakers who may be mis-identified or mis-judged as either insiders or outsiders of a salient ethnolinguistic category.

30In my analysis, I focus on metalinguistic discourse in the influencers’ work to examine the ideological stances it reveals, and the way in which these stances transcend the realm of linguistic codes and forms. I also explore the relationships between linguistic and non-linguistic signs foregrounded in the performances (or referred to in comments)—the latter of which include aspects of physical appearance, dress, gestures, customs, vocal pitch, background music, and setting. Linguistic and non-linguistic signs are drawn together to express ideological positions and stimulate further discussion of issues related to authenticity, plurality, identity, and belonging. The analysis also seeks to understand how the influencers’ work engages with the ideologies of diversity and linguistic Khaleejiness that dominate official discourses. How do the influencers reinforce or counter these discourses? How do they assume, escape, or rework narratives of authentic linguistic Khaleejiness? And what sorts of ideological stances are assumed by the followers who comment on their videos?

Hybrid Khaleeji Identities on Instagram

  • 46 See Lagrange, 2020 for analysis of comedic works created by Saad Abdallah and Ahmed Sharif in the c (...)

31The Instagram videos analyzed in this paper were selected for their depictions of Khaleeji hybridity, and in particular for their performances of social and linguistic “crossing”. The video genre to which they belong emerged in 2016, which is the year Instagram introduced 60-second videos. The UAE-based influencers featured in the videos include Saad Abdullah (dxbxd); Max Stanton (maxofarabia); Mohamed AlKindy (kindy_man); Sultan Abdulaziz (3fretoo), and Ibrahim AlMareasy (uae5d). The Bahrain-based influencers include Bahraini-Filipino comedian Salah Abdul Majid (bovlix); Khaled Janahi (khaled_janahi), Ahmed Sharif (a.sharif92), and Ahmed Rasheed (a7med_rasheed).46 Two additional influencers who appear in the clips are Saudi-based content creator Tareq Al Harbi (6ar80) and Qatar-based comedian, Kareem (kareemtime). All of the influencers are men, although they collaborate with women actors in some of their videos. They join many other influencers, actors, and comedians active in the wider community of practice, who also work on a variety of other platforms, such as YouTube and TikTok and in comedy TV and film.

32The titles provided for each video are taken from the primary caption written in the post, or in some cases, from the title that is printed as text on the video itself. Commentary on the skits ranges from support and encouragement to evaluative feedback and debate, and in the case of some of the videos, is extensive. The quantity of total comments associated with each of the posts ranges from several hundred to several thousand comments. In cases where the videos were uploaded by multiple influencers, I reviewed comments on each version of the video. For the purpose of analysis, I extracted approximately 100 comments of interest for each video, from which I made the selections included in this paper.

33As the examples in this section show, the majority of comments are written in Arabic rather than Latin script, and comments in languages other than Arabic are rare. The comments show lexical, phonological, morphosyntactic and orthographic features typical of Peninsular Arabic varieties. Examples of lexical variation in the comments include the use of čīīh, čidhī, kidhā, kidhīh ‘like that’, mub/mūb, mū, mish ‘not’. Spellings that suggest local phonological variation include *q > j , k (e.g. ‘irj ‘origin’, /səj ‘really’, wakt ‘time’; note that q > g, while common in speech, is less frequently indicated in writing); *j > y (e.g. ʿīyim ʿajam people’ , rīyāyīl ‘men’); and *k > č (e.g yitaččun ‘they speak’, čannik ‘as if you’). Morphosyntactic features indicated in the comments include use of 2nd person feminine singular pronominal suffix ič (e.g. kalāmič ‘your speech’) and 3rd person feminine plural pronominal suffix -hən (e.g. ʿalēhən ‘on them’). Among orthographic features of the comments are the omission of long alif or yā’ vowels in the abbreviation of phrases containing prepositions and particles, leading to divergence from Standard Arabic word boundaries (e.g. filjāmiʿ ‘at the university’, hal kharābī ‘this nonsense’); the use of tā’ marbūṭa when standard Arabic would require h, and vice versa (e.g. use of spellings lah and also la ‘he has’); and similarly, variation in spelling with alif , tā’ marbūṭa or h (e.g. tarā , tara, tarah, ‘you see’). Some of the dialectal and orthographical features in the comments are considered errors by modern grammarians, but most are familiar to speakers of these varieties who use Arabic on social media platforms, and therefore have not been altered.

34Approaching both the influencers and commenters as members of a virtual community of practice, I focus in particular on their portrayals of self-identification and identification of the self by others. All of the skits explore inclusion in and exclusion from Khaleeji spheres, and do so by way of enacting experiences of everyday diversity, related to perceived vs. actual group affiliation; precarity, marginality, and inauthenticity; hybrid and mixed identities; and unexpected revelations of identity. The influencers perform these experiences by portraying misidentifications and miscommunications and by drawing on exaggerated cues and symbols of insider and outsider status, including adherence to specific behavioral norms, taste in consumer products and services, outward appearance and dress, friend groups, music, and of course, language use.

35In many cases the influencers neither clearly endorse nor object to the content they pose through the voices of their characters, but rather strategically ambiguate their relationship to it. Sensitive content in the skits is often marked by unclear stances and indeterminacy, which partly explains the lively comment sections; many followers seem compelled to comment in order to seek clarification about the influencers’ identities and backgrounds, or to contribute their own takeaways on the experiences of urban Gulf diversity.

36The first video is a collaborative skit created by Bahraini-Filipino comedian Salah Abdul Majid, Bahraini comedian Ahmed Sharif, and Saudi influencer, Tareq Al Harbi, in which Salah acts out a scene of unbelonging and exclusion.

1- Come on Tareq Al Harbi..47 افا يا طارق الحربي..48

37In “Come on Tareq Al Harbi,” Salah Abdul Majid (bovlix) accompanies a friend, comedian Ahmed Sharif (a.sharif92), to visit another comedian, Tareq Al Harbi (6ar80), who fails to recognize Salah as a fellow Khaleeji Instagrammer. Instead, Tareq enthusiastically points out to the others in the room that he has a Filipino follower, repeating the word “Filipino” multiple times throughout the course of the video. He turns to Salah and greets him in exaggerated Tagalog: “kūmūstā ka? [How are you?] mabūtī? [good?] High five!” Salah leaves the apartment, sulking at not being recognized as a fellow content creator and Khaleeji Arabic speaker. As he leaves, an excerpt from the Black Eyed Peas song Bebot plays,49 which repeats the word “Filipino” over and over. The skit ends with Ahmed telling Tareq that Salah is actually Bahraini, to which Tareq responds by asking, “Do you think he got upset?”.

38In its depiction of Salah being identified as Filipino, the video challenges norms regarding who is assumed to be Bahraini, suggesting that categorizing someone as an outsider based on their facial features may cause upset. By portraying the difficulty of fitting in, even for a fluent Arabic speaker who grew up in Bahrain, the video highlights the internal heterogeneity in Gulf societies and the detrimental effects of discourses that idealize “pure”, Arab Khaleejiness.

  • 50 The novel was both popular and also controversial for its coverage of racial, ethnic, class-based, (...)

39The clip is likely inspired by a painful scene from Kuwaiti author Sa‘ūd Al-San‘ūsī’s novel The Bamboo Stalk, published in 2012.50 The protagonist of the Bamboo Stalk is a young Kuwaiti-Filipino man, Īsa/Jose, whose Filipina mother held a domestic staff position in the home of his Kuwaiti father. Īsa/Jose struggles to feel at home among both his paternal and maternal communities, the former made difficult by his Asian features and his inability to speak Arabic well:

  • 51 Al-San‘ūsī’, Sa‘ūd, 2012, p. 310.

خارج الشقة، شباب ثلاثة ينتظرون أمام المصعد. الممر بين الشقق يضج بضحكهم. يبدو انهم فرغوا لتوّهم من سهرتهم. ألقيت التحية أثناء مروري بهم "السلام عليكم". ردّ أوسطهم ساخرا من لهجتي بتحية تشبه تلك التي يلقيها ببغاء ماما غنيمة: "سلامووو عليكوووم". كان يسحب طرفيّ عينيه بسبّابتيه ساخرا من ملامحي الآسيوية. انفجروا ضاحكين. واصل سخريته يحييني بالفلبينية: "كوموستاكا". لست أدري لماذا شعرت بالإهانة.51

Outside of the apartment three young men waited in front of the elevator. The hallway between the apartments echoed with their laughter. It appeared they had just left their gathering. I greeted them with “al-salāmu ‘alēkum” while passing by. The one in the middle mocked my accent with a greeting similar to the kind Mama Ghanīma’s parrot would utter: “salāmuuu ‘alēkuuum”. He pulled up the corners of his eyes with his index fingers, making fun of my Asian features. They exploded in laughter. He continued his mockery, greeting me in Tagalog: “kūmūstā ka”. I don’t know why I felt insulted.

40Perhaps motivated by the novel’s popularity in Kuwait and the larger Gulf, the comedians use Salah to juxtapose an instance of conflicting perceived and actual group affiliation, successfully provoking an interesting range of reactions. Although Salah appears sad in the video, the comedic context of his body of work, and the fact that he collaborated with fellow Instagrammers to create and post the video left viewers unsure of his positionality. Was it pure comedy or was it a bit serious? Commenters grapple with this indeterminacy. Some are taken aback by the uncomfortable interaction and by Salah’s sadness at being excluded. In their comments, they express sadness, describe the interaction as racist or not funny, and mention that they prefer not to use laughter emojis out of respect for the seriousness of his feelings of rejection. Some directly identify what they see as problematic about the way in which Tareq identifies Salah as Filipino:

معليك منهم الي يقولون لك فلبيني او لا خلهم يقولون سواء ان كنت فلبيني او لا محد لة شغل فيك لا تزعل الي يقولك فلبيني تجاهلة و معليك منة @bovlix

Don’t worry about anyone who calls you Filipino or actually, let them say whatever... Whether you’re Filipino or not it’s no one’s business, don’t get upset, ignore anyone who calls you Filipino and forget about it

اللي يزعل مش انه شخص يقول لك انت فلبيني لان الفلبيني بشر زيه زينا لكن اللي يزعل اللي ينظر لك بعنصرية بس لانك تشبه الفلبيني وهذا بالعادة عنده عقدة نقص او عقله مريض او راسه معبى هواء بس

What’s upsetting isn’t for someone to say you’re Filipino because Filipinos are humans like him and all of us, what’s upsetting is anyone who looks at you with racism just because you look Filipino and this usually means he has a complex or he’s sick-minded or his head is totally empty

41Tareq’s role in the video provoked negative reactions from such commenters, with some going so far as to reprimand Tareq and criticize the choice to work with him. Although the viewers are probably aware of the context of the influencers’ work, some react to the video as if it is a real, unscripted interaction between Salah and Tareq:

خخ افا يا طارق ايش فيه فلبيني و لا بحريني كلهم بشر مالك منهم

Akh come on Tareq, what’s wrong, Filipino or Bahraini all are humans, leave them alone

هل تقول يا طارق للبحرينيون فلبينيون

Tareq, do you call Bahrainis Filipinos?

الله يهداه عنصرى

God help him, he’s racist

42The indeterminacy in the skit is further underlined by Tareq’s last line, “Do you think he got upset?” Some followers dealt with this uncertainty with reassurances that Salah could not actually be upset, and that, after all, he voluntarily posted the video on his own account. Other followers were unbothered by Salah’s potential upset at being repeatedly identified as Filipino; they engage with the skit as uncomplicated comedy, affirm Tareq’s appearance-based identification, reformulate it as a racial slur. Their comments emphasize the “truth” of Salah’s Filipinoness, in some cases positing that he resembles other non-Arab groups, and fail overall to acknowledge his Khaleejiness.

جد ترا ملامحك فلبينيه عندك عرق فلبيني؟

Seriously though your features are Filipino, are you part Filipino?

تتضايق اذا احد قالك يا الفلبيني؟؟

Do you get upset if someone says “hey Filipino” to you?

يل فلبيني

Hey Filipino

43Others took an opposite stance, affirming Salah’s Bahraininess without acknowledging Tareq’s assessment of his mixed or Filipino appearance.

لاتزعل يابحريني منجد ولا تمثيل

Don’t be upset Bahraini, is it serious or just acting?

بحريني ونفتخر فيك

Bahraini and we’re proud of you

44The video also gave rise to a number of comments acknowledging and accepting Salah’s Bahraini and Filipino sides, and affirming hybridity more generally. Commenters praised changes in society that have allowed for mixed marriages, expressed welcome toward people of all origins and nationalities, reminded others of shared humanity, and pointed out that immigration strengthens and develops nations.

ولله حتى لو فلبيني او بحريني ونعم فيك

Whether you’re Filipino or Bahraini, welcome to you

والله الحمدلله الدنيا تغيرت لأن الواحد يتزوج من أي مكان واليهال احلوت مع المكس

I swear al-ḥamdillah things have changed because a person can get married to someone from anywhere and kids have gotten more beautiful with the mix

فلبيني، بحريني، هندي، انجليزي، عجمي، بحراني، ولا شو ما كان، كلهم بشر و مافي فرق بينا، بالنهاية ربنا واحد، و الي يقول هذي هندي انا امشي معاه و هل خرابيط هذي اكيد عقلهم مو كامل

Filipino, Bahraini, Hindi, English, baḥrāni, or whatever, all of them are human and there’s no difference between us, in the end our God is one, and whoever says this is an Indian I’m walking with and that kind of nonsense, for sure they’re out of their right minds

45The video stimulated many followers to describe similar experiences of misidentification or labeling based on their own experiences or the experiences of friends and family members. Many of the revelations are personal and allude to the pain that such forms of identification cause, suggesting that the video provided a rare public forum for acknowledgment of how common such experiences are among Arabic speakers in the Gulf:

انا مثلك يسموني كوري او صيني او فلبيني

I’m like you, they call me Korean, Chinese or Filipino

لا تزعل الناس يحسبو اني هندي وانا سعودي

Don’t be upset, people assume I’m Indian but I’m Saudi

احس بحساسه لان عندي من هلي جذي وين مارحوا انحرجو

I feel for him because I have some family members like that, everywhere they go they get humiliated

بس ف ناس امهم من الفلبين أو تايلند وابوهم من البحرين أو السعوديه ...يصير لهم نفس الموقف ...انا صديقتي صار لها نفس الموقف...وتسمع يقولون الفلبينية....... .بعد ماخلصو قالت انا بحرينيه امي تايلنديه انطمو

But there are people whose mothers are from the Philippines or Thailand and their dads are from Bahrain or Saudi Arabia… The same situation happens to them… The same happened to my friend… she heard them calling her Filipina .. after they finished she said I’m Bahraini my mom is Thai, so shut up

46The video that follows is similar in its portrayal of Salah’s potential exclusion. Both videos seem to pose the questions: what does it mean to ‘look’ Khaleeji? Isn’t it enough to be linguistically and culturally Khaleeji?

2- Turns out he’s Khaleej...52 طلع خليجي…

47In “Turns out he’s Khaleeji,” Salah Abdul Majid (bovlix) and an Emirati friend played by comedian Ibrahim AlMareasy (uae5d), both dressed in Emirati national dress, pull up to join a gathering of Emirati men at a Bedouin-style desert camp. In the background, a song by Mīḥad Ḥamad plays. Salah asks his friend for reassurance about how he looks, referring to his Emirati national dress. At first, the other men watch Salah closely, trying to figure out his identity. Coming from Bahrain, Salah is unaccustomed to Emirati nose-to-nose greetings (al-mkhāshma), but manages to imitate his friend. We hear the men ask one another if he’s Khaleeji, and they decide to test him by serving coffee. In this skit, however, the difficulty of fitting in is not racialized so much as related to the mastery of cultural codes that differ between Bahrain and the UAE.

48The men watch Salah closely; he accepts his coffee cup with his right hand, following proper etiquette. After he drinks, Salah’s friend gestures at him discreetly, indicating that he shakes his coffee cup to show he has had enough. When Salah shakes his cup, the group erupts into cheers, accepting him as one of them. In the background we hear a rap song called ʿulūm [our traditions],53 from Saudi comedy show Khambala. In the song, we hear the lines:

ʿulūm ǝl-rajājīl fī ṣabb ǝl-fanājīl / ṣalāba jalāfa mǝn ghēr ǝl-kalāfa / durūs lǝl-mahābīl

[You can judge men by the way they serve coffee / toughness, bluntness, no fussiness / a lesson for fools]

49The use of the song links the skit to a popular series of Khambala episodes called madrasat ʿulūm ǝl-marjala [Manhood Academy], in which two exaggerated Bedouin characters try to reform young men who sing in front of the mirror, dance, take selfies, wear fashionable shoes and clothes, or follow facial hair trends. They give the young men lessons in toughness and masculinity, which include greeting and pouring coffee properly.54

50By depicting Salah’s attempt to pass for ‘one of the guys’ in a gathering with Bedouin men, the skit plays with links between idealized masculinity, authentic Khaleejiness and belonging. Like Salah’s earlier video, it depicts a personal experience of precarious belonging; the viewer senses Salah’s anxiety and worries about how he will be treated. Unlike the previous clip, the video doesn’t model discourse of an othering nature and as a result, fewer comments seek to point out Salah’s unbelonging based on his facial features or otherwise focus on his mixed background. The video ends with a positive resolution, which is confirmed by its subtitle, “najaḥt fī-l-ikhtibār” [I passed the test], and the majority of comments that involve identifying discourse affirm Salah’s Khaleejiness:

ترة شكلك مش اسيوي والله باين انك خليجي ليش ايشكون في شكلك ربي يحفظك.

You know you don’t look Asian I swear, it’s clear that you’re Khaleeji, why do they doubt your appearance… God bless you

جمييييل بالكندوره طلعت ولد بلادنا

Handsomeeeee in a kandora, turns out you’re a son of our country

يا سلام يالبدوي

Awesome Bedouin

51Other commenters affirm Khaleeji commonality or ask about differences in greeting practice and coffee etiquette from one country to the next. Many ask with surprise about the implication that Bahrainis don’t greet with nose-to-nose greetings like Emiratis do; respondents confirm that Bahraini youth do not, and that they also may not be familiar with the tradition of shaking one’s coffee cup. One commenter, below, reiterates the importance of the Khaleeji customs depicted in the video to Bahraini society, but excludes Persian-origin Bahrainis, who he refers to as Bahrainis “from the Zagros mountains.”

صحح محد بيفهمها غير الخليجيين

True, no one will understand it except Khaleejis

العادات الخليجية في هذا الفيديو هي من صميم عادات المجتمع البحريني - المتعدد الثقافات - الا اذا كان البحريني من جبال ( زاغروس ) و بعيد كل البعد عن محيطه الخليجي ! #بالتوفيق

The Khaleeji customs in this video are at the core of the multicultural Bahraini society - Except if the Bahraini is from the Zagros mountains and far from the Khaleeji environment! Wish you the best!

العادات والتقاليد على العين والراس..بس تره وايد من اخوانا البحرينين مايعرفون وخاصا جيل الايباد فنتمنى يستفيدون من الفيديو

Customs and traditions are really important but you know a lot of our fellow Bahrainis don’t know them and especially the iPad generation, so we hope they benefit from the video

52A final category offers critical evaluation. Critics point out details that undermine the authenticity of the Bedouin-style gathering. Some pointed out that the thermos seemed like it was on the campfire, that it wasn’t a proper coffee thermos, that the coffee should have been served without delay, and that Salah and his friend should have been offered spots on the cushions rather than sitting directly on the sand. Others disputed the representation more broadly, suggesting that not all Emiratis are Bedouin, and that shaking one’s coffee cup should not be considered an indicator of Khaleejiness.

وين العادات والتقاليد وأنتم حطين الضيوف على الارض وأنتم جالسين على المراتب ههههههه

Where are the customs and traditions... you’re putting the guests on the sand while you sit on the cushions hhhhhhhh

مو من العادات و التقاليد انه الواحد يقول للثاني صب للضيف قهوة ... لازم يصب بسرعة

It’s not from our customs and traditions for someone to tell another to pour coffee for the guest… he should pour it right away

مسوين اهل الامارات انهم بدو

You’re making out all Emiratis to be Bedouins

اذا هز الفنجان خليجي يعني

So if he shakes the cup he’s Khaleeji?

53Such evaluative comments reinforce a purity stance, suggesting that accurate representation of idealized Emiratiness is more important than the video’s other themes. Additional comments that take such a stance are those that question the Khaleejiness of the group that Salah joins. The examples, below, imply that the men in the group look and speak like Khaleejis of African descent or other mixed, non-tribal ancestry rather than Emiratis of Bedouin tribal origin.

على الاساس الي وياك خليجين مافي الا واحد

As if anyone with you is Khaleeji, there isn’t even one

خليجي ولا بريمي ههههههه

Khaleeji or Buraimi hhhhhhh

في بدوي يقول خلاص اوكي ؟!

Would any Bedouin say “Khalas, okay”?!

54Although Salah does not take a critical position toward the men who test his Khaleejiness, the skit still appears to question exclusivity and the tight boundaries around authentic Khaleejiness. By associating the “Khaleeji” label both with the group of men who perform Bedouinness and with Salah, the skit affirms their belonging.

55The next two videos also explore the link between being a ‘real’ man and being perceived as authentically Khaleeji, this time through encounters between Emirati women and men they categorize as either Khaleeji or foreign. Because of the similarity of the commentary for the two videos, I discuss their comment sections together after describing each video.

3- Some women, God help them55 بعض الحريم الله يهديهم

56In the first of the two videos, “Some women, God help them” (lit. may God set them on the right path), Ahmed Sharif (a.sharif92) depicts the different reactions of an Emirati mother to two male characters who enter her home. The mother doesn’t bother to cover her head for the entrance of an Indian Wi-Fi technician, illustrating the extent to which the Indian character is perceived to be outside the norms of the Khaleeji sphere. This impression is further emphasized by the disdainful expression on the mother’s face when she dismisses the importance of his entry, telling her son “let him enter, he’s Indian.” This explicit identification echoes the repetition of “Filipino” heard in the video “Come on Tareq Al Harbi.” We then see the mother rush to cover for her brother-in-law when she learns that he’s about to enter the home. At the end of the video, the Indian character, played by Ahmed Sharif, protests the implied insult to his masculinity and personhood, asking “You mean I’m not a man?” He utters this question in pidgin Arabic and continues in a nonsense language meant to sound like an Indian language.

57Ahmed Sharif’s stance in the video is somewhat indeterminate. Although the Arabic phrase “may God set them on the right path” in the video’s caption suggests that he disapproves of the behavior, it’s not clear whether he considers the mother’s explicit expression of the Indian technician’s outgroup status to be offensive or simply funny. Further, his relationship to the Indian character is not personalized; unlike in prior videos in which Salah navigates in/outgroup status, Ahmed’s character is not presented as directly associated with his own identity. For these reasons, fewer commenters seem prompted to express regret on behalf of the Indian Wi-Fi technician than we saw with his collaborative video “Come on Tareq Al Harbi.” Enabled by the ambiguity of Ahmed’s position, a larger portion of comments on his video are offensive, repeating and laughing at the idea that Khaleeji women don’t see Indians as men. In this case, the Arabic language medium and the insularity of the community are salient; commenters seem to feel reasonably secure that their comments will not be read by someone who will take offense. As shown in the analysis after the second video on this theme, some of the offensive comments are countered by other followers.

58The second video adds a linguistic element to the repeated themes of Khaleejiness, masculinity, and differential covering practices. Although its characters are initially perceived as outside of the Khaleeji sphere, their ability to speak Khaleeji Arabic ultimately overrides their outward appearances.

4- A phenomenon that represents some56ظاهرة تمثل البعض

59The video, “A phenomenon that represents some,” posted by Kareem (kareemtime) and Max Stanton (maxofarabia) several months later, depicts Kareem entering a cafe and sitting near a table of two Emirati women. After a brief glance at him, the women remove their head coverings, saying “it’s fine, he’s Indian.” Max joins Kareem and they begin greeting one another in English. However, when Max and Kareem switch from English to Emirati Arabic, the women glance over in shock and quickly replace their shēla. The viewer understands that the women have reconceived them as belonging to their own sphere.

60The video reveals the ambiguous boundaries between in and out group affiliation with this depiction of language’s power to overturn the women’s perception of Kareem and Max’s affiliation. The influencers perform an interaction in which their linguistic proficiency is the most salient factor for group affiliation. Despite their non-Arab appearances and the features of pidgin-Arabic in Kareem’s speech, it is their linguistic proficiency that leads to their acknowledgment as members of the Khaleeji community and undermines normative understandings of the Khaleeji/non-Khaleeji divide.

61The comment section for both this video and the prior video “Some women, God help them,” largely align, with several differences pointed out below. The majority of comments are affirmations that indeed, failing to cover in front of South Asian men is common in the Gulf, among relatives and friends, or even by oneself. The comments are followed by either laughter, religious and moral reproach, or a combination.

احنا ماخذين الطريقة من امي وخالتي وعماتي أن بس السعودي إلى نتغطئ عنه

We got it from my mom and aunts that we only cover around Saudis

احسب بس حنا طلع الخليج كلهم نفس الطبع

I figured it was just us, turns out the whole Khaleej is the same

62Many commenters bring up the racist undertones of the video or counter the offensive comments of fellow followers, asking more about the behavior, confirming that they have experienced it, or emphasizing that both the Indian technician and brother and law should be equally considered as men.

لان القطري والهندي او غير القطري كلهم رياييل وعندهم نفس الإحساس

[Against it] because Qataris and Indians or any non-Qataris are men and have the same feelings

صدق والله بعض بنات اذا خليجي لا عيب و اذا هندي لا عادي

True, I swear for some girls if he’s Khaleeji it’s inappropriate but if he’s Indian it’s fine

بس بالخليج

Only in the Khaleej

63As we have seen before, a number of commenters who identify with the behavior shown in the video share their perspectives. Several of them resist the idea that the practice is motivated by seeing non-Khaleeji men as less masculine and suggest instead that it results from seeing Khaleeji men as more inclined to staring, flirting, harassing, passing judgment, and gossiping about women on social media. The commenters describe Indians and other foreigners as more respectful, more likely to maintain clearer boundaries, and less likely to tell anyone what they have seen.

لان الهندي لو جاف بنات مب لابسين شيله عادي ما بياخذ عنها فكره مب زينه اما العربي يعتبرها بنت شوارع والبعض مب الكل :)

Because the Indian guy if he saw a girl without shēla it’s normal, he won’t get a bad impression of her, while the Arab guy considers her to belong to the streets, this is some not all

لان بنظرهن اللي بيحكم عليهن هو الشاب المواطن وبينظر لهن نظره سوء .. بعكس الهندي او غيره اللي يمكن مابيحكم عليهن

Because in their opinion it’s local men who will judge them and look at them critically… while Indians or others might not judge them

لان الخليجي عيونه كذا👀 والاجنبي مايطالع مو فارقه معاه

Because a Khaleeji guy’s eyes are like this 👀but a foreign guy doesn’t stare, it doesn't make a difference to him

لان الشباب العربي يخوفون

Because Arab guys are intimidating

64The women commenters successfully resist explanations of their behavior as a simple moral failure by redirecting criticism toward Khaleeji masculinity, and by taking issue with the influencers’ license to criticize. On Max’s post, specifically, several followers resist his choice to pass judgment on the topic, defending their freedom to behave as they choose, without his interference.

على كيفنا نتغطى عن الي نبي ونكشف للي نبي محد له دخل

As we like, we cover up around who we want and uncover around who we want, it’s no one’s business

كل واحد يسوي الي يبي وش دخلكم تناقشون مشاكل غيركم خلوكم بنفسكم وبس

Everyone can do what they want, why is it your business to discuss other people’s problems, stick to yourselves

65The next video departs from the theme of women’s reactions to Khaleeji and non-Khaleeji men but continues to engage with identifications of in and outgroup status.

5- What’s with you, are you Indian or something? 57!شفيك هندي انت

66In this collaborative video, we see Khaled Janahi (khaled_janahi) telling a story about running out of gas while walking with a friend, Ahmed Rasheed (a7med_rasheed), to which Ahmed Rasheed responds with the offensive but common expression “What’s with you, are you Indian or something?” Suddenly, suspenseful music plays, and dozens of unsmiling Indian men emerge from the shops, windows, and alleys that surround Khaled and Ahmed Rasheed. Among the Indian characters is influencer Ahmed Sharif (a.sharif92), who stands up in front of them with a threatening stare. Ahmed Rasheed, after a few moments of uncertainty, tries to diffuse the tension by raising his arms and flicking his shoulders up and down in dance. A song from the 2013 Indian film Ram-Leela plays, and suddenly everyone in the street breaks into dance.

67The dancing is interrupted abruptly by a slap; Ahmed Sharif slaps Ahmed Rasheed in response to the insult in the beginning of the video, and then delivers a dramatic lecture to Khaled Janahi and Ahmed Rasheed in Arabic-subtitled gibberish. He begins by saying “Don’t think we’re stupid, that you can make us dance and forget what happened!?” and continues to tell Ahmed Rasheed and Khaled that many scientists and doctors in the US are Indian, and that India has a large and religiously diverse population. He finishes by saying, “So please… don’t call Indians stupid.”

68The skit is more courageous than the earlier video, “Some women, God help them,” in which Ahmed Sharif acts the role of an offended Wi-Fi technician. His lecture in this skit makes it clear that he intends not only to make his audience laugh, but also to criticize Khaleeji racism toward Indians. The message is understood by viewers, as evident from their commentary. Many commenters commend Ahmed Sharif for addressing the topic in a subtle, creative and humorous way, and praise its noble intent. They restate his message, emphasizing that all humans are equal and that it is wrong to belittle a certain group.

الله عليك يامبدع بالبدايه كنت احسبك تبي تستهزا بالهنود وطحت من عيني بس بعد شفت المقطع للنهايه عرفت انك تبي توصل رساله للي يستهزا بالشعوب الثانيه .. تسلم يامبدع

Amazing and original.. in the beginning I thought you wanted to mock Indians and you fell in my eyes but after I saw the end of the clip I knew that you wanted to send a message to those who mock other groups of people… thanks for the creativity

رسالة هادية وعفوية في نفس الوكت الله يكثر من امثالكم اخوي

A gentle and spontaneous message at the same time, may God bless you and give us more like you

تحس الأغلب ما فهموا المقصد من المقطع فعلا وايد ناس عندهم هندي مرادف لكلمة غبي رغم ان الهنود من أذكى الناس في العالم منهم الدكاترة والجراحين والعلماء وووو ونسبة كبيرة من ناسا هنود

Seems like the majority didn’t get the point of the clip, so many people really do use Indian as a synonym for stupid even though Indians are among the smartest people in the world– doctors, surgeons, scientists, and a high percentage of NASA scientists are Indians

69Affirming Ahmed Sharif’s lecture, many confirm that Indians are very intelligent, have high IQs, work in complex fields and occupy prestigious positions in countries such as the US, Australia, and the UK.

صحيح هم جدا مثقفين ما ادري ليش حنا العرب دائما عندنا نظره لهم أنهم اغبياء ولا مايفهمون مفروض انغير هالنظره لان باختصار مافي شعب غبي

True, they’re really educated. I don’t know why we Arabs always have the impression that they’re stupid and don’t understand. We should change this impression because in short there’s no such thing as a stupid people

هههههه نضحك ع الهنود واشهر اطباء الكبد هندي بلندن منو المفروض نضحك عليهم

Hhhhh we laugh at Indians and the most famous liver doctors in London are Indian, who should we be laughing at?

70Some suggested that Ahmed Sharif go a step further and speak some Hindi or Malayalam rather than imitating the sounds of an Indian language with nonsense words:

ي خي انتتعلم اللغة الهندية والله تظبط اكثر

Bro learn Hindi I swear it’ll come together better

احس لو تتعلم كلمتين هندي احسن من انك تعيد الكلمه كذا مره

I feel like if you’d learn a couple words of Hindi it would be better than repeating the same thing multiple times

شفيك ماعندك غير موريلي غيرها شوي

What’s with you, you don’t have anything other than “moreli,” change it up a little

71A handful of critical comments are a further confirmation that the influencers were understood to align themselves with Indians in the video; some followers expressed discomfort with the way the skit reversed usual power dynamics. These followers were disturbed by the portrayal of Indian men threatening Arab men, even though the content was created by three Bahraini influencers, and the role of the most threatening character was performed by Ahmed Sharif.

العمل جميل لكن يبي له تعديل لانه يقلل من مكانه المواطن وفي حقائق انه الهند فيها اجرام وطائفيه وعنصريه بزود وليس مثل ماتقول وبتوفيف

It’s a good piece but it needs adjusting because it diminishes the status of the citizen and in fact India has a lot of crime and sectarianism and racism and isn’t like you say... Good luck

جميل... لكن لا ارضى ان يتم اهانة العربي بهالطريقة

Nice… but I don’t accept that the Arab guy was insulted in that way

72Ahmed Sharif’s defense of Indians from insult, and his assumption of the role of the Indian character were enough to lead some followers to question his ‘pure’ Khaleejiness by suggesting that he has Indian heritage. Given the stigmatization of mixed heritage, the stance of the comments is one of invalidating Ahmed Sharif’s work and reinforcing tight boundaries around authentic Khaleeji identity.

هههههههههههههههه يضحكني لما يسوي نفسه يتكلم هنديالصراحه فيه ملامحه هنديه

Hhhhh it makes me laugh when he pretends to speak Hindi. Honestly he has Indian features

شكله امه هندية

He looks as though his mom is Indian

احمد شكله هندي لايق عليه الدور يكون هندي

Ahmed looks Indian, the role of an Indian guy suits him

73Overtly racist comments are often countered by other followers; in one case, Khaled Janahi responded directly to an offensive comment:

صارت الدنيا دنياهم ....والعرب بينقرضون قريب

It’s become their world and Arabs will go extinct soon

@Khaled_janahi الدنيا للبشر اجمعين مو للعرب ولا للهنود ولا العجم ولا الفضائيين ..

The world is for humans not for Arabs, Indians, ajam or aliens from outer space

74In the next three videos, Khaled, Salah, and Sultan reveal proficiency in other languages, which their followers interpret as revelations of their ethnic origins.

6- Which is harder?58 أي أصعب؟

75The video, “Which is harder?” begins with Khaled Janahi (khaled_janahi) telling us that Salah (bovlix) will teach him several phrases in filībīnī (Tagalog), and he will teach Salah several phrases in hōlī59 or ʿajamī, which refer to related Indo-Iranian varieties spoken by hawala and ʿajam communities in the Gulf. As linguistic varieties spoken in eastern Arabia, lī and ʿajamī have not been well-described by linguists, but are related to Southwestern Iranian ačomī/lārestānī.60 The two influencers alternate between teaching one another phrases, laughing, and singing. Khaled mentions in a comment that the video was recorded spontaneously without pre-planning.

  • 61 Montigny, 1996; Al-Dailami, 2014
  • 62 Standard Arabic ajamī/ajam; Emirati Arabic ‘imī/‘īyim.
  • 63 Holes, 2016, p. 1; The other three principal groups Holes identifies are arab (indigenous Sunni Ba (...)
  • 64 Montigny, 1996; Al-Dailami, 2014

76The term hawala refers to Sunni migratory clans who live on both sides of the coast; hawala-origin groups on the Arab side of the coast identify as ethnic Arabs whose ancestors migrated to the Iranian coast and then returned to Arabia.61 Meanwhile, the term ʿajam,62 historically a pejorative identifier for non-Arabic speakers, is used widely across the Gulf states to describe communities of Iranian origin, sometimes specifically those of shīʿī affiliation. In the Bahraini context, Holes describes ajam as typically denoting naturalized shīʿī Bahraini citizens from the South of Iran, who are of lower social status than the other communities.63 Because hawala, ʿajam, and other terms for Persian origin may be associated with lower positions in the social hierarchy than other dominant groups, designators for these groups are used derogatorily in some contexts.64

  • 65 Beeman, 2009; Peterson, 2013; Potter, 2014; Nadjmabadi, 2009; 2010.
  • 66 Montigny, 1996; Moghadam, 2009; Al-Dailami, 2014; Potter, 2014.

77A number of factors make it difficult to disambiguate contemporary terms related to Persian origin. Migration and trade between the Gulf coasts have taken place over millennia, ebbing and flowing according to political and economic conditions in coastal port cities, and resulting in hybrid communities on either side of the Gulf with diverse migratory histories and different degrees of integration.65 Modern nationalist narratives that emphasize Bedouin heritage, in combination with continuing tensions with Iran have led to increased scrutiny of linguistic and cultural markers of hybridity. This has prompted multiple Gulf states to erase evidence of historical Arab-Persian fluidity, targeting domains such as neighborhood, market and street names; museums, cultural, and heritage narratives; and popular media-- efforts which are echoed in individual attempts to obscure links to the other coast that manifest in language, accent, dress, or taste.66

78The blurred boundaries of Iranian-origin identifiers are apparent in the range of overlapping terms Khaled and Salah’s followers use to identify what Khaled refers to lī or ʿajamī. While some commenters repeat those terms, others use the related terms khodmūnī, mīnāwī, bastakī, balūshī, irānī, and fārsī. The choices they make vary according to the terms they use to self-identify or to identify people of Iranian origin in their close proximity; in the former case, the speaker will generally choose a designator that is positive or neutral within their community, while in the latter, the speaker may choose a term that is stigmatized or derogatory in their local context.

79The Persian word khodmūnī means “our own” or the quality of being belonging to “us,” and is used as an identifying term to describe citizen and non-citizen groups with origins in the historical region of Lārestān, a predominantly Sunni region in the South of Iran.67 The term khodmūnī overlaps with others that describe historical migrant groups from the Lārestān region of Southern Iran, such as mīnāwī, from the city of Minab,68 and bastakī, from the city of Bastak, after whom the Bastakiyya neighborhood of old Dubai was called until it was renamed in 2012.69

  • 70 Peterson, 2013.
  • 71 ibid.
  • 72 ibid.
  • 73 Jahani, 2014.

80The term balūshī designates ethnolinguistic affiliation with Sunni Baluch communities that migrated to the Gulf in various waves, primarily from the southwestern Baluchistan province of Pakistan and the southeastern Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan.70 Longstanding Baluch presence in Gulf States can be explained in part by the tendency of communities to live on either side of border zones; this is especially the case for Baluch-origin Omanis living on the Batinah Coast of Oman, which is located across the Gulf of Oman from the Makran Coast of Pakistan and Iran.71 Baluch people were also heavily recruited as mercenaries, soldiers, or policemen in Gulf States until the 20th century, particularly in Oman and Bahrain.72 As a linguistic descriptor, balūshī is classified as a Northwestern Iranian variety, and the balūshī spoken in the Gulf is associated with Southern balūshī dialects, which are spoken in southeastern Iran, southwestern Pakistan, and Karachi.73

81Irānī and fārsī, finally, act as general descriptors that do not infer membership in specific Iranian-origin communities in the Gulf, yet clearly mark a speaker or variety as non-Arab/ic.

82Khaled and Salah’s video is an unusual example of linguistic revelation since both Iranian varieties and also Asian and South-Asian varieties are coded as low prestige varieties within Gulf Arabic language-ideological hierarchies. Since broadcasting knowledge of such varieties can engender criticism and prompt others to question loyalty to idealized constructs of Khaleejiness, public acknowledgments of proficiency made in Arabic are uncommon. In this context, their video increases the visibility of bilingual Arabic-Tagalog speakers and bilingual speakers of Arabic and Persian varieties in the Gulf.

83The majority of comments involve followers who either identify the influencers’ languages or ethnic backgrounds or identify their own, with most conveying a validating stance. Many of them express pride in their heritage or appreciation for discovering what they perceive to be Khaled and Salah’s hybrid identities, with a particular focus on Iranian origin. Expressions of pride in knowledge of Tagalog are fewer than for Iranian dialects, which is unsurprising since fewer Filipinos follow the influencers’ content than Gulf Arabic speakers, while many Gulf Arabic speakers identify with Iranian origin.

ياحلو لهجتنا الخودمونيه

So pretty our khodmūnī dialect

انت عجمي؟؟؟ لأن انا عجمية و كل الكلام الي قلته صح

Are you ʿajamī? Because I’m ʿajamī and everything you said is correct

عاشوووووو البستكية

Long live al-Bastakiyya

فديت الهولة

I love the hawala

ههههه مايقدر على البلوشي صعب

Hhhhhh he can’t handle balūshī, it’s hard

84Among commenters who validate Salah and Khaled’s playful multilingual conversation, several request more videos in the same style, asking for a longer video in hōlī, more videos in ʿajamī, or a YouTube vlog on the same topic. The video also gave rise to discriminatory comments. As we have seen previously, Khaled Janahi occasionally responds directly to comments that are overtly racist.

85A final category of patterned commentary involves calling out the influencers for revealing their ethnic origins aǝl /ʿirj (Standard Arabic ʿirq). The well-known expressions carry the implication that ethnic origin is difficult (even if desirable) to repress, and always finds a way to emerge.

86The comments, along with the laughter and eye roll emojis suggest that commenters consider transparent acknowledgment of Persian ethnic origin to be embarrassing or unnecessary in a public forum.

هههههه العرج يحن

Hhhhhh the ethnic background is yearning for its own

هذا بس يبين الاصل وين

This just reveals their origin

الكومنتات كلها عجم طلع العرج

All of the comments are ʿajamthe ethnic background came out

بان العرج الاصلي

The ethnic origin was revealed

87The next two videos also involve the revelation of linguistic ability in ʿajamī, though this time by way of more scripted performances. In both videos, the setup of a phone call allows for surprising the audience with unexpected Iranian origin. After discussing each video briefly, I analyze the comment sections together.

7- Don’t let appearances fool you #Bedouinized returns again74 لا تغرك المظاهر #متبدون يعود من جديد

88In the first of Sultan Abdulaziz’s (3fretoo) videos, he emerges from a majlis wearing a white kandūra and a brown amdāniyya [head covering]— his surroundings and clothing are set up to seem incompatible with his speech in the phone conversation that follows. He appears tough and serious as he taps on a midwākh pipe,75 and a Bedouin shēlā plays in the background.76 When he receives a phone call, the music stops and we hear him speak in an exaggerated, high-pitched mix of khodmūnī and khodmūnī-accented Arabic that contrasts with the Bedouin-style impression he gives in the beginning of the clip.77 He addresses the caller as Ahmedu, the u a pattern of endearment associated with speakers of Iranian varieties, and uses a feminine rather than masculine pronoun and pronominal suffix, a mistake also associated with these speakers, since Iranian varieties, unlike Arabic, have gender-neutral second-person pronouns and pronominal suffixes.78 Before closing his call, he asks rhetorically “in ch badbakht” [what is this misfortune?]. As he finishes the call, a new song plays, this time to represent his khodmūnī identity; it is the song “man āmāde am” [I have come], by the famous Iranian diva, Gogoosh.79

8- Don’t fake it, stay true to yourself80 خلك على طبيعتك تتصنع لا

89In the second video, “Don’t fake it, stay true to yourself,” we hear Sultan (3fretoo) speaking on the phone with a girl. He tells her in a stylized Bedouin dialect that he has come from the ʿizba [farm] exhausted. In the middle of his conversation, he receives a call from his mother, on a second phone. He speaks to his mother briefly in khodmūnī, telling her he will go to the supermarket for her. The girl listens to his conversation, and when he finishes and returns to her, she exclaims: vāy Sultan, shomā ham khodmūnī hastī? [Wow Sultan, are you khodmūnī, too?] She admits that she had thought he was Bedouin. We understand that she is also of khodmūnī origin and that both of them feel relieved to have revealed their backgrounds. As the clip ends, Sultan begins to dance, shaking his shoulders to the Bandari song dokhtare ahvāzī [Girl from Ahvaz] by the band Sandy, which plays in the background.81

90In both of Sultan’s skits, he shows the ease with which he can pass for an “authentic” Emirati national based on his outward appearance, and juxtaposes it with his ability to assume a bearing, tone, and language “incompatible” with such an origin. In overturning the Bedouin-origin indexed by his initial presentation, he both disrupts its potential superficiality, and normalizes khodmūnī identity. As the caption “Don’t fake it, stay true to yourself,” makes clear, his video resists surface-level identity performance and the erasure of aspects of one’s identity. It appears to assume a subversive stance against ideologies of purity and masculine Bedouin normativity.

91As we have seen before, a frequent style of commentary involves followers either identifying the language Sultan is speaking, or asking others to identify it. Commenters on Sultan’s videos use both Arabic and Persian varieties to do so, and continue to employ a variety of overlapping terms related to Iranian languages and people, sometimes expressing their own belonging to the groups they mention.

ايروني اخخخخخخ

īrūni (Iranian) ahhhhhhhhhhh

ماشاء الله به فارسي حرف زدنت

Mashallah you spoke in Farsi



خودموني اصلي

Authentic khodmūnī

عيم ونفتخر الحمدلله

We are ʿīyim (ʿajam) and we’re proud al-amdillah

92Occasionally, followers correct a perceived misidentification, such as the Emirati commenter below, who rejects the term balūshī as an identifier for the variety that Sultan speaks:

هذي مش لغة بلوشية هي عيمي او ميناوي البلوش صح هم بلوش بس اللغة اندثرت عندهم محد يرمس عندهم بهذه اللهجات

This isn’t balūshī, it’s ʿīmī [ʿajamī] or mīnāwī.. It’s true that these are Baluch people but the language disappeared among them, none of them speak these languages

93Commenters continue to show a preoccupation with framing the videos as examples of the propensity of ethnic origins to make themselves known, using a variety of verbs to communicate the inevitability of their emergence: ṭilaʿ, naṭ, naqʿ, nabaẓ, bn (al-ʿirj). Such comments often carry the implication that keeping Iranian roots private would be preferable to revealing them on a public platform.

94Some commenters point out that Sultan doesn’t speak fluently, suggesting that he may be performing ʿajamī / khodmūnī identity without a true claim to linguistic proficiency and belonging:

جيه ترمس جنك هندي ، العيم ما يرمسون جي

The way you’re speaking is like you’re Indian, ʿiyim (ʿajam) don’t speak that way

بس اللهجة يباله تشتغل عليه شويه

You just need to work on the dialect a bit

95Sultan’s videos give rise to debates about the right to represent and celebrate an identity other than one’s national identity. Critics object to seeing Emiratiness and Iranian origin depicted simultaneously, showing sensitivity to the fact that Sultan wears national dress in the video. They emphasize the duty of citizens as caretakers of the UAE’s reputation, and complain that Sultan’s video misrepresents Emiratis as an Iranian population. They maintain that Sultan should prioritize displaying pride and affiliation with the nation that has provided for him and his ancestors. Some point out that the country’s leaders already devote effort to heritage preservation, suggesting that individuals need not take it upon themselves to preserve their family histories.

هو يمثل الامارات حاليا بزيه الرسمي وكلامه وكونه شخص مشهور يحب ان يعكس صوره ابناء الامارات بالشكل الصحيح وليس بهذه الطريقه التافهه

He’s representing the UAE at the moment in national dress and in his speech and being a public figure, he should reflect the image of the sons of the UAE in the right way and not in this ridiculous way

كل واحد يمثل نفسه ولا يمثل كل مواطن اماراتي

Should everyone represent himself or represent every Emirati citizen?

العرق دساس فضحتونا اذا تحنون ارجعو لاصولكم ولا تشوهون سمعة بلادنا اسمها الامارات العربية

Ethnicity always shows itself… you shamed us.. If you’re yearning for your origins then return to them and don’t distort the reputation of our country.. it’s called the Arab Emirates

اتمنى ان يتم ايقافك لانك لا تمثل اهل الامارات ابدا ، انت ترسل رساله ان الامارات هي شعب ايراني ، وين الرقابه عنك

I hope you get banned because you don’t represent the people of the UAE at all, you send the message that the UAE is an Iranian population, where is the censorship?

96In some cases, followers emphasize that the language of the UAE is Arabic and its customs and traditions are Arab, and express the concern that mother tongues be spoken only within the confines of the private sphere in order for the Arabic language to be preserved:

فيديو سخيف ! عاداتنا وتقاليدنا عربية . اما الكلام اللي مب عربي وش نستفيد منه ؟ او وش تبا توصل او الرسالة ؟

A silly video! Our customs and traditions are Arab. Meanwhile what you spoke isn’t Arabic, how do we benefit from that? What do you want to get across, what’s the message?

97Counter-arguments are made by commenters who do not construe Sultan’s skits as a threat to Emirati identity. They emphasize that pride in ethnic background and national pride are not mutually exclusive, and reject the idea that a playful display of Iranian origin distorts the UAE’s reputation. They try to explain that showing pride is his own business and his own right, and point out that many Arabs speak languages other than Arabic. Others remind critics that God doesn’t differentiate between people of ʿajam origin and Arabs.

يفتخر ل نفسه مب ينشر هذه العادات والتقاليد ف مجتمع عربي

He’s expressing pride in himself, not spreading these customs and traditions in Arab society

خودموني خخخخخخ ترا موب عيب انك تعترف باصلك ولا تتصنع

khodmūnī hhhhhhh you know it’s not taboo to acknowledge your roots and not pretend

بس أحس ما قال شي.. أصله ميناوي أو اي شي.. كلنا نعرف الخليج كيف.. اللي أصلهم من وين .. هذا الأصل ولكن جد عن أبا جد مواليد الإمارات ف أكيد إماراتي عااادي شو المشكلة أتكلم بلغة الأم أو بأي لغة أخرى كثيرين من خليجيين متزوجين اروبيات ويتحجون إنجليزي عااادي

But I feel like he didn’t say anything… his origin is mīnāwī or something like that… all of us know how the Khaleej is .. and who is from where.. These are is the roots but his great grandfathers were born in the UAE so for sure he’s Emirati .. it’s fine.. what’s the problem if I speak my mother tongue or in any other language? So many Khaleejis are married to Europeans and speak English, it’s normal

نفس ما انت لك الحق انك تفتخر باصولك نحن بعد عدنا الحق بسكم تخلف خل دول العالم فيها عده اعراق و الكل يحافظ ويصون تراثه لو شو ماكانت جنسيته

Just like you have the right to be proud of your origins we do too, enough backwardness, let the countries of the world have multiple races and everyone preserve their heritage regardless of their nationality

كلامج صج ينرفز الواحد كانج اتقولين انسو اجدادكم وانسو اهاليكم وانسو اصولكم. ترا اكثر من نص الشعب خودموني وكلنا نفتخر باصولنا وبجنسيتنا. مو معناته الواحد يوم يفتخر بالصلة يعني ما يفتخر بجنسيته. كل دول العالم فيها نااس من كل الاعراق ايران بعد فيها عرب مافي مكان

فالعالم الناس منزلين فيه من السماء كل جد ياي من مكان

What you say is really angering, it’s as if you’re saying forget your ancestors and forget your families and forget your origins. You know more than half of the population is khodmūnī and we’re all proud of our origin and our nationality. When one is proud of his origin it doesn’t mean that he isn’t proud of his nationality. All countries of the world have people from all ethnic backgrounds. Iran too has Arabs, there’s nowhere in the world where people came from the sky.. everyone comes from somewhere

98Defenders of Sultan refer to the UAE’s anti-discrimination law, which protects citizens from racial slurs; however, a critical commenter argues that one who boasts about ‘contradictory’ identity cannot expect protection from being identified in a discriminatory way, such as with slurs like “yā l-mīnāwī.” [You mīnāwī].

99The next skit echoes a similar pattern of a phone-call setup to allow for revealing an unexpected identity– this time, the influencers disclose shared Yemeni origin.

9- He shocked me to be honest82 صدمني الصراحه

100In “He shocked me to be honest,” posted by both Saad Abdullah (dxbxd) and Max Stanton (maxofarabia), Max acts the role of a new student at a Dubai university. He enters a conversation in English with an upperclassman, played by Saad. They begin to get to know one another until a phone call from Max’s mother prompts him to switch to Yemeni Arabic and surprise his new friend, who we understand is also of Yemeni origin. During the call he refers to having fasa, a Yemeni stew, for lunch and uses linguistic features specific to northern Yemeni dialects. The friend is delighted and says “hu ent min ʿindinā?” [so you’re from where we are?] and invites him to his home for lunch. The video ends with the two dancing sharḥ, a Yemeni dance.

101In its depiction of the claim of a British-American influencer (known by his followers as an Emirati speaker) and another Emirati-speaking influencer to both Yemeni and Emirati Khaleejiness, the clip validates Khaleeji hybridity and Emirati heterogeneity. The video prompted an immense amount of metalinguistic commentary, with followers discussing the details of the dialect Max and Saad used in the context of the political divisions between the North and South of Yemen.

102Many commenters ask for clarification about Max’s identity, prompting others to step in and explain:

هذا امريكي كان عايش فتره باليمن وتعلم منهم الرمسه وبعدين فالامارات ايام ماكان يدرس فالجامعه والشباب ما قصروا علموه الرمسه الاماراتيه

This guy’s American, he lived for a while in Yemen and learned to speak there and then later in the UAE while he was in university, thanks to the guys, he learned the Emirati way of speaking

ماكس كان عايش في اليمن وتعلم اللغة العربيه من اليمن واول لهجة تعلمها الصنعانية وذلحين يعرف اللهجة الاماراتية

Max was living in Yemen and he learned Arabic from there and the first dialect he learned was ṣanʿānī and now he speaks the Emirati dialect

103Followers also try to discern if Saad is posing as Yemeni for the purpose of the clip, or if he is really Yemeni.

@dxbxd ياخي من وينك انت يمني او اماراتي واذا انت اماراتي كيف تعلمت اللهجه اليمنيه

Bro where are you from.. Are you Yemeni or Emirati? And if you’re Emirati how did you learn the Yemeni dialect?

104Among Max’s followers, many react with appreciation for his proficiency in Yemeni Arabic and specifically Ṣanʿānī dialect. The metalinguistic commentary even extends to corrections; two commenters pointed out that Max used the Emirati rather than the Yemeni variant of the verb “to return”:

يمممممه قلد اللهجه الصنعانيه اكثر من العربي بس غلط في كلمه احنا نقول برجع البيت مش برد بس كلها واحد نبعث

إليك تحياتنا الحاره من صنعاء اليمن

Wowwwww he imitated the ananī dialect even more than Arabic, but he made a mistake in one word, we say barjaʿ ǝl bēt [I’ll return home] not barǝdd [I’ll come back] but it’s all the same… we send you our warm greetings from Sanaa

105Many other followers with knowledge of Yemeni dialects solicit videos in ʿadanī or adramī dialects. Some who affiliate with the South, mock the northern dialect in the skit by calling it “daḥbāshī,”83 an insult based on a buffoon-like character from a popular TV show:

طلعت دحباشي هههههههههه

You turned out to be daḥbāshī hhhhhhhhh

دحباشي..طيب المرة الجاية اتكلم حضرمي

Daḥbāshī … ok, next time speak ḥaḍramī

106The combination of the northern dialect the two influencers used, and the southern-style dance at the end of the video stimulated debates among followers, with some commenters criticizing the mix of the dialect and the dance as an incoherence or an oversight and others praising it as a way of intentionally drawing together the whole of Yemen. Some commenters reject the emphasis in the commentary on North-South differentiation, a stance Max himself steps in to affirm.

مكسو اللهجه والرقص الدحباشي مع الحضرمي حرام الي سويتونه

They mixed the dialect and the dancing, daḥbāshī with aḍramī shame on you for what you’ve done to us

ههههههههه اللهجة صنعانية والشرح حضرمي والرقص عدني

Hhhhhhhhh the dialect is anʿānī and sharḥ is aḍramī and the dance is ʿadan

لهجه صنعانيه والشرح حضرمي لبى الحضارم ولبى اليمن كلها

Ṣanʿānī dialect and the sharḥ is ḥaḍramī, satisfying the Ḥaḍārim and all of Yemen

107The final video juxtaposes authentic Khaleejiness with foreignness, conceptualizing the overuse of foreign languages and gestures between Arabic speakers as a form of affectation and a failure to preserve Khaleeji identity.

10- A Khaleeji with an American vibe84 خلبجي عليه جو أمريكي

108In this video, Mohamed AlKindy (kindy_man) stands on the side of the road after his car breaks down. He flags down another driver to help him. The driver wears traditional dress: a white dishdasha or kandora, along with a black harness designed to hold a dagger, and a black band with silver embellishments worn over his white head covering. Mohamed, meanwhile wears jeans and a t-shirt, a heavy silver chain, and red sneakers that match his shirt. As the driver approaches, he wonders about Mohamed’s identity, saying to himself “wallah m adrba ʿarab walla inglz” [I swear, I don’t know if he’s Arab or English].

109When the driver stops, Mohamed greets him rapidly in an exaggerated African American Vernacular English, saying “Yo yo.. what’s up bro.. what’s up.. whats up? Whacha doin homie?” and gesturing rapidly. Even when Mohamed switches in Arabic to explain his situation, he continues to punctuate his sentences with the English phrase “y’know what I’m sayin?” This is juxtaposed with the driver’s dialect, which contains words and phrases that are not in common usage. After they converse for several moments, we understand that the driver disapproves of Mohamed’s foreign affectation. The clip ends with him deciding to attach Mohamed to the back of his car, with Mohamed shouting “(tow) the car, not me!”

110The video de-authenticates speakers of Khaleeji Arabic who speak stylized English to show off foreignness, while affirming ‘pure’ Khaleeji Arabic as linguistically authentic. The caption of the video states its message explicitly:

الهوية الوطنية: رمز الاصالة والتميز الحضاري، من الجميل أن تمتزج مع حضارات أخرى ولكن من المؤسف أن تتخلى عن هويتك الوطنية

National identity: a symbol of authenticity and of civilized distinction. While it is nice to mix with other civilizations, it is a pity to abandon your national identity.

111The caption reinforces the video’s affirmation of ‘pure’ Khaleeji Arabic by teaching followers four of the expressions that the driver used, in the style of heritage-oriented educational material. In the comment section, several followers praise the skit for promoting the preservation of national identity, and defend it against followers who criticize it as silly:

بالعكس الفيديو توعوي وفكرته حلوه انه مهما صار لازم نتمسك بعروبتنا وقيمنا

On the contrary it’s a video meant to raise awareness and it’s a good point - that no matter what happens we should retain our Arabness and our values

112Despite the message of the video, several followers accuse Al-Kindy for showing off his affiliation with English and foreignness or argue that he is not in a position to mock such behavior because his default is to speak, dress, and act in a foreign, inauthentic style. One commenter expands this criticism to his ‘shilla’ [group], referring to the other influencers he works with. Their comments discredit his affirmation of authenticity by discrediting his claim to Khaleejiness:

خلاص درينا انك تعرف انقلش بس الامريكان مايوقفون كذا حتى الرابر الله يهديك بعدين مايقولون وتساب مان كأنها راب الله يصلحك

Ok, we get it that you know English but Americans don’t stand that way.. And then even rappers, God help you, don’t say what’s up man like it’s a rap song, God help you

على فكره يعني انته هذا هو ستايلك وتعيب عليهم كيييييف جييي !!

By the way, that’s your style that you’re criticizing… how does that work?!

قال اصاله اللبس عماني كذيه يلبسون مال مسندم

He said authentic but the clothes are Omani, that’s what people wear in Musandam

113The final commenter, above, takes issue with the way in which tradition and authenticity are represented. By dismissing his choice of traditional dress as an Omani style rather than an Emirati/Bedouin style, the stance of the comment again questions Mohamed’s claim to authenticity.


114The article has sought to contribute to the study of cultural production in the contemporary Gulf through nuanced and contextualized research on language and identity in social media. The social media performances analyzed in this paper feature a variety of overlapping approaches to defining Khaleejiness and exploring the boundaries of linguistic and social belonging. The skits revolve around characters whose staged movements across social and ethnic boundaries provoke surprise and confusion, and who either protest unbelonging or assert belonging by way of demonstrating linguistic ability or insider status. In many cases, the influencers engage with the precarity of their characters’ affiliation by openly acknowledging (or even expressing pride in) mixed Arab and non-Arab parentage, non-nativespeakerness, and Iranian, Asian, South-Asian, or African heritage.

115In their portrayals of the in-betweens of Khaleeji social categories, the influencers often stop short of fully claiming the multiple identities they play, leaving followers wondering whether or not the ambiguous affiliations they perform match their real-life identities or those of their parents. The way in which their work increases the visibility of socially stigmatized identities is itself a form of legitimation, however, and presents a picture of cosmopolitan Khaleejiness that is far more complex than official diversity discourses convey.

116Although official diversity discourses in the UAE and elsewhere in the Gulf highlight the multitude of nationalities among a city’s residents and promote tolerance across diverse groups, they also deemphasize heterogeneity in Khaleeji Arabic spheres. In this context, the influencers’ work is unique in its visual representations of messy, everyday assertions of belonging and affiliation, and in inviting public negotiation of linguistic and social norms. While this public space sometimes stimulates offensive language, it also invites sincerity, reflexivity and measured debate about what it means to look Khaleeji, sound Khaleeji, and claim Khaleeji identity as one’s own.

117As hosts and curators of this space, the influencers continue to occupy an in-between status. By raising an array of sensitive issues related to internal heterogeneity, their work can be seen as resisting official discourses in a state such as the UAE, since these discourses emphasize a unified and homogenous national identity. In another sense, they position themselves in line with such discourses by engaging in the hard work of calling for and enacting principles of co-existence and anti-discrimination. Ultimately, the cosmopolitan Khaleeji identities modeled by the influencers both embody and advance state values of tolerance and acceptance.

118While this paper has posed a preliminary sketch of the Arabic language ideological landscape of the UAE, further research on Arabic language ideologies in the Arabian Peninsula is needed. How do the Gulf states differ in their approaches to the management of linguistic diversity? In what other areas of creative performance do regional sociolinguistic hierarchies manifest? What types of metalinguistic counter-discourses are in wide circulation? Further ethnographic work on language use in public and private spaces, as well as on language ideologies among media professionals, content creators, and social media users would also make valuable contributions to the overlapping fields of sociolinguistics and popular culture studies in the Gulf.

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Appendix: Videos in order of mention

bovlix. (2017, February). af yriq al ḥrb [Come on, Tareq Al Harbi].  Instagram.​p/​BQITVjOjzsn/​?igshid=153yi1t7ig2cn

bovlix (2018, April 27). ṭil‘ khalj [Turns out he’s Khaleeji]. Instagram.​p/​BiEgwkvA8OH/​?igshid=kz5buzpx9ryn 

a.Sharif92. (2016, April 17). ba‘ḍ al-ḥarm allh yihdhim [Some women, god help them]. Instagram.​p/​BETINvtoI_R/​   

kareemtime; maxofArabia. (2016, November 21). ẓhira tmaththil al ba‘ḍ [A phenomenon that represents some]. Instagram.​p/​BNE6mazgBgF/​ ;​p/​BNE85D0DlO8/​ 

a.Sharif92; khaled_janahi; A7med_rasheed (2018, April 24). shfk hind enta? [What’s with you, are you Indian or something?] Instagram.​p/​Bh89PIcHanH/​?igshid=YzAyZWRlMzg%3D;​p/​Bh8yhzjlfBH;​p/​Bh81B7snl3O

Khaled_janahi; bovlix. (2017, March 10) a aṣa‘b? [Which is harder?] Instagram.​p/​BRdDUc0gVql/​?igshid=YzAyZWRlMzg%3D 

3fretoo. (2018, December 17). lā taghurrak al-maẓāhir [Don’t let appearances fool you]. Instagram.​p/​BczONAdgw1c/​?igshid=4v02qn1wfe3w

3fretoo (2018, May 11). l titṣan‘ khalk ‘ala ṭab‘tak [Don’t fake it, stay true to yourself]. Instagram.​p/​BiqJplnArue/​?igshid=zbv7vbmgtsly

dxbxd; maxofArabia (2017, July 1). ṣadimn al-ṣarḥa [He shocked me to be honest].  Instagram.​p/​BWAgi4MgT-3

kindy_man (2018, July 9). khalj ma‘ jaw amrk [A Khaleeji with an American vibe]. Instagram.​p/​BlBGRC4H5Hn/​

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1 Beeman, 2009; Peterson, 2014; Potter, 2009;2014.

2 I would like to thank my reviewers for their comments on an earlier draft of this article. A special thanks to Frederic Lagrange, co-editor of this issue, for his detailed feedback and for pointing me to many useful bibliographical sources.

3 Assaf and Montagne, 2019, p. 35.

4 These videos have been deposited in a folder, accessible through the following link:

5 Rampton, 2020 defines crossing as “the use of language that feels anomalously ‘other’ for the participants in an activity, involving movement across quite sharply sensed social or ethnic boundaries, in ways that can raise questions of legitimacy” (p. 1).

6 The UAE government both regulates and cultivates influencers, whose work is considered a crucial means of conveying the UAE’s visions and aspirations. See Zahren, 2022 on Saudi influencers in Dubai and importance of social media in Dubai’s urban branding.

7 Eckert, 2000.

8 Limbert, 2014.

9 ibid.

10 Cole, 2003; Montigny, 1996; Potter, 2014

11 Al-Nakib, 2016; Beaugrand, 2017; Ménoret, 2014.

12 Beeman, 2009.

13 ibid.

14 Al-Dailami, 2014; The term hawala refers to migratory groups who moved between the Arab and Iranian coasts.

15 ibid., p. 314.

16 Moghadam, 2009; 2013.

17 Assaf, 2020, p. 838.

18 Assaf, 2017.

19 Almutawa, 2019.

20 Almutawa, 2022.

21 Hachimi, 2013.

22 Schulthies, 2015.

23 The term superdiversity was coined by Vertovec in 2007.

24 Rampton, 2016.

25 Arnaut, 2016, p. 40.

26 ibid., p. 65.


28 Sowayan, 1985, p. 1.

29 Milroy, 2001.


31; ‘Bil Arabi’ Initiative Centre of Attention of Local and International Government and Private Entities, 2020.

32 Kurpershoek, 2022, p. xxxv, xxxviii

33 ibid., 2022.

34 ;;

35 See Holes C. & S. S. Abu Athera, 2011 and Holes, 2014 for examples of nabaṭī poems that comment on contemporary issues in Gulf states.

36 Vanpee, 2019, p. 195.

37 See video 2, bovlix: “Turns out he’s Khaleeji”; Mīḥad is also featured in many of maxofarabia’s videos, outside of this corpus.

38 Seeميحد-حمد-عُرف-بأدائه-المميز-الأغنية-الشعبية-وأطلق- and

39 Sowayan, 1985; also see Urkevich, 2014, who notes that the term shēlā can be used to describe an unaccompanied vocal introduction to a performance that features collective singing, drumming, and/or dancing.

40 Sung Nabaṭī poetry is called shēla in Saudi Arabia and shella (pl. shellāt) in the Emirates. Verb shall-yishill (to raise, to lift) in Emirati Arabic (equivalent to shāl-yishīl in other dialects) can also be used for the voice in the sense of “singing” and therefore most sung poems are generically called shēlāt/shellāt.

41 Leung, Ntelitheos & Al Kaabi, 2021, p. 3-4.

42 Holes, 2018.

43 Holes, 2016; 2018.

44 Montigny, 1996; Potter, 2014; Al-Dailami, 2014.

45 Al Hussein, 2021

46 See Lagrange, 2020 for analysis of comedic works created by Saad Abdallah and Ahmed Sharif in the context of the pandemic.

47; In addition to being linked, the 10 videos are stored in the following Google Drive folder

48 The word afā in the phrase “afā yā Tareq” both in the title and below in the comments can be translated as “shame on you” or “come on”; I have chosen the latter to capture the playfulness of the comedians’ work.


50 The novel was both popular and also controversial for its coverage of racial, ethnic, class-based, religious, and political tensions in Kuwait and the larger Gulf. It won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in 2013 and a TV series based on the novel was released in 2016.

51 Al-San‘ūsī’, Sa‘ūd, 2012, p. 310.



54 see


56 ;



59 For a discussion of spelling variants and etymologies of the terms hōlī and hawala, see Montigny, 1996 and Al-Dailami, 2014.

60 Anoby, 2015, p. 168 describes Achomi as “the locally-used term for Larestani, spoken in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains in the western reaches of the province”.

61 Montigny, 1996; Al-Dailami, 2014

62 Standard Arabic ajamī/ajam; Emirati Arabic ‘imī/‘īyim.

63 Holes, 2016, p. 1; The other three principal groups Holes identifies are arab (indigenous Sunni Bahrainis), baḥārna (indigenous shīī Bahrainis), and hawala.

64 Montigny, 1996; Al-Dailami, 2014

65 Beeman, 2009; Peterson, 2013; Potter, 2014; Nadjmabadi, 2009; 2010.

66 Montigny, 1996; Moghadam, 2009; Al-Dailami, 2014; Potter, 2014.

67 Moghadam, 2013.

68 Peterson, 2013 states that the British agency and the government of Bahrain hired mīnāwī men to perform security duties in the early twentieth century.


70 Peterson, 2013.

71 ibid.

72 ibid.

73 Jahani, 2014.


75 The midwākh is a hand-held pipe popular especially among young men in the Gulf region. Use of midwākh is associated with masculinity and “Bedouinness”. The tobacco used in the pipe is called dokha (lit. dizziness). It can be smoked in few puffs and its high nicotine can cause dizzy spells. See Al-Houqani M, Ali R, & Hajat C, 2012.


77 Since the term khodmūnī is used as a self-identifier in one of Sultan’s skits, I use it here.

78 Lagrange, 2013 states that in the popular program Frīj, efforts were made to incorporate purposeful errors in phonology and grammatical agreement into the speech of the ʿajamī character, Umm ʿAllāwī, both for comedic effect and to represent, albeit vaguely, the heterogenous Iranian-origin members of the Emirati citizen community. Holes, 2016 also notes that many jokes target the “poor” Arabic of the ʿajam in Bahrain (p. 5).



81; Bandari refers to popular genre of music from the Southern Iranian coast, associated with port cities like Bandar Abbas.


83 For a discussion of the slur daḥbāshī, see دحباشي-في-الجنوب-وزنبيل-وقنديل-في-الشمال-تمييزات-طبقية-وعنصرية-في-المجتمع-اليمني


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Corinne Stokes, « Performing Khaleejiness on Instagram: Authenticity, hybridity, and belonging », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 18 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2023, consulté le 18 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Corinne Stokes

New York University Abu Dhabi

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