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

“Arabic Pop Art” on Instagram: Questioning the Representations of Arabness and Khaleejiness in Digital Art

« Arabic Pop Art » sur Instagram : Penser les représentations de l’arabité et de l’identité golfique dans les productions artistiques digitales
Clio Chaveneau


Instagram, la deuxième plateforme de réseau social la plus utilisée au monde, est un lieu de publication privilégié pour les artistes et les amateurs d'art afin de présenter des contenus artistiques et visuels à un public plus large. Dans la région du Moyen-Orient et de l'Afrique du Nord, un compte Instagram,, rassemble actuellement 399 000 followers en repostant quotidiennement diverses formes d'œuvres numériques produites dans la région. En m’appuyant sur une analyse de tous les posts publiés entre mars 2019 et mars 2020, je mets en évidence la présence importante de citoyens et de résidents du Golfe parmi les artistes et les followers de ce compte Instagram et je discute de la manière dont les symboles, icônes et objets consuméristes arabes et du Golfe sont utilisés dans les créations artistiques. Ainsi, par son contenu et compte tenu de sa popularité, ce compte participe activement à la mise en lumière d'une culture populaire de la jeunesse arabe et au façonnement des représentations des identités arabes (arabité) et régionales (khaleejiness).

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  • 1 Demerdash, 2012 ; LeVine, 2015, p. 1277‑1313.
  • 2 Ibid.
  • 3 Slitine, 2017.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 13.

1Artists and art pieces produced and displayed in the Middle East and North Africa region have attracted the attention of scholars across many disciplines over the past decade. Literature, theater, cinema, music, and street art appear to have found a new life since different uprisings and popular movements happened in the region in the past years1. This new art production is visible in the public spaces of most Arab cities, and the circulation of songs, poems, posters, or graffiti is going beyond the national borders of each Arab country. Hence, Art is (re)creating new pan-Arab bonds for the youth of the region. Even though more traditional ways of diffusing artistic content remain dominant, the Internet and social media are now perhaps the “most important vector for the dissemination of artistic content” at a regional and global scale2. As shown by Marion Slitine3 who studied artists from the Gaza Strip, the Internet plays a crucial role in the development of contemporary art, as it dramatically changes the modalities of expression and the relationship with the audience. Some artworks are now designed “by, for and with the Internet” and need to be distinguished from artworks simply placed on the Internet4.

  • 5 Date of the writing of this article. However, the creator and administrator of the account closed t (...)

2Instagram, which focuses primarily on images and videos, rather than text like X (the platform formerly known as Twitter) or Facebook, is the favorite platform for artists, graphic designers, and creators to share, promote and sell their work, with the help of hashtags, tags and reposts of pictures. As far as the promotion of artwork through Instagram is concerned, one account stands out in the region. Gathering 399,000 followers (April 20225), the account,, run by Abdelqader Hajjaj, highlights digital artworks from the Middle East and North Africa region. Reposting artworks of graphic designers and digital artists through the years, he has gathered hundreds of thousands of followers on this page and created a virtual community engaging with the artworks and the topics addressed by the artists. This account, given its success and content, actively participates in shaping representations of “Arab” digital art, and sets out the cultural references structuring a youth culture in the region.

  • 6 See this present journal issue and the conference “Culture Made in Arabia. The Arabian Peninsula as (...)
  • 7 Moghadam Amin, 2012.
  • 8 Demerdash, 2012.

3While the traditional places of cultural production are still very active (such as Egypt, Tunisia, Palestine, Lebanon), the Arabian Peninsula countries are relatively new actors in the cultural scene of the MENA region.6 It slowly began in the mid-1990s in Sharjah, and significantly increase with the opening of auction house branches and galleries in Dubai 7and the development of international art museums in Abu Dhabi, Doha and Kuwait City, which contribute to developing the art market in the region and a cultivation of a clientele8. If this change is induced and supported by the Gulf States and their leadership, we also witness the rise of local artists - citizens or residents in the Gulf - that contribute to the growing position of the region in the cultural scene that is going beyond the power of buying and exposing art.

4This phenomenon can be observed on the Instagram page where, if dedicated more generally to MENA digital artworks, it is also presenting a large number of artworks from the Gulf region. At least, that was the impression I was getting as a follower of the page as I started noticing many cultural references associated with the Arabian Peninsula in the artworks (from Khaleeji clothing to natural landscapes). These observations were the starting point of this research and led me to question firstly the prevalence of digital artists from the Gulf/Peninsula region on the page and how it could be one of the manifestations of the potential growing cultural influence in the wider MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. This influence is visible through the use of cultural references that not only emphasize the cultural specificities of the Gulf, but also contribute to include these references within a broader Arab identity. Thus, this research uses the Instagram page as a lens to explore and discuss the various ways Arabness and Khaleejiness (or Gulfness) are performed in the artworks - which visual elements and cultural references are used by artists and how is the latter less marginalized? I argue that Gulf references are increasingly central and legitimate in the representation(s) of Arabness, especially among the youth of the region.

5This paper is based on the methodical compilation and analysis of all the posts published during a year (from March 2019 to March 2020) on this public account. I took screenshots of all posts (due to the versatility of virtual data) and gathered information on the post (number of likes and comments) and the author of the art piece (name, artistic name, nationality, gender, and city of residence, when possible). After that, I analyzed the content of each art piece: references being made, images/symbols they refer to, topics addressed, person or character presented, use of Arabic or English text in the picture. I also conducted an interview with the founder and moderator of the page in May 2020 on Google Hangouts.

6In the first section of this chapter, after contextualizing pop art in the MENA region and on the Instagram page, I will discuss the growing centrality of the Gulf in the Arab digital artistic scene through the influential presence of Gulf citizens and residents among both the artists and the followers. The second section will focus on how the use of different sets of references participates in reviving and enhancing the feeling of belonging to an ethnic or regional identity among the youth - creators and followers of the page. Arabness and Khaleejiness, though complex identities, are manifested in the artworks through different symbols and visual representations that allow us to discuss the way that cultural and local identities are performed and perceived.

The Gulf, a major contender in the MENA digital art scene?

Arabic Pop Art: from an Art Movement to a Unifying Label

  • 9 Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. "Pop art." Encyclopedia Britannica, 25 Aug. 2021, https:// (...)

7Pop Art is an art movement of the late 1950s and 60s that was inspired by commercial and popular culture and is defined as an artistic response to commodity-driven values in Western societies as well as a rejection of “high art” supremacy and “avant-garde” art pretensions.9 Its most famous figures were Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Richard Hamilton. In a letter written in 1957, the latter broke down the meaning of Pop Art into simple terms: “Popular, Transient, Expendable, Low-cost, Mass-produced, Young, Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous and Big business.” This artistic movement quickly became a cultural phenomenon, mixing science-fiction, technology, advertisement, design, and daily objects. Bold, bright colors and new techniques like serigraphy, collage, and acrylic paint, taken from the industrial world, were used and broke the codes of art at the time. American pop art iconography is constituted by television, cinema, celebrities, comic books and all forms of advertising and branding (logos or impersonal imagery); these mainstream references contributed to making pop art a well-identified art movement, even for untrained viewers.

8While pop art mostly developed as an American and British art movement, some artists from non-Western countries have taken part in it while separating themselves from it. One of the most famous is probably the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, whose art is conceived as a critique of consumerism and Western influence on Japanese culture.10 In the Middle East, the pop art movement had a slow start. The first pop artist in the region was Iranian, Parviz Tanavoli11, and his exhibition in Tehran in 1965, where he showcased, among other works, a piece representing a toilet ewer in the middle of a Persian rug12, led to the closure of the Borghese gallery a few days later. The pop art movement in the MENA region found a new breath in the early 2000s with a few artists like Hassan Hajjaj (Morocco), often nicknamed the “Andy Warhol of Marrakech” in the media13, and Rana Salam (Lebanon) whose works intended to add an “Arab touch to a global, often Western, pop-culture image14. Both artists used the pop art codes and visuals to question the concept of the Arab identity in postcolonial societies and globalized economies.

  • 15 Demerdash, 2012 ; Schwartz 2013; LeVine, 2015.

9Almost a decade later, the rise of social media influence opened a digital scene for artists and amateurs to explore pop art techniques (collage, for example) and themes (consumerism, commodification). If it is the case globally, in the MENA region, the popular uprisings in several countries also contributed to a renewed desire to use art to express opinions and show support to causes and persons15.

10It is in this context that the page was created and greatly contributed to showcasing existing pop art works made by regional artists and graphic designers. Hajjaj started Arabic Pop Art on Instagram in 2014, while he was living in Saudi Arabia. He described this period as rich for pop culture in the Middle East: “At that time, in Saudi, there was new content produced by young influencers on YouTube and Instagram. It was linked to our identities, Arab situations.” Working two or three jobs at the same time and doing graphic designing as a side job, Hajjaj thought that Pop Art was part of that emerging popular culture in the Middle East and wanted to participate. The page activity fluctuates depending on his availability and motivation:

“I was posting on the page on and off. I stopped for 2 years, then started again, and stopped again for a year. In 2016 /2017, pop art creations slowed down; there was no more works to share. I had 17 000 followers. So, I decided then to extend a little bit the content: move away from Saudi pop culture only and looked for more Arab content: Sudanese, Syrian or North African for example. That when the page started trending in 2019 as it reached a wider audience”.

  • 16 The photograph is a Bedouin youth (Druze) at El Azrak (Jordan), 20th century. Source: Library of Co (...)

11On the page, we can find artworks that can be defined as “pop art,” both in the themes and graphic features: from the bright colors to the use of popular icons and consumerist references. Two distinctive ways of “Arabizing” pop art are used by the artists. The first one consists of using “western” or global references and placing them into an “Arabic” context (environments, clothing, and accessories), like in figure 5 (Mona Lisa) or figure 7 (Nike sneakers with a burnous, a traditional woolen coat). These references can be well-known people or characters, such as in figure 4, where the face of Johnny Depp is integrated into a vintage photo of a Bedouin fighter16 and his name is “Arabized” as ‘Bin Debb’ to accentuate the already convincing Arabization of the American actor. The second way is done by using Arab references and applying the pop art code and spirit to it, as demonstrated in figure 6, which is a collage of a kiss between Batman and Wonder Woman added to a photograph taken by Jana Khoury during the Lebanese protests of 2019, where two demonstrators kissed in front of the Egg in Beirut. The use of famous comic characters contributes to “icon-ify” the scene, while anonymizing the kissers.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

“Bin Depp” (Johnny Depp).

@qip (UAE)

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Mona Lisa wearing a sheyla, a golden burqa, gold jewelry and a smartphone.

@fidaart (KSA)

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

A collage of an image of a kiss between Batman & Wonderwoman (comics version) on a picture of demonstrations in Lebanon. (NA)

Fig. 4

Fig. 4

Vintage photo of two Arab/Bedouin men with Nike sneakers and a colorful suit set.

@loghat90 (KSA)

12Western characters or celebrities, as well as brands, are a common theme in’s publications and it is in line with pop art codes (consumerism, idolization, commodification) while playing with Arabic visual codes (clothing mostly). These types of artworks usually gather a lot of likes and comments on the Instagram page as well as media attention17, showing that people enjoy this unexpected twist and the re-appropriation of familiar – but Western – icons and figures.

  • 18 « Warhol from Marrakech: A Market and Social Study of Arab Pop Art », Global Art Daily, 2015, p. 11
  • 19 The most successful ones often propose a merchandised version of their work through the Behance pla (...)

13In her article, Sophie Arni18 discusses the evolution of Pop Art in the Arab world in the 2000s and its evolution in the context of globalization and a world of mass production and consumption. Is Arab Pop Art made to suit Western audiences and curators or is it a sign of the development of Arab commercial imagery and identity? While acknowledging this debate, the present paper does not aim at discussing the existence of a movement in the Middle East or the ways creators might use this “pop art” as a creative support or as a marketing strategy. Rather, I explore how the label and the visual codes of pop art are used by artists, audiences, and the page’s owner to circulate specific ideas and messages and allow themselves to reinterpret and represent local and regional youth identity(ies). The administrator of the page does not limit his selection to strictly “pop art” pieces nor Arab artists only (even though it is the vast majority); the page quickly expanded to include all forms of digital art and collage. Among the authors republished on the page, some of them work as professional artists (like Mohammad Sharaf, Rex Chouk, Nasser Al Kubaisi, Ahmed Almahri) and are exposing their work outside of the digital world (art galleries or street art), but most of the artworks’ authors are presenting themselves as graphic designers and are only active on the digital scene19 (like lines 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, and 10 in table 1). Indeed, most of the artworks published on the Instagram page (and probably more broadly on social media) are mediums of ideas and messages more than artistic statements. For example, very few artworks are signed and most of the time, only the tag (@) allows (at least temporarily) the audience to know who the creator is.

  • 20 He discussed the frequent remarks he received regarding the monetization of the page, as people wer (...)

14While Abdelqader Hajjaj contributes to shaping who and what is getting famous or trending in the versatile digital art scene, he does not change his process of selection and keeps following his own taste and values. In a time where many are looking to become influencers on social media and seek to gain such an audience, Hajjaj appears as an influencer malgré lui.20 Thus, this page, given its scope, number of followers, success, and eclectic selection, represents a wonderful opportunity to discuss the place and the role of the Gulf – through the artists and the audience of the page – in the Middle East and North Africa digital art scene.

Digital Creators and Audience: Looking at the Gulf Presence in the Digital Art Scene

15Ten years after its launch, Instagram counts 1.3 billion monthly active users around the world, generating 4.2 billion likes per day21, 88% of which are from outside the United States.22 The Middle East, where 30% of the population is aged between 15 and 29 years, is one of the regions where social media platforms are largely used: there are 187 million active monthly users of Facebook and more than 63 million users of Instagram. The MENA region is equivalent to 10% of total global users of Instagram, while the region represents just over 3% of the global population.23 In the KSA, people spend an average of 3 hours and 24 minutes per day on social media, and Instagram is the second most used social media platform after WhatsApp, with 78% of internet users aged 16 to 64 years using the platform each month.24 The success of social media platforms in the Gulf is undeniable, and the importance and impact of social and cultural activities taking place on these platforms, even if strictly digital, should not be underestimated.

16With 399,000 followers in April 2022, is an important page in digital art in the MENA region and is a window for many local artists and graphic designers to display their work. Even though its administrator remains unnamed (his name does not appear in the bio section) and discreet on the page (short descriptive captions and rarely engaging in the comments), the page is run by only one person, Abdelqader Hajjaj, a Syrian citizen, who lived in Saudi Arabia and currently resides in Norway. If this page started as a personal hobby and project to keep him busy, it found its audience and purpose rather quickly.

17With the page’s inclusion of works beyond Saudi Arabia and its growing popularity, the audience expanded in terms of number and nationality/country of residence. According to Hajjaj, 70% of his followers were based in KSA at the beginning, while in February 2021, based on Instagram statistics25, there were 11.7% of followers located in KSA, 11.6% in Egypt, 9% in Iraq, 6.1% in Jordan and 6% in the USA.26 The page gained in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, probably due to the increased use of social media platforms during the lockdowns and remote working/studying periods. In one year, the page doubled its number of followers, reaching 301,000 in April 2021. The audience of the page is largely composed of young adults: 42.8% of the followers are between 18 and 24, while 41.8% are between 25 to 34 years old. This is consistent with both the demographics of Arab countries and the user population of Instagram.27 Finally, women constitute 60% of the account’s followers (40% are men), which is consistent with the demographics of Instagram users, but must be read in contrast with the opposite ratio among the artists. Indeed, among the 635 digital artworks posted during a year (March 2019 to March 2020), 352 artworks were authored by men, 220 by women and 63 by a person with unidentified gender (identity concealed on social media).

  • 28 Based on my own data collection.

18If we look at the nationalities of the authors28, two countries are highly represented: the KSA, with 148 artworks created by Saudis, and Syria, with 63 posts out of 635. This predominance can be partially explained by the biography of the page administrator. However, the prevalence of Saudis cannot be solely attributed to Abdelqader Hajjaj’s choices. As I will show below, it is also the reflection of the high production of digital art in Saudi Arabia. While all Arab nationalities are present among the artists, some countries are more “represented” than others. Egyptian, Palestinian, Moroccan, and Algerian artists are well displayed with 30 to 40 posts for each nationality, followed by Qataris (26), Libyan and Jordanian (17 each) and Sudanese and Iraqi artists (15 each). Emirati and Kuwaiti artists count 12 posts each. While the name of the page seems to exclude ‘non-Arabs,’ the reality is different. I counted 11 posts from Iranian artists, 5 from Indonesia (from one artist only) and 4 posts by Kurdish and Turkish artists. Outside of the Asian region, I counted two dozen posts from artists from Europe and North America (whether belonging to the Arab diaspora or not).

19Thus, when agglomerated, around 208 digital art pieces out of 635 were created by a person identified as from the Arabian Peninsula, among whom 35% are women and 64% are men, making it the most popular region of production of the digital artworks posted on the page during the year of observation.

20If Saudi artists are leading the pack on the Arabic Pop Art page (23% of the total, with 148 posts out of 635) and among the region, it seems to accurately reflect the reality of Instagram’s influence in the Gulf. One way of assessing the influence is through the number of followers on the artist’s public account. Based on my data collection, below is a table of the top 10 Gulf digital artists posted on the Arabic Pop Art page during the year of observation, ranked by their number of followers (December 2021).

Table 1: Top 10 Instagram accounts with the highest number of followers, among the Gulf artists reposted in the page during the year of online observation.

Instagram account

Followers (December 2021)


Country of origin

City of residence



(Moghadam 2012)








Abdulaziz Alsefri







Hanadi Alqurashi














Mohammad Sharaf


Kuwait City





Shahad Nazer







Nasser Al-Kubaisi







Mohannad Al Hosemi







Ahmed Almahri











  • 29 Saudi Arabia, with its recent massive investments in the art and culture sector, will probably chal (...)

21Seven out of ten of the most influential digital artists are from Saudi Arabia, and three among them have more than 50,000 followers. Though imperfect (due to the inevitable presence of bots and fake followers), it gives an interesting indication of the influential persons in the digital art scene of the region. Saudi artists are highly represented on the page, and it seems to reflect their actual influence on the social platform. This may come as a surprise for those familiar with the visual and non-digital regional art scene, where the UAE has played the central role so far.29

  • 30 They often display their origin on their Instagram page (with flag emoticons in the bio, for exampl (...)
  • 31 Moghadam, 2012.
  • 32 As of 30 January, 2021.

22Even though the UAE is not a large contributor to the page if we take into account only the Emirati citizens (12 posts), the number increases significantly when we take into consideration artists who reside in the UAE. Based on the information appearing on their Instagram profile30, I estimated that 29 posts were made by Arab expatriates living currently in the UAE. Indeed, due to an attractive local job market and a history of migration between Arab countries and the Gulf, many Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, and Sudanese artists or graphic designers are based in Dubai, Sharjah, or Abu Dhabi. As shown by Moghadam31, first and second generations of migrants contributed greatly to the emergence and development of the visual art scene in Dubai. This is the case of two millennial Levantine artists frequently re-posted on the page, Nour Flayhan and Stephany Sanossian. The first one, @nouriflayhan, is a 30-year-old Lebanese artist raised in Kuwait and currently resides in the UAE. She has 89,500 followers on her Instagram account32, which would place her second in the top 10 contributors to who are living in the Arabian Peninsula. The second, Stephany Sanossian, @stephanysanossian, with 15,000 followers, is a Syrian/Armenian artist and graphic designer born and raised in Aleppo, who recently moved to Dubai after studying in Spain. Interestingly, while Dubai is rarely visible in her artworks, it is indicated in her bio and is omnipresent in her Instagram stories and greatly contributes to emphasizing her Dubaian presence to her audience.

23Thus, if we add up citizens and residents living in all the Arabian Peninsula countries, the number of posts rises to 240 out of 635, representing 38% of the total number of posts in during the year of observation. Looking at these numbers, the Gulf appears to be in a central and influential position in the digital art scene of the Middle East and North Africa region.

Pop Art and Beyond: Aesthetics, Culture and Politics on display

24On Arabic Pop Art, the themes of the selected artworks are quite broad and reflect different purposes of digital art. Some pieces mainly aim at humoring and entertaining the viewer, often playing on cultural references related to Western and Arab cultures (see figures 1, 17 or 25). Other artworks aspire to create an aesthetic emotion for the viewers by using pleasing visuals, poetry, or poetical references (see for example figures 1, 23 or 26) and Arabic references can be found in the aesthetic choice or the use of Arabic language. Aside from the artworks that seem to follow these two purposes, most of the works published on address specific issues and we can find recurring themes: traditions and cultural heritage, popular movements and resistance, authoritarianism and corruption, lack of freedom of expression, gender inequality and feminism, as well as youth culture and pop culture.

  • 33 Demerdash, 2012, p. 13.

25This recurrency is partly due to the selection process of the page’s administrator, who selects artworks that he likes and that represent certain values and causes that matter to him and to the region. “I try to represent solid causes like the Arab Spring and Lebanese, Sudanese or Iraqi uprisings, the Palestinian cause, and feminism.” Hence, the number of art pieces addressing Arab politics is very high and contributes to highlighting the role played by the visual arts in representing and making visible these issues and concerns. Demerdash interestingly raised the question of the risk of the commodification of the Arab Spring and revolutionist movements as it can become a “buzz-worthy currency” in the world of the art market. But, as she emphasizes their ambivalent position, artists remain the “agents of ethical responsibility and socio-political change33and this statement can be extended to pages like that actively contribute to highlighting engaged artworks. Indeed, the online diffusion of images actively participates in the creation of a new and transnational iconography of the uprisings and revolts in the region.

  • 34 Hurley, 2021.
  • 35 Tazi et Oumlil, 2020.
  • 36 Doaiji, 2017.

26Similarly, some artworks addressing gender inequalities or women’s empowerment are also visible on the page and create discussion and bring visibility to this subject. This is in line with the growing active use of social media platforms by women in the MENA region34, including activists35 advocating for more rights and freedom, as we have seen with the online campaign “I Am My Own Guardian” in Saudi Arabia36. The administrator explained during the interview that he frequently shares artworks talking about gender issues as he supports the cause. He also notes humorously that his audience is 60% composed of women and these posts happen to be quite profitable in terms of likes and engagement.

27Even though social and political issues can be addressed on the page and seem to receive positive support from the audience, it seems that there are limits to this online freedom of speech. When I questioned Hajjaj about possible problems with followers, he explained that he must regularly block many accounts from Saudi Arabia because of nationalist or aggressive comments under certain artworks (touching on religious or political matters). Blocking accounts and injurious comments is quite common for popular Instagram accounts, as they attract the so-called “haters” and “trolls,” in social media lingo. Even though he maintains a relative degree of freedom in his editorial line, the criticism allowed on social media is limited by the possible implications “offline.”. Hence, he removed an artwork a year after posting it. Published on International Women’s Day (08/03/2019) and created by Kuwaiti artist Mohammad Sharaf in 2014, this artwork showed the then-imprisoned prominent Saudi women’s rights activist, Loujain Al-Hathloul [= al-Hadhlūl], fiercely looking beyond – or facing - a crowd of Saudi men and women looking at her.

Fig. 5

Fig. 5

@mohammadrsharaf (Kuwait).

  • 37 Demerdash, 2017, p. 29,31.
  • 38 Ibid., p. 35.

28As he thought that this post became “risky with the growing popularity of the page in the region” in 2020, Hajjaj decided to delete it a year later as people were engaging negatively with it. He clarified, “Even though I like to see myself as a rebel from the generation of the Arab Spring, this is my life, and people close to me might be in trouble or danger. So, I decided to be careful. Some causes are harder to talk about than others.” This example shows that, if women’s empowerment and critics of corruption or authoritarian regimes are noticeable themes on the page, the artists and administrator must carefully navigate the digital world, as real-life consequences can occur, especially when addressing specific cases involving individuals rather than causes and broad issues. As shown by Demerdash, “artists of the GCC countries inhabit, adapt, and work in extraordinary conditions, constantly scrutinized and observed by the state,” while “each GCC state presents differing levels of political tolerance for different types of cultural creativity37. Artists from the GCC countries are very much aware of this scrutiny and the thematic limits because, even though there is “room for dialogue” in the contemporary art scene, “the threshold of censorship rests at the moment when dialogue could potentially morph into dissent, mobilizing social movements38. In that perspective, the Web, by providing relative anonymity and removing possible censoring intermediates (organizers, curators, sponsors, patrons), offers a broader space for political discussion, but it does not mean that creators are not exercising self-censorship, especially as their audience is broader online.

29Finally, Instagram itself is also exercising a form of censorship by filtering and removing content, shadow-banning, or closing accounts that are considered to be infringing upon the “community’s guidelines.” In the Middle East, the censorship placed on Palestinian and pro-Palestinian activists’ Facebook and Instagram accounts, or content was pointed out in 202139 and brought attention to this new form of censorship in the region. On November 10, 2021, Hajjaj informed his followers that an artwork about Abdulbaset Al-Sarout [= al-Sārūt] (a symbol of the Syrian revolt against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime) had been deleted several times by the platform.40 In consequence, he invited his followers to follow the back-up page (alternative page created in advance in case of technical/hacking issues) and another platform (Pinterest) with a higher freedom of expression, according to him. Thus, social media is a flexible medium where individuals can play with censorship by putting different platforms in competition.

30Hence, the administrator, like all digital content creators in the region, must navigate their way considering various actors (individuals, groups, states, or companies) censoring or leading them to censor themselves to avoid the offline - real life - consequences of online activities as both “worlds” are not sealed from one another.

Performing Arabness and Khaleejiness in Artworks: Looking at Evolving and Expanding Identities

31Given the scope of the page, constitutes a remarkable corpus of artworks to raise the question of “what makes” the Arab identity. Studying the objects, people, and ornamentation exhibited in published artworks allow us to observe how “Arabness” (ʿurūba) is performed and experienced by the younger generation living in the Arab world or in the diaspora. Thus, this corpus makes shared symbols, cultural and consumerist references, and celebrities and icons appear.

  • 41 Mardam-Bey Farouk et al., 2005.
  • 42 Translated from French: “Il faut entendre dans ce verbe « être » une présence au monde, l’expérienc (...)
  • 43 i.e: Gana, 2009, p. 21‑44 ; Fouad Selim, 2014.

32Arab identity, which constitutes the collectivity’s sense of being Arab, refers to a social construct where individuals (here, Arabs) are a people who share, and feel they belong to, a common and distinctive culture and a collective history. Thus, Arabness is based on ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and to some extent, emotional bonds linking together a rather heterogeneous population. Thus, the notion of Arabness is not an essentialist notion; rather it allows us to interrogate the various features that make people “feel Arab” and have a sense of belonging to a nation without borders. As stated by Kantcheff41, “being Arab” is a “presence to the world, a quotidian experience, individual and collective, of numerous distinctive and common features constituting what we call Arabness42. Arabness manifests itself through shared language, heritage, representations, and images, as well as collective sociocultural norms and values. However, these features must not be seen as immutable; the elements that create and nurture a collective identity are perpetually renewed and challenged by new perspectives and changes. The new political alliances or divisions, the modernization of customs and the upgrading of sociocultural norms all contributed to reshaping identity at individual and collective levels and might shatter cultural unity. Finally, identity, be it national or not, is also constructed in opposition to other perceived identities; those identities can be seen as dominant/dominated or in competition for influence. Arabness in academia is rarely discussed, but it is mostly mobilized by authors studying the Arab diaspora in Western countries, who discuss how “Westerness” and “Arabness” are conflicting identities, as the latter has been largely stigmatized in the past decades43.

33However, social media is an interesting platform to witness the formation and diffusion of new cultural identity traits that seems to unify Arab youth across borders, including the ones living in non-Arab countries. Thus, memes and short videos are the vehicles of discourse pinpointing, often humoristically, cultural references, habits, and ways of being that together constitute a (new?) collective Arab identity. On Instagram and TikTok, the Middle Eastern/Arab family is often a subject of laughs (depicting the screaming, but loving, mother; the use of the shibshib (flip-flops) as an “educational” threat; the pressure to marry; the generosity with food) and dialect and cultural differences between all the Arab countries are also tackled in sketches on Youtube and other video platforms. Far from anecdotal, the Internet culture is contributing to creating a refreshed collective identity, where Arabness is co-created internally as well as in contrast to other cultures.

Recalling and Reviving Arabness: From Architecture to Musical Icons

34Artworks shared on the Instagram page Arabic Pop Art are offering us an opportunity to look at the cultural elements composing this Arabness for the Arab youth in the year 2020. Based on the analysis of 635 posts, I identified four sets of symbols and visual references that appear repetitively in the artworks and work as unifying visual features. These features (architecture, calligraphy, food culture, Arab Golden Age) seem to constitute strong markers of Arabness and by their presence, contribute to enacting a supposedly shared Arab identity or community.

35The first set is the architecture – either landmarks or architectural patterns. Historical sites like the Egyptian and Nubian pyramids (Egypt and Sudan), the Dome of the Rock (Palestine), Mecca and the Kaʿba (KSA), and Tadmor/Palmyra (Syria), while national symbols, are also regional ones. In the artworks, they are references to the region’s greatness and power as well as unifying symbols, known to all, and reminders of religious/political unity.

Fig. 6

Fig. 6

Palmyra and Dali painting.

@stephsanossian (Syria/UAE)

Fig. 7

Fig. 7

Dome of the Rock.

@vatyma (Palestine/Qatar)

36In figure 9, the Syrian Armenian artist is placing the Palmyra site in the background of Salvador Dali’s painting (The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1946), playing with classical references of Western art history and highlighting the patrimonial status of Middle Eastern historical sites. Figure 10 shows the work of Vatyma, a digital artist living in Qatar (probably of Palestinian origin), which is based on a 1930s black and white photograph of two women making Palestinian point lace, seated on a balcony with a view of the Dome of the Rock.44 She replaced the original view with a shining sea and the Dome of the Rock is carried in the sky by thousands of butterflies, emphasizing the place of Palestine in the hearts of its diaspora - and maybe beyond in Arab and Islamic countries.

37Easily recognizable landmarks are not the only architectural elements that can be found in some artworks. Arab urban landscapes, such as the old cities, their souks and their maze-like streets contribute to, almost instantly, situate the scene in an Arab country for any viewer. Stephany Sanossian, presented earlier, used that artistic process with the old city of Damascus and it became her trademark.

Fig. 8

Fig. 8

The Godfather characters walking in Damascus old city.

@stephsanossian (Syria/UAE).

38Finally, geometrical patterns, widely used as decorative and figurative elements in Arab/Islamic architecture and interior design, are another way to visually represent Arabness in an artwork. The power of such a visual element relies on the fact that Islamic geometrical patterns are known and used in the whole region (even though unequally) and are well identified by “outsiders” as Arab, or Islamic, features. Thus, using this element is an easy way to orientalize, or “Arabicize” an artwork or (re)claim that identity.

Fig. 9

Fig. 9

@kolshi_ (Tunisia)

Fig. 10

Fig. 10

@mayarts (Kuwait)

39Unsurprisingly, Islamic art is a great source of inspiration for graphic designers and artists from the region. Arabic calligraphy constitutes the second set of visual elements actively contributing to create and reinforce the sense of Arabness. A large variety of calligraphy styles are used by the authors (from Naskh to Kufic), but often with a modern/digital take on the traditional scripts and are associated with popular culture elements and techniques. Beyond the calligraphy, scripted Arabic is widely present inside the artworks, as a full sentence (figure 17, for example) or a few words (figures 15 and 16). Modern standard Arabic is mostly employed, but we can also find dialects, which are both a manifestation of the connection between digital art and popular culture as well as a way to express localism and sub-regional specificities.

Fig. 11

Fig. 11

"Sakkir ya wardeh" in reference to a childhood game.

@iby.93 (KSA)

Fig. 12

Fig. 12


@mohbinsalman (KSA)

Fig. 13

Fig. 13

@shahad.naser (KSA)

Fig. 14

Fig. 14

Collage with American singer Lana Del Rey and sentence in Arabic.

@mollyart68 (KSA)

40The third set of references is related to the Arabic food culture. Specific products and kitchen tools, deeply embedded in Arabic culture, became symbolic of Arabness. Arabic coffee and cups (finjan qahwa), dates, pomegranates, and tea glasses are shared symbols across the Middle East and North Africa, despite the large range of different cuisines in the region. If the containers and spicing of this cardamom-flavored coffee vary by sub-regions (the dalla, used in the Arabian Peninsula, vs. the Ottoman coffee pot, mostly used in the Levantine region), it is still a shared item, the qahwa, referring to a common cultural tradition and value where serving coffee is an act of hospitality for a guest. Thus, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Qatar inscribed Arabic coffee in 2015 on the list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO.45

Fig. 15

Fig. 15

Arabic coffee pot and cups (finjan).

@ramaduwaji (Syria/UAE)

Fig. 16

Fig. 16

Cups of arabic coffee and dates.


41The holy month of Ramadan, encompassing several food-related habits and traditions, is an opportune moment for digital artists to stage specific food products, brands, childhood memories or practices. An interesting example is the work of Nasser (@in49r), published during Ramadan 2019. It represents famous comic superheroes proudly carrying drinks (water gallons, pitchers of various juices), and it is captioned ‘qabl al Adhan (before the call for prayer)’. These artworks mix classic American (now worldwide) characters with Arab/Muslim customs. Thus, the meaning of the artworks is not only aimed at a Muslim audience but is also understood by people who experienced Ramadan in a Muslim country or among a Muslim family.

Fig. 17

Fig. 17

Batman carrying a gallon of water and Superman carrying a pitcher of syrup juice.

@in49r (KSA).

42Finally, the fourth set of references I identified is what we can call the Arab “Cultural Golden Age.” The Egyptian cinema and music scene in the 1960s and 1970s were very influential in the region and the aesthetics of that period are frequently seen in the artworks posted on the Arabic Pop Art Instagram page. Images of Egyptian and Levantine music and cinema stars like Souad Hosni, Warda, Sabah, Faten Hamada, Omar Sharif, or Abdel Halim Hafez are used in collage, short videos, and digital drawings. While most of the artists and followers of the page are less than 30 years old, these personalities are recalling childhood memories and a common cultural background across the region. Thus, if these artists or productions are from Egypt, Algeria, or Lebanon, they are seen as, above all else, constitutive of the Arab cultural heritage.

Fig. 18

Fig. 18

Abdel Halim Hafez and Zoubayda Tharwat, image taken from the poster of the film "Yom min Omri" (1961).

@the_post_modern_apollo (Syria)

Fig. 19

Fig. 19

Imad Hamdy and Faten Hamama in the Egyptian film "Among the ruins" (1959).

@hope_meela (KSA)

Fig. 20

Fig. 20

La chanteuse et actrice Asmahan.

@razangryffindor (Libya)

  • 46 Stone, 2010, p. 143.
  • 47 Umm Kulthum performed in Abu Dhabi on November 28 and 30, 1971 at the invitation of Sheikh Zayed to (...)

43Two artists, both women, are widely represented among the artworks on the page, which is in line with the way Pop Art can contribute to the popification of cultural figures. Fairuz and Umm Kulthum, respectively Lebanese and Egyptian singers, appear in 23 out of 365 artworks posted during a year. As we can expect, not only Egyptian or Lebanese artists are using Fairuz and Umm Kulthum in their art. As stated by Christopher Stone in his chapter Fairouz and/as the Nation, “Oum Kalthoum’s songs and performances, like Fairouz’s, resonated both within her own country and across the Arab World46, which was the case at the peak of their careers47 as much as now. Both at the crossroads of high culture and popular culture, they embodied many of the ideals of nationhood, and, to some extent, motherhood. ‘Mothers to all Arabs’ and cultural symbols of Pan-Arabism, Fairuz and Umm Kulthum operate as unifying references among a transgenerational audience, where the younger ones grow up listening to their songs with their parents or grandparents. With the popification of the two unmistakable divas - Umm Kulthum, with her famous figure, hairstyle and sunglasses combo, and Fairuz with her timeless and still face - digital artists from all over the region (see figures below) are drawing from undisputed shared cultural symbols to appeal to all Arab youth, wherever they reside.

Fig. 21

Fig. 21

Fairuz wearing a face mask on a fake music album entitled "Corona. “Kul saneh marra" en référence à la pandémie.

@i_nima_i (Yemen)

Fig. 22

Fig. 22

Umm Kulthum with the word ‘Fan’ (Art) in calligraphy.

@iby.93 (KSA)

Fig. 23

Fig. 23

"Ba3dek 3ala bali", in reference of a song of Fairuz in calligraphy.

@thereemmb (KSA)

Fig. 24

Fig. 24

Umm Khultum as a playing card character.

@william_arts (Palestine)

44All these elements contribute to the establishment and strengthening of a cultural intimacy and affinity through common markers and codes. By observing these artworks, one can notice that the digital is not only a medium of expression but also a specific arena with its own references and codes. This is a generational arena that is mastered by the younger generation that will instantly recognize the cultural references being made (such as Western artists, recent TV shows, or a global meme) and be able to navigate between these different cultural spaces (the globalized/western-centered one versus the localized ones at the Gulf or the MENA scales).

45The artwork below (an Arabic Game of Thrones poster) is an interesting example of the unique space of references in which many Arab youth navigate. The humor of this fake TV show poster can only be fully understood by people who are “fluent” with both cultural references. On one side, the images represent three characters of a TV show, which is an American production but worldwide phenomenon, “Game of Thrones” (Cersei and Jamie Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen). On the other side, the poster is clearly aiming at an Arab audience: the title of the show (red font) is translated in modern Arabic and the dialogue (yellow font) is in the Khaleeji Arabic dialect. The latter, using informal language, is a humoristic reference to the storyline of the TV show. Interestingly, characters have been subtly “Arabized” thanks to the addition of a black beard for the male character, and red lipstick and large, black eyebrows for the females. It seems to echo the physical appearance of Arab actors in Egyptian TV dramas and represents a small, but meaningful, addition to the original image. We can also notice a Chanel bag hanging on the shoulder of Daenerys, an anachronistic object placed for humoristic purposes; this type of bag is easily recognizable by fashionistas around the world and probably by most young women living in the Gulf region given its success there.

Fig. 25

Fig. 25

Game of thrones.

Nasser (KSA), @in49r

  • 48 In 2021, Abu Dhabi’s Manarat Al Saadiyat Photography Studio hosted an exhibition called “Khaleejine (...)

46Thus, these four sets of references are creating complicity among the audience and contributing to reviving, enhancing, or strengthening the cultural and ethnic ties connecting youth from Morocco to Yemen. However, another identity is recalled in many of those artworks. A regional identity, what we could call Khaleejiness48, takes shape in the artworks of the artists from the Gulf. Compatible, complementary, distinctive or in competition with Arabness, Khaleejiness seems to be claimed by many young individuals, emphasizing the cultural, social, and urban specificities of the Gulf societies and their inhabitants (in contrast to the North African and Levantine societies).

Performing Gulfness: Co-construction of Bedouin-centered National Identity

47This last section will focus on several features that contribute to visibilize a Khaleeji identity in a broader context where the Arab identity is constructed with common cultural and visual references. Through the work of Gulf citizens and residents, we can see that Gulfness is a constitutive part of a broader Arab identity and is less at the margin and overlooked than in previous decades. If this observation is in line with the now prominent role of the Gulf in the region, we can also observe the development of a specific identity proper to the Khaleej. Distinctive traits are being showcased in the artworks and tend to assert the singularity of the Gulfness, both inside and outside of the Arabness.

  • 49 Partrick, 2009 ; Dresch et Piscatori, 2013 ; AlMutawa, 2016b, p. 22‑25.

48The sand desert, camels, and nomadic life are the first recurrent set of references used by artists who are from or living in the Gulf. Countless artworks feature one of these elements, recalling the Bedouin heritage of the region, while skylines, high-rise towers and modern urbanscapes remain surprisingly absent from most works. These elements operate distinctively as visual markers of Gulfness and reinforce a widely spread national discourse, state-led, about the Bedouin roots of these societies and the centrality and hegemony of the Bedouin identity in the Gulf. Many scholars have shown how most Gulf States are homogenizing local narratives around Bedouin and tribal identity and heritage through official discourses, but also schoolbooks, media, heritage festivals and museums49. Thus, the desert functions as a patrimonial landscape, where citizens of the Gulf can fantasize about a bygone past and an organic connection to the land (and hence, legitimacy to be at the top of the social hierarchy). In that perspective, the skylines and the famous landmarks of the Gulf cities, vastly absent from the artworks of Gulf artists, are a more inclusive landscape that could allow a broader definition of “Gulfness” to emerge. At a broader regional level, the desert references (camels, tents, and costumes) can be read as a way to tie the Gulf to the rest of the MENA, affirming the past and existing common religious and cultural features. Thus, the desertic landscape and nomadic culture can be a narrative arc for the “Arab” identity from the West to the East of this vast region.

Fig. 26

Fig. 26

“How many lovers have faded in the mirage of dreams".

@iby.93 (KSA)

Fig. 27

Fig. 27

@mualbadi (Oman)

  • 50 A State like Oman even officially standardizing the size and style of the “Omani dishdasha” in orde (...)

49As we can see in Figure 32, the representation of the desert is also combined with the presence of individuals wearing clothing associated with the Arabian Peninsula. The traditional clothing from the Gulf is an essential component of the modern identity of the nationals of these countries. While the general look is common to the Gulf (khaleeji clothing), each nation showcases specificities in their clothing in terms of shape, length, color or way of wearing.50 Thus, the abaya, shemagh, ghutra, dishdasha, kandura and burqa’ are frequently used by Gulf artists in their artworks and khaleeji clothing, in its diverse forms, is the most recurring feature of Gulfness (see, for example, figures 30 and 32). Women characters are often wearing a burqa, usually added to an original picture through collage or digital drawing. @ahmadart86 is a Saudi artist who frequently uses pictures of women with a burqa or adds a burqa’ to a woman’s face (including Marilyn Monroe) in his artworks, as seen in figure 31. This process is also applied to male characters, as we can see in figure 33, where the famous naked ‘David’ statue of Michelangelo is wearing a Kuwaiti dishdāsha and a white shemāgh while holding a misbaḥa in the left hand. The national differences in male traditional apparel might not be noticeable to outsiders, but the citizens of the Gulf are aware of the different dishdasha styles and the multiple ways to tie the shemagh. Thus, in figure 33, while the khaleejiness is performed to a wider audience (the rest of the MENA), it is also a display of “Kuwaitiness” to an insider audience.

Fig. 28

Fig. 28

@ahmadart86 (KSA)

Fig. 29

Fig. 29

@f.a.t55 (KSA)

Fig. 30

Fig. 30

@ahmadalghanimkuwait (Kuwait)

50Indeed, dressing up celebrities and famous fictional characters with traditional clothing is also commonly seen on the page, among different Khaleeji artists (from Qatar, UAE, Kuwait and KSA as seen in the examples below. Using mainstream celebrities and references is in line with pop art philosophy and is an attention-getter for the artists. By “Gulf-izing” famous people or characters, the Khaleeji artists are engaging in a humoristic process of questioning how clothes are more than a piece of tissue.

Fig. 31

Fig. 31

The famous painting 'American Gothic' by the painter Grant Wood, with traditional dress from the region and bedouin tent in the background (instead of a Gothic house).

@imnba (Qatar)

Fig. 32

Fig. 32

DJ Khaled with Emirati traditional dress and his name written in Arabic.

@qip (UAE)

Fig. 33

Fig. 33

Beyoncé and Jay-Z at the Louvre with traditional clothes for the video clip of the song “Apeshit” released in 2018.

@kukijijo (Kuwait)

Fig. 34

Fig. 34

“Son of Man”, a paint by Magritte, with traditional Gulf clothing.

@mohannad9899 (KSA)

  • 51 2020, p. 1776‑1794.
  • 52 Ibid., p. 1789.
  • 53 Khalaf, 2005, p. 246.
  • 54 The styles of ghutra and kandura vary between countries. Connoisseurs will recognize the Bahraini s (...)

51Indeed, specific to Gulf societies, this clothing is a major identity marker for most citizens of the Gulf. Since the end of the 1970s, wearing the “national dress” has been highly encouraged and is sometimes required in professional and social contexts for the local population living in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain. As examined by Idil Akinci51, the national dress functions as both a concealer of internal diversity (among UAE citizens) and a reminder to foreigners who Emirati nationals are. Distinctive, the “Gulf clothing” allows men and women of all ages to “emphasize their “Emiratiness” and mark their citizenship status to both migrants and citizens who may mistake them for another nationality.52. Thus, in countries where the ratio between foreigners and nationals is high, the traditional dress immediately advertises the latter “as a privileged and powerful national minority53. Even if there are distinctions between Gulf countries (especially for men’s clothing54), the ʿabāya, shayla, dishdāsha and shemāgh allow Gulf citizens to distinguish themselves from “other Arabs” (Levantine or North Africans), or to some extent, from South Asians or Africans with whom they could be confused – which they want to avoid in order to benefit from the privileges attached to citizenship in the public sphere. If some items like the burqa are not worn by the younger generations, it remains a strong cultural symbol of the Gulf and an effective mark of distinction between the Gulf and the rest of the Arab world, where it is not part of the fashion heritage. Thus, as seen in the examples above, the burqa, in its diverse shapes and styles, is often used or “popified” in the artworks of Khaleeji graphic designers and artists.

52Placing Khaleeji attributes on foreign celebrities or characters might seem contradictory or even politically subversive. But it is not, as it is applied only to Western celebrities, whose national and cultural identities are well known to all. Thus, it does not challenge the way Gulf societies are defining their citizenship boundaries. It can even be read as a way to enhance the symbolic power of the traditional clothes, a manifestation of the growing influence of the Gulf States worldwide. This is comparable to when an international celebrity is praised for wearing traditional clothing during their stay in the Gulf (examples of Snoop Dogg, Jackie Chan, and Gigi Hadid in the UAE). Furthermore, for a local artist, dressing up a Western figure as a “Khaleeji” can be a way to challenge Western cultural dominance in the artistic scene and art history. Figure 36 is an interesting example: the Kuwaiti artist chose to “gulfize” an album cover of Beyoncé and Jay-Z, posing in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. Clothing is drawn over the picture and the Carters are attributed a bright halo above their heads, thus emphasizing the shift of celebrity from the European de Vinci’s Mona Lisa to the internationally renowned Afro-American music artists, thus emphasizing the shift in terms of cultural references and hegemony.

  • 55 Khalaf, 2011 ; AlMutawa, 2016b.
  • 56 Ibid.
  • 57 Limbert, 2014.

53Scholars demonstrated that the Gulf national dress, taking its roots from the Bedouin culture, is one of the main “invented traditions” in the Gulf States in order to construct an imagined community based on an Arab and Bedouin heritage, exclusive of other heritages55. These national identities were constructed at the expense of the South Asian, Persian, and East African cultures, in spite of them being integral parts of Khaleeji history and culture56. Thus, Mandana E. Limbert, exploring the notion of Arabness in the Arabian Peninsula, demonstrates that “Indian Ocean experiences, histories, and debates present an alternative perspective to the one dominant in Egypt, Iraq, and the Levant57. In the 1980s, the establishment of institutions such as the Gulf Cooperation Council contributed to building more ethicized and racialized definitions of Arabness in the Arabian Peninsula. Unified by language, geography, political forms, and a shared history of relations through British India as well as the history of oil, the states of the GCC engaged actively in the 1980s in shaping national identities around Arab and Islamic features, leading (or aiming at) the exclusion of non-Arab groups in the national discourses.

54The markers of khaleejiness in the studied artworks are mainly referring to the Arab/Bedouin heritage, in line with the official national identity. For example, the artwork below, by a Saudi artist, gathered all the markers: the desert, the camels and Bedouin lifestyle and aesthetics, the clothing and the dalla coffee pot.

Fig. 35

Fig. 35

@ahmadart86 (KSA)

  • 58 On their website, Vimto Arabia pride themselves on this tradition: “Vimto Cordial was first introdu (...)

55Citizens are both receivers and participants in the national discourse about a supposedly authentic and “pure” culture and identity, which implies that khaleejiness comes down to Bedouin and Arab heritage. Markers of Ajami, Baluch, Keralite or East-African heritage are ignored – or brushed off - by the artists. One of the exceptions to this celebration of authenticity is the food, specifically a branded product called Vimto. Vimto is a fruity, sparkling soft drink from the UK that has been present in the Gulf for almost a century, and has become a classic iftar drink in most GCC countries.58 This drink, which is not consumed in the rest of the MENA, is highlighted in several artworks by Khaleeji artists published around the time of Ramadan on the page. Thus, while most Levantine or North African followers are not familiar with this product, it is a unifying reference among local citizens and long-term Muslim expatriates in the Gulf region.

Fig. 36

Fig. 36

Video clip with three colored bottles of Vimto.

@iazezo (KSA)

Fig. 37

Fig. 37

Qatayef, Vimto and samosa.

@narmeenh.illustrations (Palestine/KSA)

56Interestingly, figure 37, a work from a Palestinian illustrator based in Saudi Arabia, displays three products mainly consumed during the Holy Month of Ramadan and each one represents the multicultural influence at play in the Gulf (Levantine/Egypt, Gulf, South Asia). However, these kinds of multicultural references are of limited number in the studied corpus.

57The main attempt to portray more ethnically diverse Middle Eastern societies and to emphasize the common cultural markers with nearby cultures and countries is done by the administrator of the page. Sometimes he shares the work of non-Arab artists (Iranian, Kurd, Pakistani, Turkish, Indonesian, for example) on This represents around 30 posts out of 635 during the year of observation. When I asked about this choice during our interview, Hajjaj explained, “I cannot refrain from posting someone’s work I like just because of the title of my page. I like their work, it is Middle Eastern, and the influences are common.” Thus, the selected artworks do not look “foreign” to the region, as they feature markers common between the Gulf/Middle East and nearby regions like the burqa’ (figure 41), henna (figure 42), or Islamic art. The audience might not even notice that the artists are not “Arab” unless they look at their profiles.

Fig. 38

Fig. 38

Burqa on a bandari woman.

@qazalrostamii (Iran)

Fig. 39

Fig. 39

Henna and masbaha (muslim prayer beads).

@hafandhaf (Pakistan/USA)


58The examination of the Arabic Pop Art Instagram page offers rich insight into the world of digital art in the Middle East, its actors and audience. Fortified by its 399,000 followers, is a very influential account, created in 2015 by Abdelqader Hajjaj, a Syrian expat in Saudi Arabia at the time, and followed by a young audience, mostly living in the MENA region, of whom a large part is based in the Gulf countries. Studying the posts shared for a year on this account (March 2019-March 2020) allowed me to take a close look at both the digital artists and the artwork reposted by the administrator. The strong presence of artists from or living in the Gulf region is patent and meaningful in the context of the growing influence of the Gulf on the Arab cultural scene, as explored in this present volume. Based on the corpus I gathered, I chose to explore the various ways Arabness and Khaleejiness are expressed in the artworks and identified several sets of references that appear to unite, recall, or even revive a collective identity shared across Arab countries. While ethnic or regional identities are fluid and dynamic notions, young artists are using recurring references and themes to enact their Arabness or Khaleejiness. By doing so, they participate in the co-construction of these identities that unite but also exclude by defining boundaries. In the case of Khaleejiness, it is particularly interesting that the artists seem in line with the State-led national discourse of a Bedouin and Arab centered identity and do not propose an alternative image where an ethnically and culturally diverse culture could be (re)claimed by the population. This rather monolithic representation of Khaleejiness is probably emphasized by the scope of the Instagram page and its diverse audience. Further research with a broader corpus, both digital and non-digital art, would probably allow us to observe and analyze the emergence of alternative or multi-dimensional discourses on Khaleejiness carried by national and resident artists.

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1 Demerdash, 2012 ; LeVine, 2015, p. 1277‑1313.

2 Ibid.

3 Slitine, 2017.

4 Ibid., p. 13.

5 Date of the writing of this article. However, the creator and administrator of the account closed the page several times (last closure in March 2023, reopening of the page in December 2023). On Instagram, there are few other accounts with a similar name ( or @arabic_pop_art) are reposting artworks and they gather 10k and 20k followers respectively.

6 See this present journal issue and the conference “Culture Made in Arabia. The Arabian Peninsula as a new major player on the Arab cultural scene” that took place in April 2021 (online) (co-organizers: Laure Assaf, Clio Chaveneau and Frédéric Lagrange).

7 Moghadam Amin, 2012.

8 Demerdash, 2012.

9 Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. "Pop art." Encyclopedia Britannica, 25 Aug. 2021,

10 Source :

11 Rafiee et Mofakham, 2016.

12 His artworks and the art piece in question can be seen in the Guardian article :


14 Ghantous, 2020.

15 Demerdash, 2012 ; Schwartz 2013; LeVine, 2015.

16 The photograph is a Bedouin youth (Druze) at El Azrak (Jordan), 20th century. Source: Library of Congress.

17 Examples of media attention for such “Gulfization” of western celebrities:

18 « Warhol from Marrakech: A Market and Social Study of Arab Pop Art », Global Art Daily, 2015, p. 11.

19 The most successful ones often propose a merchandised version of their work through the Behance platform or personal websites. This is the case of Nasser, who is a “medical student and graphic designer” according to his bio and promotes two of his e-businesses: Sadah things and Nasser’s stickers – two e-shops where he sells pop art oriented and humoristic clothing and deco/house items (cushions, tote bags, keychains, stickers, masks) for an Arab audience.

20 He discussed the frequent remarks he received regarding the monetization of the page, as people were wondering why he does not get any money out of it. If he mentioned the difficulty to create an online shop to sell prints or goodies during the interview, he apparently overcame them. In February 2021, he launched an e-shop to sell prints of the work published on the Instagram page.

21 Source :

22 Source :

23 Source: “Social Media in The Middle East. The Story of 2017”

24 Source:

25 All the demographic data about the followers of the page are coming from the statistics provided by Instagram to the administrator of any Instagram page (of more than 100 followers). It gives access to demographic information about the followers in terms of age range, gender, and localization. Abdelqader Hajjaj kindly agreed to share the data with me during our interview (April 2020) and again in February 2021.

26 Smaller percentages are not displayed on the Instagram insights page.

27 Source:

28 Based on my own data collection.

29 Saudi Arabia, with its recent massive investments in the art and culture sector, will probably challenge the place of the UAE in that field regionally.

30 They often display their origin on their Instagram page (with flag emoticons in the bio, for example) and their location (cities or countries).

31 Moghadam, 2012.

32 As of 30 January, 2021.

33 Demerdash, 2012, p. 13.

34 Hurley, 2021.

35 Tazi et Oumlil, 2020.

36 Doaiji, 2017.

37 Demerdash, 2017, p. 29,31.

38 Ibid., p. 35.

39 See for example the report of the NGO 7amleh :

40 It can happen following the decision of Instagram moderators or result from massive reporting by users.

41 Mardam-Bey Farouk et al., 2005.

42 Translated from French: “Il faut entendre dans ce verbe « être » une présence au monde, l’expérience quotidienne, individuelle et collective, d’un certain nombre de traits communs et distinctifs, constituant ce que l’on nomme l’arabité »

43 i.e: Gana, 2009, p. 21‑44 ; Fouad Selim, 2014.

44 Original photography:


46 Stone, 2010, p. 143.

47 Umm Kulthum performed in Abu Dhabi on November 28 and 30, 1971 at the invitation of Sheikh Zayed to celebrate the fifth anniversary of his accession as Ruler of Abu Dhabi. A concert hall of 4000 seats was built at the occasion of her concert. Source: Umm Kulthūm fī Abū Ẓabī, ed. Muḥammad al-Murr, Abu Dhabi, National Archive, 2018.

48 In 2021, Abu Dhabi’s Manarat Al Saadiyat Photography Studio hosted an exhibition called “Khaleejiness,” prompted by “Encapsulated Volume 1: Photo-Essays on Khaleejiness,” a book by SWALIF Publishing House. Source:

49 Partrick, 2009 ; Dresch et Piscatori, 2013 ; AlMutawa, 2016b, p. 22‑25.

50 A State like Oman even officially standardizing the size and style of the “Omani dishdasha” in order to protect the “Omani identity”:

51 2020, p. 1776‑1794.

52 Ibid., p. 1789.

53 Khalaf, 2005, p. 246.

54 The styles of ghutra and kandura vary between countries. Connoisseurs will recognize the Bahraini shirt collar or the Saudi Arabian two button collar from the Emirati collarless kandura with its long hanging tassel. The Saudi favors the “cobra” for their ghutra, while the “teacher” style is more common in the UAE. To see a visual representation of these differences, see for example:

55 Khalaf, 2011 ; AlMutawa, 2016b.

56 Ibid.

57 Limbert, 2014.

58 On their website, Vimto Arabia pride themselves on this tradition: “Vimto Cordial was first introduced to the Middle East in 1928 by the Aujan family. Vimto has been synonymous with Ramadan for nearly a century and has become a family tradition and legacy rooted in the Khaleeji heritage. ». Source:

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1
Légende “Bin Depp” (Johnny Depp).
Crédits @qip (UAE)
Fichier image/jpeg, 544k
Titre Fig. 2
Légende Mona Lisa wearing a sheyla, a golden burqa, gold jewelry and a smartphone.
Crédits @fidaart (KSA)
Fichier image/jpeg, 378k
Titre Fig. 3
Légende A collage of an image of a kiss between Batman & Wonderwoman (comics version) on a picture of demonstrations in Lebanon.
Crédits (NA)
Fichier image/jpeg, 305k
Titre Fig. 4
Légende Vintage photo of two Arab/Bedouin men with Nike sneakers and a colorful suit set.
Crédits @loghat90 (KSA)
Fichier image/jpeg, 292k
Titre Fig. 5
Crédits @mohammadrsharaf (Kuwait).
Fichier image/jpeg, 239k
Titre Fig. 6
Légende Palmyra and Dali painting.
Crédits @stephsanossian (Syria/UAE)
Fichier image/jpeg, 437k
Titre Fig. 7
Légende Dome of the Rock.
Crédits @vatyma (Palestine/Qatar)
Fichier image/jpeg, 248k
Titre Fig. 8
Légende The Godfather characters walking in Damascus old city.
Crédits @stephsanossian (Syria/UAE).
Fichier image/jpeg, 370k
Titre Fig. 9
Crédits @kolshi_ (Tunisia)
Fichier image/jpeg, 690k
Titre Fig. 10
Crédits @mayarts (Kuwait)
Fichier image/jpeg, 432k
Titre Fig. 11
Légende "Sakkir ya wardeh" in reference to a childhood game.
Crédits @iby.93 (KSA)
Fichier image/jpeg, 506k
Titre Fig. 12
Légende “Love”.
Crédits @mohbinsalman (KSA)
Fichier image/jpeg, 595k
Titre Fig. 13
Crédits @shahad.naser (KSA)
Fichier image/jpeg, 432k
Titre Fig. 14
Légende Collage with American singer Lana Del Rey and sentence in Arabic.
Crédits @mollyart68 (KSA)
Fichier image/jpeg, 287k
Titre Fig. 15
Légende Arabic coffee pot and cups (finjan).
Crédits @ramaduwaji (Syria/UAE)
Fichier image/jpeg, 190k
Titre Fig. 16
Légende Cups of arabic coffee and dates.
Crédits @i_ramo1(KSA)
Fichier image/jpeg, 364k
Titre Fig. 17
Légende Batman carrying a gallon of water and Superman carrying a pitcher of syrup juice.
Crédits @in49r (KSA).
Fichier image/jpeg, 411k
Titre Fig. 18
Légende Abdel Halim Hafez and Zoubayda Tharwat, image taken from the poster of the film "Yom min Omri" (1961).
Crédits @the_post_modern_apollo (Syria)
Fichier image/jpeg, 287k
Titre Fig. 19
Légende Imad Hamdy and Faten Hamama in the Egyptian film "Among the ruins" (1959).
Crédits @hope_meela (KSA)
Fichier image/jpeg, 211k
Titre Fig. 20
Légende La chanteuse et actrice Asmahan.
Crédits @razangryffindor (Libya)
Fichier image/jpeg, 420k
Titre Fig. 21
Légende Fairuz wearing a face mask on a fake music album entitled "Corona. “Kul saneh marra" en référence à la pandémie.
Crédits @i_nima_i (Yemen)
Fichier image/jpeg, 349k
Titre Fig. 22
Légende Umm Kulthum with the word ‘Fan’ (Art) in calligraphy.
Crédits @iby.93 (KSA)
Fichier image/jpeg, 423k
Titre Fig. 23
Légende "Ba3dek 3ala bali", in reference of a song of Fairuz in calligraphy.
Crédits @thereemmb (KSA)
Fichier image/jpeg, 186k
Titre Fig. 24
Légende Umm Khultum as a playing card character.
Crédits @william_arts (Palestine)
Fichier image/jpeg, 207k
Titre Fig. 25
Légende Game of thrones.
Crédits Nasser (KSA), @in49r
Fichier image/jpeg, 376k
Titre Fig. 26
Légende “How many lovers have faded in the mirage of dreams".
Crédits @iby.93 (KSA)
Fichier image/jpeg, 311k
Titre Fig. 27
Crédits @mualbadi (Oman)
Fichier image/jpeg, 271k
Titre Fig. 28
Crédits @ahmadart86 (KSA)
Fichier image/jpeg, 381k
Titre Fig. 29
Crédits @f.a.t55 (KSA)
Fichier image/jpeg, 434k
Titre Fig. 30
Crédits @ahmadalghanimkuwait (Kuwait)
Fichier image/jpeg, 434k
Titre Fig. 31
Légende The famous painting 'American Gothic' by the painter Grant Wood, with traditional dress from the region and bedouin tent in the background (instead of a Gothic house).
Crédits @imnba (Qatar)
Fichier image/jpeg, 331k
Titre Fig. 32
Légende DJ Khaled with Emirati traditional dress and his name written in Arabic.
Crédits @qip (UAE)
Fichier image/jpeg, 396k
Titre Fig. 33
Légende Beyoncé and Jay-Z at the Louvre with traditional clothes for the video clip of the song “Apeshit” released in 2018.
Fichier image/jpeg, 305k
Titre Fig. 34
Légende “Son of Man”, a paint by Magritte, with traditional Gulf clothing.
Crédits @mohannad9899 (KSA)
Fichier image/jpeg, 323k
Titre Fig. 35
Crédits @ahmadart86 (KSA)
Fichier image/jpeg, 479k
Titre Fig. 36
Légende Video clip with three colored bottles of Vimto.
Crédits @iazezo (KSA)
Fichier image/jpeg, 294k
Titre Fig. 37
Légende Qatayef, Vimto and samosa.
Crédits @narmeenh.illustrations (Palestine/KSA)
Fichier image/jpeg, 266k
Titre Fig. 38
Légende Burqa on a bandari woman.
Crédits @qazalrostamii (Iran)
Fichier image/jpeg, 359k
Titre Fig. 39
Légende Henna and masbaha (muslim prayer beads).
Crédits @hafandhaf (Pakistan/USA)
Fichier image/jpeg, 242k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Clio Chaveneau, « “Arabic Pop Art” on Instagram: Questioning the Representations of Arabness and Khaleejiness in Digital Art », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 18 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2023, consulté le 17 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Clio Chaveneau

Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-SA 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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