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The Airwaves in Arabia: BBC Arabic, British Imperialism, and the Arabian Peninsula’s Global Listenership, c. 1933-1940

Les ondes radio en Arabie : BBC Arabic, l'impérialisme britannique et l'écoute mondiale de la péninsule Arabique, 1933-1940
Gabriel Lavin


Cet article explore la manière dont la réception des premières émissions de radio arabes dans toute la péninsule Arabique a été liée aux marchés des médias mondiaux et la géopolitique jusqu’à la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Plus précisément, il met en évidence les efforts britanniques pour établir le service arabe de la BBC pour enquêter sur les différentes stations de radio et d’autres technologies qui ont défini le paysage médiatique mondial de la région au cours des années 1930. Il soutient que, alors que les émissions de la BBC repoussaient les territoires coloniaux dans la péninsule Arabique loin de l’Inde britannique dans le giron de l’administration britannique du Moyen-Orient, les fonctionnaires coloniaux ont dû reconnaître les liens sociaux économiques et culturels entre l’arabie et la région de l’océan indien afin que la BBC puisse concurrencer avec succès les émissions allemandes et italiennes parmi le public arabe et musulman du monde entier. En tant que tel, l’article suggère également que le rôle de la péninsule arabique dans l’histoire de début de la radiodiffusion arabe est beaucoup plus important que précédemment assumé dans la littérature consacrée au sujet.

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This article was written with support from the British-Yemeni Society, the American Institute of Yemeni Studies, and the Social Science Research Council’s IDRF program.

1 In March of 1933, the aging Kuwaiti school teacher, historian, and Islamic reformer ‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Rashīd penned an article in his periodical al-Tawḥīd (Figure 1), reflecting on the first time he listened to a radio during a recent trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia:

In the desert of the Nejd where quiet and silence pervades, there is a fortress far from the din of cities and towns that overlooks the village of Duwadimi, a place whose name is now uttered frequently whenever His Majesty [Ibn Saud] travels between that country and the Hejaz. In this same fortress, a wireless telegraph station has been erected and next to it a radio, granting someone within the walls of this secluded castle the ability to address whomever he wills, and to enjoy sweet songs and melodies from countries as far away as Europe, so that he partakes in the civilized world with his hearing and his heart, even though he is separated from it in body.

I was given the opportunity to listen to this Western radio on a journey to our beloved country earlier this year during the month of Rajab. I heard singing from Turkey and London and music in Italy, and this is the first time in my life that I’ve heard such things through this astonishing technology. [. . .]

  • 1 al-Rashīd, 1933, 5-6. Translated from Arabic by the author.

There is nothing peculiar about any of this; no magic nor divination, neither devils nor priests, but rather exceptional minds that have given us what we see and hear. What is peculiar, however, is that a young Arab government is standing strong in these asphyxiating times, utilizing the best current methods of reform and what other nations depend on for protection from enemies.1

  • 2 Tarīkh al-lāsilikī fī al-Ḥijāz (History of Wireless in the Hejaz),” Ṣawt al-Ḥijāz Vol. 21, August (...)

2Al-Rashīd’s rhetorical contrast between modern technology and its ostensibly ironic presence in a provincial desert setting is one that has continued to characterize many narratives of national development and modern society in the Arabian Peninsula. Yet by teasing this ethnographic gaze al-Rashīd was extolling the achievements of the newly established Saudi Kingdom, which had unified the Hejaz and the Nejd under ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Ibn al-Saud the previous year in 1932. In a time when most Arab and Muslim lands had fallen under the shadow of European imperialism, the completely independent Saudi kingdom, despite all odds, was initiating modern reforms to strengthen its international political sovereignty and legitimacy by training native Saudi technicians to operate radios and wireless telegraphs. In fact, in 1932 the Saudi periodical, Ṣawt al-Ḥijāz, reported that Ibn Saud had sent a delegation to London two years earlier to be trained as radio engineers, and that the Saudi government by then operated twenty two base stations and six mobile radios in its administration.2 As such, al-Rashīd acknowledged that radio was a powerful tool of social reform and nation building. He was also aware that broadcasting was a matter of defense, and could further embroil the region in a global game of publicity and propaganda.

  • 3 al-Ḥijjī, 1992, 331 and 497.

3Despite the fact that Saudi radio technicians were trained in London as early as 1930, it would take the British Empire, the sole colonial power in the Arabian Peninsula at the time, another eight years to attempt to assert its power throughout the airwaves in Arabia. Initially, Italian broadcasting in Arabic was the raison d’être for the BBC’s Arabic program inaugurated on January 3rd, 1938. This was Britain’s first Arabic radio broadcast and one of the first to actively target listeners in the Arabian Peninsula alongside Arabic speaking audiences in North Africa and the Levant. Yet in most respects the inauguration of BBC Arabic was not a watershed moment for Arabic-language radio, having been preceded by Arabic broadcasting stations in Italy, the Soviet Union, Iraq, Egypt, and Palestine, all of which were received by wireless users throughout the Arabian Peninsula during the 1930s. Furthermore, and despite British assumptions that the region was a cultural backwater, consumers and producers of media like radio, phonograph, and print in the Arabian Peninsula had long been plugged into global economies and markets of information flow throughout the Indian Ocean region and beyond. Nowhere is this reality better highlighted than in the career of ‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Rashīd himself, whose paper al-Tawḥīd and musings on radio’s potential were not written and published in Kuwait, Arabia, nor anywhere in the modern Middle East, but in the Indonesian city of Bogor, then a Dutch holding called Buitenzorg, and printed by a Chinese-owned multilingual publishing house.3 After a career studying, teaching, and publishing in Iraq and the Gulf, al-Rashīd spent the last years of his life in the Dutch East Indies on the island of Java. There, he advocated for Islamic reform while defending the new Saudi kingdom from its many critics in Southeast Asia, a region with the largest Muslim population in the world and an influential Arab public sphere made up of migrant Hadhramis, Hejazis, Iraqis, Sudanese, and Egyptians.

  • 4 Fahmy, 2011.

4Drawing on the India Office Records housed at the British Library for the Aden Protectorate and online with the Qatar Digital Library for the Gulf Arab states, as well as a variety of Arabic primary and secondary sources, this article examines the airwaves in Arabia leading up to and after the inauguration of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Arabic service. It will begin by showing how early BBC Arabic programs were the result of the Corporation soliciting the British government for over a decade to establish empire radio services. Britain needed to compete with other European powers in the field of global broadcasting in languages such as Portuguese, Spanish, and Arabic, while listeners in the Arabian Peninsula were an important target audience for early BBC Arabic broadcasts. Secondly, the article will demonstrate that this was because the BBC became entrenched in existing colonial propaganda efforts and competition between world powers to manipulate political Islam and Arab nationalist feeling, which were movements tied to the Hajj throughout the Indian Ocean region. These movements transcended imperial geographies and gravitated around one of the Arab and Muslim world’s only sovereign powers, which was also the state that ruled the Islamic holy land and most of the Arabian Peninsula: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Lastly, the article will explore how the BBC had to tap into the Arabian Peninsula’s existing landscape of “media capitalism,” to borrow a term from Ziad Fahmy.4 BBC Arabic had to compete not only with other international radio stations for the attention of the Arabian Peninsula’s listeners, but also with information and entertainment markets propelled by print and phonograph industries. This deterritorialized media landscape of radio, print, and phonograph was enabled by commodity movements that also transcended imperial boundaries between the Middle East and the Indian Ocean region while their entry into the Arabian Peninsula was facilitated by local publishers, musicians, and businessmen. British administrators were ultimately compelled to acknowledge this global media landscape and call upon its local agents to curate relevant propaganda and broadcast content, and thus give BBC Arabic a competitive edge in Arabia.

  • 5 Nelida Fuccaro (2009:182-186), for example, has noted how Nasserist radio stations like Ṣawt al-‘Ar (...)

5Contrary to common framings of the region as a historical backwater that has come to prominence only after the oil boom (a narrative of modern development that originated in the colonial discourses examined here), this article demonstrates that the Arabian Peninsula has much to tell when it comes to the history of Arabic broadcasting and other media during the interwar period. In terms of the BBC’s relationship to British imperial designs in the Arabian Peninsula, it demonstrates that early colonial encounters in the field of broadcasting comprised a pivot between the two imperial administrations that constituted Britain’s global empire at the time: the Raj and the Crown. Although most of the Arabian Peninsula was under Saudi rule, a significant portion of the region was split between these two imperial administrations at the time of the BBC’s inaugural Arabic broadcast in early 1938. The Gulf territories were a part of the British Raj’s extraterritorial holdings throughout the Indian Ocean while the Aden Protectorate, formerly a province of the British Raj, transformed into a Crown colony within “His Majesty’s Territories in the Near and Middle East” during 1937. As a geographical space situated between Britain’s Indian and Middle East empires, and as a region plugged into global circulations of print culture and entertainment media throughout the Indian Ocean and beyond, the Arabian Peninsula’s global listenership held a central position in the early history of Arabic broadcasting that has yet to be more thoroughly acknowledged and explored in scholarship.5

  • 6 Onley, 2008; Willus, 2009.
  • 7 Bose, 2009; Bishara, 2020.

6Historians like James Onley and John M. Willis have shown how the Gulf and the Aden Protectorate comprise an “Arabian frontier” of the Raj, as territories of British India’s Indian Ocean empire during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.6 Influenced by historians of the modern Indian Ocean such as Sugata Bose, Fahad Ahmad Bishara has made a call to extend this perspective of Gulf history beyond the frameworks of both colonialism and nationalism to a broader Indian Ocean “arena” that was equally characterized by vernacular routes of exchange between Arabia, East Africa, India, and other parts of Asia.7

  • 8 Scales, 2010.
  • 9 Stanton, 2013 and 2020.
  • 10 Stanton, 2020b.

7As will be seen throughout this article, since most British territories in the Arabian Peninsula were governed indirectly via ruling families, and were thus outside direct supervision, British authorities struggled to monitor and stay the influence of Axis radio broadcasts and subversive propaganda transmitted by other media such as newspapers and phonograph records. This situation contrasts what was identified by Rebecca Scales in her study of radio in interwar Algeria, where the colonial French police state directly policed and censored radio and phonograph consumption.8 Throughout the Arabian Peninsula, British authorities attempted to capitalize on radio’s “subversive” potential, using the BBC Arabic broadcasts in conjunction with newspapers and phonograph records to counter Axis propaganda and thereby assuage their otherwise limited influence in the region. Furthermore, Andrea L. Stanton has demonstrated how colonial subjects and rulers in Palestine and Bahrain asserted agency within the structures of the Palestine Broadcasting Service and the early BBC Arabic programs, and has pointed to the overlooked position of the Gulf in the history of BBC Arabic broadcasting in a study of the Bahrain Listeners’ Council.9 Stanton has also noted the importance of approaching the historical study of colonial broadcasting from a transnational perspective.10 Building on this foundational scholarship, this article explores what was truly a global interwar arena of early Arabic-language broadcasting that stretched far beyond the confines of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). It reveals how early BBC Arabic radio became enveloped within media markets, information flows, and commodity circulations not only between the Arabian Peninsula and other parts of the Arab world, but also places like East Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. Indeed, radio listeners throughout the Arabian Peninsula and Indian Ocean region during this time were themselves globally oriented, and were thus responding to, interacting with, and influencing British propaganda efforts and early BBC Arabic programs as global listeners.

  • 11 My discussion of this “shift” is inspired by a fruitful conversation initiated by historian Ulrike (...)
  • 12 Crouzet, 2019; Reese 2018.

8Similarly addressing the Arabian Peninsula’s often discussed “shift” from the Indian Ocean region to the Middle East and Arab world, this article suggests that the BBC Arabic broadcasts brought colonial territories in the Gulf further away from the British Raj’s administration into the fold of the Crown’s Middle East administration.11 This happened specifically in the administration of cultural publicity and media propaganda, as British administrators attempted to filter the global dynamics of political Islam, Arab nationalism, and media capitalism in Arabia through a much narrower frame of “Middle East intelligence.” Thus, continuing a line of recent work by scholars such as Guillemette Crouzet and Scott Reese, the present article contributes to further understanding Arabia’s complex relationship to the modern development of geographical, political, and cultural constructs of “the Middle East,” and the role that shifts in colonial administration and mass media played in their formation.12 Yet this is not to suggest that the airwaves in Arabia initiated any decisive on-the-ground cultural shift from the Indian Ocean region for the people who comprised the Arabian Peninsula’s global listenership. Moreover, the planetary reach of radio technologies–including the electromagnetic waves of broadcasting and the announcers and technicians enabling in their amplification–inevitably disrupt the more parochial geographies that so often encase the study of culture and history. This perhaps applies equally to geographies like the Middle East or MENA as it does to maritime ones such as the Indian Ocean. As ‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Rashīd pointed out in 1933, radio could transport the sentiments of a listener’s heart far away from their body to horizons that transcended any previous geographical limitations, from a secluded fortress in the Nejd to the musical theaters of Europe.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Al-Rashīd’s al-Tawḥīd (Attauhid), published in Bogor (Buitenzorg), Java, 1932-1933.

Kuwait National Library

Expanding broadcasting services to Arabia and the Arab world

9During the late 1930s, the British journalist Nevill Barbour experienced firsthand the reception of the BBC’s early Arabic broadcasts while working as a BBC correspondent in Palestine during the Second World War. He later recalled his experience monitoring Arab listener opinion about BBC Arabic’s early programs, and that they got off to a rough start:

  • 13 Barbour, 1951, 61.

While the fact there were Arabic broadcasts from London was appreciated and the dictation of the speakers admired, the bulletins were held to be inadequately adapted to the audience and the contents of the programs to be dull. It cannot in fact be said that at the time the London news bulletins had any appreciable impact on the Arab listener or that there was any response to the programs in the social and cultural fields; by those who had heard them, they were compared very unfavorably with the broadcasts from Italy which had by now, possibly as the result of British competition in this field, been greatly improved.13

10Similar complaints were fielded by British officials in the Gulf, who even leveled harsh criticism against the BBC’s international English-language broadcasts. One heated comment directed to the India Office during October 1939 by a British official in Kuwait is particularly notable:

  • 14 IOR/R/15/2/74, 122-125.

You suggest further that we should confine our attention to the Arabic news broadcasts and that it is only regarding these that we need to incur the expense of telegraphy. Surely the B.B.C must be aware that many Arabs listen to the English broadcasts? And how can we expect to convince Arabs by our broadcasts when our own countrymen are infuriated and unconvinced by the ineptitude of a service in their own language?14

  • 15 Barbour, 1951, 59.
  • 16 IOR/R/20/B/648, 182-185.

11Like Barbour, many colonial officials reporting from the Arabian Peninsula also pointed to the well-curated music programs and sensationalism of Italy and Germany’s Arabic broadcasts. As the above quotes indicate, these were considerably more entertaining than the BBC’s less exciting efforts to broadcast propaganda that was fronted as “honest and factual news, without flattery or favor.”15 Technological setbacks also seem to have stymied the effectiveness of the early BBC Arabic programs throughout the Arabian Peninsula. In a report comparing the stability and quality of various radio stations received in the Aden Protectorate during August 1938, an India Army Reserves officer named C. L. Schofield, who had previously worked for the Phillips radio company in India, reported that “Dutch, German, and Italian stations reach a much higher standard than those of the BBC.”16 Still, the charter agreement between the BBC and the British government had been setting itself up for a daunting task. Entertaining the diverse interests and tastes of Arabic speaking populations while maintaining an air of calm objectivity at a stable broadcast frequency took many years of planning and technological developments in international broadcasting, starting over a decade before the BBC’s inaugural Arabic broadcast.

  • 17 R/20/A/3795, 6-25.

12As far back as 1926 the BBC sent a proposal to the Foreign Office to inaugurate an empire-wide broadcasting service, but the government was not interested in allocating funds. They did so again at The Colonial Office Conference of 1930 only to be met with the same response. It wasn’t until early 1932 that the BBC inaugurated a global empire service. However, they did so without financial support from the British government and it was an English-language program that was intended for the 200,000 or so white British citizens and colonial officials overseas. The BBC noted these facts in two more proposals to the Foreign Office during 1935 and 1936 to expand empire radio services so that the empire’s non-white population of around 60,000,000 people could be better exposed to British news and political views. The proposals noted that many other powers like Italy, Germany, France, and the Soviet Union had inaugurated short-wave international radio services in various languages. If Britain wanted to keep in step, the government should at least consider getting the BBC to inaugurate global broadcast programs in languages like Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic. These languages appear to have been proposed initially because they are three of the most commonly spoken languages worldwide, while Arabic speakers comprised a significant population under direct and indirect imperial rule. “The potentialities of broadcasting are comparable with the demands of the major social services and of defense. No expenditure could be better worthwhile,” read a concluding statement in the BBC’s 1935 proposal, echoing sentiments about radio expressed three years earlier by ‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Rashīd in al-Tawḥīd.17

  • 18 Ibid.

13These proposals reveal that from the beginning the Corporation was aware that it would have to strike a delicate balance between broadcasting “British social and cultural interests,” “straight news,” and culturally relevant material for non-English speaking populations. This balancing act appears to have been a challenge to overcoming the so-called dullness of their initial Arabic broadcasts. By 1936, British officials in Yemen, Aden, and the Gulf were declaring that an Arabic radio station would be essential to counter the influence of Italian broadcasting. Yet it took almost another three years after the 1935 proposal for BBC Arabic to go on air. This was apparently because the Corporation needed to gather and sift vast amounts of intelligence from colonial government offices before it established its Latin American and Arabic services. The 1935 proposal suggested that intelligence regarding local tastes and interests would need to be obtained, including local feedback to help foreign language broadcasts achieve mass appeal.18 The BBC and British colonial governments also had to settle on a location to stage the Arabic broadcasts, exploring options in Cyprus, Jerusalem, Cairo and even Bombay before choosing Daventry.

  • 19 IOR/R/15/2/152, 1-14.
  • 20 Fuccaro (2009:183) has published an advertisement in English for radios by A. M. Yateem Brothers, w (...)
  • 21 Ibid.

14As early as June 1933, the Soviet Union appears to have been the first European power to establish an Arabic broadcasting station. Bolshevik propaganda was being picked up by radio users in Bahrain, with a report noting that it was “difficult to obtain programs that are not somewhat anti-British in tone.”19 In spite of this knowledge, British officials in the Gulf eventually deemed that no action was necessary and perhaps unsurprisingly so, considering the general apathy at the time towards radio’s potential. According to their intelligence, there were not enough radios owned by the local populace for broadcasting to have any significant ramifications. Although Bahrain’s resident Charles Belgrave reported that only six wireless sets existed there (most of them owned by Westerners), he noted that one of them was owned by Ḥussayn Yatīm, who was a businessman selling radios to the local populace.20 The fact there was actually a local radio salesman in Bahrain at the time suggests there were probably more than just six wireless sets picking up the Bolshevik Arabic broadcasts.21 Unlike other British colonial administrations such as that in Palestine, officials throughout the Gulf seem to have kept no official count or registry of radios before the War, relying mostly on hearsay and one word observation for intelligence reports on broadcasting.

  • 22 Barbour, 1951, 58.

15Two years later in September of 1935, Italy’s Arabic radio station was established in Bari and soon gained widespread appeal throughout the Arabic speaking world, the Arabian Peninsula being no exception.22 As the Gulf resident at Bushehr, T. C. Fowle, stated in 1936 referring to his previous conclusions on the Soviet broadcasts:

  • 23 IOR/R/15/2/152, 41.

As you will see from my letter dated the 10th of June 1933, I did not at that time propose any special measures being taken in this direction. Three years have, however, elapsed since then, and the situation has changed. The Soviet Government, as far as publicity in the Middle East is concerned, have perhaps become of less importance, while certain other Powers, notably Italy, have come more into the foreground. Moreover in the Arab Sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf, the area with which I am concerned, the number of radio sets, as of listeners in, has greatly increased, and I daresay the same is the case for other Arab states...23

16Another official to bring attention to the reception of Italy’s broadcasts in Arabia was Captain B. W. Seager, who made a trip to Yemen’s capital of Sanaa during October of 1936. His report dispelled the idea that the number of radio sets could alone stand as a measure of broadcasting’s socio-political ramifications. Even though he saw only four American-made Philco radios during his trip, owned respectively by the king Imam Yaḥyā Muḥammad Ḥamīd al-Dīn, two Islamic jurists, and a Sayyid in Ta‘iz, Seager witnessed a far reaching influence of Italian broadcasting throughout Yemen:

None of these gentlemen know English. As a consequence, night after night they listen in to the Rome broadcast in Arabic. Seiyid Ali ibn Al Wazir, on my way through Ta‘iz on October 1st last, made the following observation: “When those of us in the Yemen who possess wireless receiving sets hear Arabic being broadcasted we all flock round and listen in greedily: when we hear music or foreign speech we immediately lose interest and switch off.” He no doubt expresses the sentiments of all Moslums and Christian Arabs all over the world whose only language is Arabic.

  • 24 IOR/R/20/A/3795, 46. Seager seems to have mistakenly believed that the Italian Arabic station was b (...)

Though the Yemen has only four sets at present the information, news and or propaganda broadcasted from Europe in Arabic, is soon circulated; and it is not then astonishing that the man in the street hears an Italian version of world events.24

  • 25 Ibid., 46-47.

17Seager stressed that if the BBC were to inaugurate an Arabic broadcast to compete with the Italian station, it would surely be preferred to the latter in Yemen. “Such is still our great representation in Moslem countries,” he stated. “If, however, we continue to allow the Italians, amongst other nations, to have a clear field, we cannot hope to maintain our supremacy in Moslem eyes.”25

18Later that December, the Kuwait resident Gerald de Gaury submitted another report to the office at Bushehr. It included excerpts of intelligence summaries and a summary on another official visit to Yemen by the British consul in Addis Ababa, C. G. Hope Gill. The report cited local opinion to further stress that Britain was sorely behind in the game of Arabic broadcasting. In Kuwait,

  • 26 IOR/R/20/A/3795, 53.

Radio broadcasts from Italy, France and Germany in Arabic are frequent and sometimes in the case of Italy extremely strong in political tone. The Ruler [Aḥmad Jābir al-Ṣabāḥ] on the 18th of September and others among the notables at various times mentioned in private conversation how much they regret that Great Britain does not issue a broadcast in Arabic designed to counter mischievously intended foreign broadcasts.26

  • 27 Ibid.; also see IOR/R/15/2/152, 41.

19The report on Hope Gill’s trip through Yemen stated that he met there “two persons of importance, one of them a Minister of State to the Imam,” who “asked him why there were not broadcasts in Arabic from England as there were from Italy.” De Gaury cited these reports to declare that establishing an Arabic broadcast was of paramount importance to British influence in Arabia: a peninsula nestled between the curtain of Britain’s Indian and Middle East empires, but whose airwaves were completely occupied by other European powers. “It seems that our Arab well-wishers are pining for publicity with which to refute the disparagement of our policy from various quarters. Silence would seem to indicate to the Arabs, who are still in many places without regular newspapers but equipped with wireless, that we have no answer to our critics.”27

Figure 2

Figure 2

Program for the inaugural week (3rd-8th of January, 1938) of the BBC’s Arabic broadcasting service. These programs were distributed to colonial offices throughout Arabia.

(British Library: IOR/R/20/B/648)

  • 28 IOR/R/20/B/648, 51-52; Barbour, 1951, 59. Ḥāfiẓ Wahbah also wrote the authoritative Jazīrat al-‘Ara (...)
  • 29 IOR/15/2/153, p.124-140; Stanton, 2020.
  • 30 IOR/15/2/153, 112-140.

20Given the disruptive influence of Italian broadcasting throughout the Arabian Peninsula, it is no surprise that the inaugural BBC Arabic broadcast on January 3rd of 1938 featured a program whose content appears to have been intended mostly for Arabian listeners in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the Aden Protectorate (Figure 2). This included an opening speech by none other than Imam Yaḥyā’s son, Prince Ṣayf al-Islām al-Ḥussayn, a statement by the Egyptian-born Saudi foreign minister Ḥāfiẓ Wahbah along with the Iraqi and Egyptian foreign ministers, and a concluding speech by Sir Bernard Reilly, Governor of the Aden colony.28 Following policy suggested in the BBC’s 1935 and 1936 proposals, Charles Belgrave helped form the Bahrain listening committee later that year, which was a body consisting of members of the royal al-Khalīfah family and radio sellers like Ḥussayn Yatīm that would report feedback and suggestions to the BBC.29 In the Corporation’s report on the development of their Arabic program during its first year, the Bahrain listening committee was singled out for praise for helping the BBC cultivate content for listeners throughout Arabia and elsewhere, and urged other colonial administrations to make similar efforts. The report noted that, in addition to places like Iraq and Sudan, Arabian environs like the Hejaz, Hadhramaut, and Yemen were of primary concern for the BBC’s early Arabic broadcast. This was because British influence and publicity was indirect and less comprehensive in these areas, and particularly due to the influence of other broadcasting stations.30

  • 31 IOR/R/20/B/648, 116. The original script was published in the Zaidi government’s mouthpiece, the pe (...)
  • 32 Content geared toward Palestinian listeners was minimal during the inaugural broadcast probably bec (...)

21Yet considering the continued reports that the Corporation’s content was dull and uninteresting compared to the Italian broadcasts, BBC Arabic’s early programs were by no means a resounding success story. Even the inaugural broadcast seems to have backfired in some respects. A private letter from the Corporation to the Aden government noted that the King of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud, had “wept tears” in front of the British minister being entertained for the occasion of the inaugural broadcast. “I am inclined myself to think that tears of sympathy or anger were equally attributable to the fact that the Yemeni Prince spoke of his father as Commander of the Faithful - an interpolation in his original script!”31 Similarly, the inaugural broadcast’s report on the execution of Palestinian revolutionaries gave the British everything but positive press.32 It seems that their goal of providing objective “straight news” was to be amended for reporting on the revolt and other events in Palestine, which were the detriment of British publicity among Arab and Muslim audiences worldwide. Furthermore, who indeed was “Commander of the Faithful” was a delicate question during the 1930s. The Yemeni prince could have sparked a rift in sectarian ideologies during the first broadcast, between the Shia Zaidi Imam Yaḥyā, king of Yemen, and Abdulaziz Ibn Al Saud, the recently established global patron of Sunni fundamentalism and protector of the two holy places, Mecca and Medina. It perhaps didn’t help that both leaders had recently been at war. Further complicating the situation was that intelligence on broadcasting from the Arabian Peninsula was sent to the BBC by two different imperial administrations: the India Office and His Majesty’s Territories in the Near and Middle East administered by the Foreign and Colonial offices. Both administrations became embroiled within Arabia’s complex position as a global pivot point for political Islam and Arab nationalism, which were movements tied to the Indian Ocean Hajj and the influence of the new, headstrong, and independent Saudi state.

Figure 3

Figure 3

A Phillips loudspeaker blasts a BBC broadcast to a large audience from the top of a building in Khormaksar, Aden, December 1939.

National Archives (London, UK): CO 323/1742/9

Chasing Arab nationalism, Islamic publicity, and Middle East intelligence

  • 33 Lowe 2020; Slight 2015.
  • 34 Ibid.
  • 35 Metcalf, 2008. See Chapter Two, “Constructing Identities”; Willis, 2009.
  • 36 Kaptein, 2015; Reese, 2018.
  • 37 Reese 2018.

22Attempting to win the hearts and minds of Muslims throughout the empire was an integral part of British colonial policy since the Victorian era, and especially to counter Ottoman efforts to wield the baton of the Caliphate.33 Despite unfounded fears that the Hajj to Arabia would be a conduit for radicalization and anti-British feeling among British-Muslim subjects, and particularly after the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, facilitating pilgrimage was a major area where the British tried to demonstrate their favor and patronage of Muslims during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.34 Similarly, in indirectly ruled treaty states such as those in the Aden Protectorate or British Malaya, imperial policy framed itself as patronizing Islamic tradition by giving the ruling Sheikhs and Sultans autonomy to govern affairs dealing with “religion and custom,” even though they were to varying degrees stripped of economic or political agency.35 Furthermore, British and Dutch colonial administrations in Arabia and Southeast Asia would employ or sponsor Islamic jurists, a tactic that could either give colonial policy an Islamic veneer and or further demonstrate the colonial administration’s support for local Islamic custom.36 Such tactics continued through the 1930s and amped up during the Second World War as the governments of Italy, Japan, and Germany also tried to demonstrate their patronage of Muslims by facilitating Hajj, winning the favor of Muslim leaders, and favorably comparing their own efforts to those of the British in radio broadcasts targeting Arab and Muslim audiences around the world. As the flops of the BBC’s inaugural program reveal, global powers had to strike a complicated balance between framing themselves as championing both the cause of Islam and Arab nationalism in the context of Arabic broadcasting. In colonial holdings throughout the Arabian Peninsula, this caused an administrative shift from the Indian Empire to the Middle East administration as officials attempted to grapple with the global dynamics of political Islam and Arab nationalism while forcing them into a narrower frame of “Middle East” intelligence. As Scott Reese has shown, this was a process perhaps already underway with the transfer of the Aden protectorate from India to Britain’s Middle East administration in 1937.37

23To get a sense of how Arabia’s relationships to Arab nationalism and political Islam transcended imperial geographies and spilled over into the airwaves during the 1930s, it’s helpful to return to back to the career of the Kuwaiti historian, Islamic scholar, and reformer ‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Rashīd and his motivations for moving to the Netherlands East Indies, where he penned his article about the radio cited at the beginning of this article. Furthermore, the person al-Rashīd held a brief alliance with in Java during the early 1930s, an Iraqi journalist named Yūnis Baḥrī, would later in 1939 become a radio announcer conjuring storms of Nazi Arabic-language propaganda in the airwaves from a wireless station near Berlin during the War. Offering a striking backstory to the early history of Arabic broadcasting, the intersecting careers of ‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Rashīd and Yūnis Baḥrī demonstrate that much of the Arab nationalist and global Islamic political sentiments of the 1930s were gravitating around the new Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its charismatic ruler, forming an unlikely yet significant alliance between two very different individuals across the Indian Ocean.

  • 38 al-Ḥijjī, 1992, 128-205.
  • 39 Ibid., 214-215.
  • 40 Rayḥanī, 1928.
  • 41 al-Ḥijjī, 224-229.

24Born in Kuwait and educated in Baghdad, ‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Rashīd (1887-1938) established one of the Gulf’s first print publications, The Kuwait Journal or Majallat al-Kuwayyt, that existed from 1928 to 1930. It was drafted first in Kuwait and subsequently in Bahrain, and was printed by a publishing house in Egypt due to the absence of Arabic printing presses in the Gulf at that time.38 The Kuwait Journal covered religious, literary, and historic affairs, and frequently allauded the rise of the Saudi government and their Wahabi-oriented reformist policy. This landed al-Rashīd a meeting with Ibn Saud himself in the eastern Saudi city of al-Hufūf in 1930 where they discussed Islamic education and doctrine.39 Yet it was not only religious scholars who found the rise of the Saudi kingdom inspiring, which led al-Rashīd on a path of making alliances with other Islamic scholars as well as more secular-minded activists. Given the frustration and disillusion brought by the post-WWI League of Nations settlements throughout the Middle East, there was a widespread hope among many Arab intellectuals that Ibn Saud and his sovereign kingdom would help lead the charge in both reforming Islam and lighting the way for Arab and Muslim political independence. Such figures included the Christian Lebanese-American journalist, novelist, and historian Amīn Rīḥanī, who left his typewriter office in New York City during the mid 1920s to travel to the Nejd and live with Ibn Saud and write the first modern history of the Saudi Kingdom, Modern Nejd and its environs and a biography of ‘Abd al-‘Azīz ‘Abd al-Raḥman Āl Fayṣal Āl Sa‘ud.40 After his meeting with Ibn Saud, al-Rashīd spent the rest of the year traveling to Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Cairo meeting with like-minded scholars and activists. He later arrived in Jeddah during February of 1931 to celebrate the coronation of Ibn Saud and make the pilgrimage to Mecca before moving to Indonesia.41 Given the diversity of people rooting for the Saudi kingdom during the interwar years, al-Rashīd would briefly make an alliance with an explosive personality quite different from his own.

  • 42 al-Ḥijjī, 1992, 335-360.
  • 43 Baḥrī, 2002 [?], vol.1, 12-13.
  • 44 IOR/R/15/2/153, 247.
  • 45 Baḥrī, 2002 [?], vol. 1, 10-15.
  • 46 Barbour, 1951, 63.

25Yūnis Baḥrī was a force to be reckoned with in the airwaves at the dawn of the Second World War. Born in Mosul, Baḥrī (1903-1979) moved to Indonesia in 1931 after working as a journalist in Cairo. After his brief and unsteady alliance in Java with al-Rashīd, he moved on to viciously attack members of the Hadhrami ‘Alawī party in Indonesia with his own newspaper al-Ḥaqq, which climaxed in an assassination attempt on his life.42 Sometime after 1933 he made his way from Indonesia to South America before finally moving back to Baghdad in 1936. After returning he served as an announcer for Baghdad’s Qasr al-Zuhūr radio station established that year.43 Qasr al-Zuhūr and Baḥrī were eventually cut off by the Iraqi government for stirring up tensions through fiery and sensational anti-British broadcasts, which caused confusion and distress among British officials in the Gulf, particularly in Kuwait.44 This caught the attention of the German ambassador in Baghdad, Fritz Grobba, who in 1939 invited Baḥrī to Germany to become the announcer for the Nazi Arabic broadcast station in Zeesen just south of Berlin.45 Nevill Barbour knew Yūnis Baḥrī’s voice well while working for the BBC in Palestine during the War and that he “had a remarkable talent for the sensational type of broadcasting which they [the Germans] favored,” being “inflammatory and abusive.” To Barbour, even the Italian broadcasts did not achieve Baḥrī’s “savage ruthlessness which made the German wireless, for a time, a powerful instrument.”46

  • 47 IOR/R/20/C/1781, 18-22.
  • 48 IOR/R/20/B/1356.
  • 49 IOR/R/20/C/1781, 51.
  • 50 Baḥrī, 2002 [?], vol. 4, 15.

26Interestingly, it was the Hadhrami Arab allies of the British in Singapore and Indonesia who helped the colonial authorities identify Yūnis Baḥrī announcing for the German station. According to the British consul in Batavia (Jakarta), Baḥrī’s Germany broadcasts were received in Java at midnight and were popular among Arabic speakers throughout British Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies.47 From Germany, Baḥrī would directly address his former acquaintances and enemies in Java while mounting sophisticated and sensational attacks on British and Dutch colonial policies in Southeast Asia, India, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Palestine, and elsewhere. British officials noted that in places like Syria, then presided over by France’s pro-Nazi Vichy government, Baḥrī’s broadcasts entirely eclipsed those of the BBC at the beginning of the War.48 Yet even the Germans’ patience with their useful but unhinged publicity tool gradually waned. During 1941, Yūnis Baḥrī was thrown in a German prison for embezzling Nazi propaganda funds, and was forced to continue broadcasting from his cell.49 In a later audacious and bawdy salute to his German radio career, Baḥrī published a “rare photo” in the opening pages of his memoir’s fourth volumeostensibly from his personal collectionof Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun sitting by a Bavarian swimming hole “naked as the Lord created her.”50

  • 51 al-Ḥijjī, 1992, 226.

27As Ya‘qūb al-Ḥijjī has noted, it was probably in Cairo during late 1930 where ‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Rashīd became acquainted with Yūnis Baḥrī, who was then working as a correspondent for various newspapers using the pen name “The Iraqi Sojourner”, or “al-sā’iḥ al-‘Irāqī.” 51Both were united again during February of 1931 in the Hejaz for the festivities surrounding Ibn Saud’s coronation, where they intermingled with other Arab intellectuals and politicians. Although the achievement of Saudi suzerainty in Arabia inspired hope in many, the new Kingdom had many detractors throughout the Arab and Muslim world. This was especially the case in Southeast Asia, a region that comprised one of the largest and wealthiest demographics of Muslim pilgrims making the Hajj to Arabia every season. In particular, the elite and influential Hadhrami ‘Alawī society in Java was critical of Saudi religious policy, which suppressed and discouraged visitations (ziyārāt) to the tombs of the Prophet, his companions, and other shrines throughout the Hejaz, as well as the prayers, hymns, and songs recited to praise, intercede, and connect with the spirits of such revered Islamic figures. These were Sufi practices held dear by Muslims worldwide throughout history, but were gradually becoming sidelined by the reforms initiated by the Saudi state’s Wahabi policy. Yet Wahabism also galvanized other like-minded orthodox and even modernist Muslim reformers and organizations elsewhere. One such club of reformers were longtime opponents of the ‘Alawīs: the Irshādī party, which was established in Java by the Sudanese Islamic scholar and jurist Aḥmad al-Surkātī, and whose members challenged the hereditary authority and Sufi doctrines espoused by the ‘Alawī order.

Figure 4

Figure 4

Al-Rashīd (second from left) and Baḥrī (second from right) in Java at a farewell banquet for Hadhrami Sayyid Ibrahim al-Saqaf, 1931. Although initially friendly with the ‘Alawīs in Java, al-Rashīd and Baḥrī’s relations with them soon deteriorated. (al-Kuwayyt wa al-‘Irāqī, Vol 1, 1931, p. 39)

  • 52 al-Ḥijjī, 1992.
  • 53 Baḥrī and al-Rashīd, 1931, 38-43.

28In 1931, ‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Rashīd and Yūnis Baḥrī were unofficially sponsored by the Saudi government to travel from the Hejaz and establish themselves in Java to help counter the propaganda in Southeast Asia’s Arabic press condemning the Saudi state, which was reducing the number of pilgrims making the Hajj due to fears of new Saudi religious policies. Shortly after arriving in Java, they established a collaborative journal whose title was a combination of al-Rashīd’s Kuwait Journal (Majallat al-Kuwayyt) and Bahri’s pen name, “The Iraqi Sojourner” (al-sā’iḥ al-‘Irāqī), called al-Kuwayt wal-‘Irāqī (Kuwait and the Iraqi) that lasted through 1932 (Figure 4). The journal encouraged Javanese Muslims to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and threw itself into mediating between the conflicting Irshādī and ‘Alawī parties, although it inevitably swung in favor of the Irshādīs due to Baḥrī and al-Rashīd’s political and doctrinal sympathies.52 Kuwait and the Iraqi wore many other hats too. It issued fatwas, hurled criticism at the Egyptian intellectual Ṭaha Ḥussayn for adopting the philosophy of Descartes and Carlyle, repelled attacks against the Saudi kingdom issued everywhere from Singapore to Cairo, and featured essays about regional topics such as the history of Islam in Southeast Asia and Indonesian nationalism. On the latter topic, even Rabindranath Tagore was not spared by the piercing rhetoric of Yūnis Baḥrī, who accused India’s beloved poet of contributing to the colonial repression of Islamic history in countries like India and Indonesia by suggesting that Islam, unlike Buddhism or Hinduism, was a foreign religion to these countries.53

Figure 5

Figure 5

First volume of al-Rashīd and Baḥrī’s al-Kuwayyt wa al-‘Irāqī, September 1931.

Author’s personal collection.

  • 54 IOR/R/20/B/1448, 1-2.
  • 55 IOR/R/20/C/1781, 45-48.
  • 56 Ibid., 67.

29If states like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia were attempting to influence political Islam and Muslim sentiment throughout the Indian Ocean region by employing agents like ‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Rashīd and Yūnis Baḥrī, then European powers were trying similar tactics from the sidelines. British intelligence from the 1930s shows several instances where Italian and Japanese agents were attempting to “win the favor of Muslim opinion.” Like the British in India, the Government General of Italy’s East African colonies facilitated the pilgrimage to Mecca with a steamer called the S.S. Sicilia for Somalian and Ethiopian Muslims. During the first year of the War, the Italian authorities organized a tour throughout their African colonies in Libya, Somalia, and Ethiopia for a female Islamic leader from Sudan, Sharifat Alwia al Morgani. She was a purported descendant of the Prophet and of considerable influence, so the Italian authorities turned the affair into a publicity stunt in order to showcase “her great admiration for the Imperial achievement of Fascist Italy.”54 On the Southeast Asian front, the British consul in Batavia, E. T. Lambert, received intelligence from a Hadhrami informant that the Japanese government had sent a delegation there headed by “I. Kobayashi, Minister of Trade and Industry” in order “to make contact with the native world in Java through the medium of the Islamic religion.” Kobayashi adopted the name “Abdul Salam” and entered a mosque near the Batavia port after Friday prayer with his entourage from Tokyo “wearing velvet caps used by Malayan Mohammedens,” and through an interpreter expressed his sympathies that Muslims in Java are “severely oppressed by the Dutch as they are in British India.”55 That same month, another Arab informant told Lambert that the Italian counselor in Batavia, Signor Dino Semplicini, had fled to Japan after Italy entered the War, and was there attempting to coordinate the shipping of Muslim pilgrims from Java to the Hejaz in Japanese steam ships with the help of the Japanese imperial consulate back at Batavia. Due to wartime circumstances, British and Dutch efforts to ship Muslim pilgrims to Arabia had declined greatly, and the report stressed if Semplicini and his Japanese counterparts were to succeed, “Italy and Japan will undoubtedly claim that they are better and stronger friends of Islam than the British and Dutch who will not, or cannot provide the necessary transport to Mecca.”56

30The politicization of the Hajj and squabbles over who was the greater “friend of Islam” also carried over into the airwaves. Similar to how the Nazis employed Yūnis Baḥrī, the British used BBC Arabic as an instrument for influencing Muslim opinion, which buttressed its primary goal of procuring a culturally relevant program that targeted a global audience of native Arabic speakers. Such policy was alluded to by Captain B. W. Seager in his statement quoted above after his trip to Yemen in 1936, when he noted that countering Italy’s Arabic radio broadcasts was about producing a radio program for “all Moslems and Christian Arabs” as much it was about maintaining Great Britain’s “great representation in Moslem countries” and “supremacy in Moslem eyes.”

  • 57 Ibid.; IOR/R/20/B/1591.
  • 58 IOR/R/20/C/1781, 18-22.
  • 59 Ibid., 25.

31British intelligence files reveal that Baḥrī’s German broadcasts in particular were having especially distressful reverberations throughout the Muslim world. In 1939, the Government of India issued intelligence about German plans to make Holland a directorate for spreading Nazi propaganda throughout the Middle East, India, and Southeast Asia. For the Germans, the Dutch homeland for a propaganda base would be an ideal conduit for spreading pro-Nazi sentiment throughout the Netherlands East Indies, which could spill over and negatively influence Britain’s “Islamic publicity” in India.57 In December of 1939, the British consulate in Batavia found “no evidence of any organized press propaganda by Germany on behalf of the large Arab population in these islands,” but stressed that Yūnis Baḥrī’s broadcast firestorms could potentially bring such plans to fruition. Although the consul at Batavia was told by the Hadhrami leader Sayyid Ḥussayn al-‘Aṭās that Baḥrī’s broadcasts were in “poor taste” compared to the BBC’s, their sensationalism was more exciting and entertaining, thus attracting more attention among the population of well over 71,000 Arabs in the Netherlands East Indies.58 After the outbreak of the war, the colonial government in Singapore intercepted postcards written in Arabic addressed to the German station in Zeesen, giving praise to Baḥrī and expressing support for Germany’s fight against the British.59 During 1940 after Yūnis Baḥrī made false announcements about tribesmen in Aden and Hadhramaut rallying to the Italians, which spread fear among Hadhrami populations back in Southeast Asia, the influential Hadhrami sayyid and real estate tycoon Muḥammad al-Kāf sent a telegram from Singapore to Aden to be broadcasted from the radio station recently established there. In his message, al-Kāf emphasized the necessity for Muslim solidarity with the British against Axis powers:

  • 60 IOR/R/20/C/1113, 30.

Singapore Muslims send greetings to Muslim brethren in Aden. We sympathize with our brethren in these countries which are suffering from the aggression and tyranny of the enemies of Islam. Let all Muslims already united in their support for the British Empire join to resist Moussolini the Arch enemy of Islam and his partners in crime. On behalf of the Singapore Muslim community, MOHAMED ALKAFF.60

32The impact of German broadcasting appears to have been a primary motivation for establishing local Arabic broadcast stations by the end of 1940 throughout the Arabian Peninsula in Aden, Mukalla, Bahrain, and even one across the Indian Ocean in Singapore. These stations served as supplements to BBC Arabic in order to eclipse Axis Arabic-language broadcasts, especially Yūnis Baḥrī’s voice hailing from Germany. As someone who had traveled and lived in Arabia, India, and Southeast Asia, Baḥrī was intimately aware of the cultural and political connections between the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian Ocean region, and strategically exploited his knowledge to damage and attack Britain’s global Islamic publicity.

  • 61 IOR/R/20/B/651, 239-240.
  • 62 IOR/R/20/B/648, 229.
  • 63 IOR/R/15/2/153, 157.
  • 64 IOR/R/20/B/651, 234-239.

33To counter such efforts, the BBC attempted to curate relevant cultural content for Muslims while simultaneously emphasizing “the spiritual unity” of the Arab world. A look at the programs from the first two years of the BBC’s Arabic broadcasts reveals that phonograph records of Quran recitations were played frequently, and daily during Ramadan of 1938 and 1939. During 1938, the BBC began relaying broadcasts of live Quran recitations as well as lectures on Islamic subjects by Shaykh ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Muṣṭafā al-Marāghī from Egypt’s national broadcast station.61 Following the practices outlined in the BBC’s 1935 proposal, the Corporation requested that colonial offices in Arabia provide intelligence on what sort of broadcast content would be appropriate for the Eid celebrations at the end of Ramadan. In one notable Eid broadcast organized with the help of Aden’s colonial government in November 1938, the BBC invited a group of Sufi cantors from a community of Adenis and Yemenis living in the Welsh capital of Cardiff to perform a Sufi dhikr live in the BBC’s studio at Daventry, led by the ‘Alawī Shaykh ‘Abdullah ‘Alī al-Ḥikmī.62 While the Aden office wrote that the performance was received warmly by listeners back in the Aden Protectorate, officials in the Gulf reported that it had backfired to some extent there, with a few listeners reporting that the heavy breathing and musical chanting were “savage” and “irreligious,” perhaps the result of the increasing influence of Ibn Saud’s Wahabi policy in Arabia.63 Nonetheless, the Eid event featuring cantors of the ‘Alawī order’s Cardiff zawiyah was one of the first live performances to occur in the BBC Arabic studio in Daventry, and was hailed by the BBC as the first Islamic religious ceremony to be broadcasted live from Europe back to the Muslim world.64

  • 65 IOR/R/20/B/1463.
  • 66 Ibid, 25.

34Yet despite BBC Arabic’s publicity efforts being inherently global, drawing British officials’ attention from Wales to Java, the need to distill these concerns into a radio program curated for listeners living primarily within the Foreign and Colonial Office’s Middle East administration required these global dynamics be filtered through the much narrower frame of “Middle East intelligence.” In 1939, the intensifying Arab propaganda efforts between global powers led the British to establish the Middle East Intelligence Center in Cairo. It was a parallel network to the newly established Ministry of Information and included the Aden Protectorate in its fold of colonial intelligence gathering. The primary goal of the Center was to curate intelligence on public opinion in the Arabic speaking world due to the increasing influence of the Italian and other foreign Arabic propaganda machines. Basically, the Center fulfilled a need to create propaganda fields out of emerging nationalistic, linguistic, and cultural markets intertwined with the development of media industries.65 Yet due to the global purview of Arabia’s political and religious affairs, one of the first pieces of intelligence the Center tried to confirm with Aden was that the leader of the Republic of China, Chiang Kai-shek, was “sending 1,000 Chinese moslems to Mecca to spread anti-British propaganda.”66

  • 67 See IOR/R/15/2/152 and 153.
  • 68 Barbour, 1951, 60.

35In Arabia’s Gulf territories under Indian jurisdiction, the process of gathering intelligence and feedback for the BBC broadcasts pulled offices there increasingly into the communications infrastructure of the Colonial and Foreign Offices’ Middle East administration. By the end of 1938, Indian administrations in the Gulf wired intelligence items on broadcasting directly to the British Embassy and the “Orient Arabe Agency” in Cairo.67 In addition to being a center of British intelligence gathering in the Middle East, Egypt played a central role in the development of Britain’s Middle East publicity during the early era of BBC Arabic broadcasting, with most of the staff in Daventry being Egyptian, including the “golden voice” announcer Aḥmād Kamal Sarūr who had previously worked for Egyptian national radio (e. 1934). The BBC also relied on the existing infrastructure of the national Egyptian broadcast station to relay lectures, music, and Islamic programs to their global audience.68

  • 69 See IOR/R/15/2/152, 173-174 and 181-187. Early newspapers from the Hejaz such as al-Falāḥ and al-Qi (...)
  • 70 As Andrea Stanton (2013) has noted, a British colonial administrator named C. L. Strickland, who la (...)

36However, despite the formation of a narrower “Middle East” framework for Arabic publicity and intelligence gathering centered around Egypt, colonial reports from Arabia for the BBC demonstrated that Arabian listeners wanted to hear more on exchange rates for the Indian rupee, prices on pearls in India, and world affairs like the Spanish civil war or the Japanese invasion of China.69 Incidentally, this appears to have been why the existing Palestine Broadcasting Service in Jerusalem was sidelined as a staging point for the BBC’s early Arabic broadcasts, with listeners throughout Arabia and Egypt continually suggesting that the PBS broadcasts were dull, contained little information regarding events in Europe or East Asia, and had an unstable bandwidth reception compared to other international broadcasts.70 In any case, and in addition to global affairs beyond the Middle East, listeners throughout the Arabian Peninsula also wanted to hear local musical artists who had recorded for phonograph companies in places like Bombay, Baghdad, and Aden. While the BBC Arabic program pushed the Raj’s Arabian frontier closer to Britain’s Middle East administration, and particularly in administering cultural affairs and media publicity, British officials in Arabia were compelled to acknowledge and exploit Arabia’s existing landscape of media capitalism, which was propelled by global market flows throughout the Indian Ocean region and beyond.

Figure 6

Figure 6

American Sylvania radio tubes and England’s latest General Electric radio model (available from dealers in Mecca, Medina, and al-Ta’if) advertised in the Hejazi periodical Ṣawt al-Ḥijāz (Jeddah), March 14th 1940.

University of Leiden

Tapping into the Arabian media landscape: print, phonograph, and radio

  • 71 Allday, 2017.

37As most studies of media in the Arabian Peninsula concentrate on periods after the region’s oil boom, it is less commonly acknowledged that the region has long been plugged into regional and global circulations of print, musical industries, and even film: pivotal technological forces that, in addition to broadcasting, defined the development of popular culture around the world during the early twentieth century. During the 1930s, many British colonial administrators and Western travelers saw the technological forces of modernity being far away from Arabia, and its people’s way of life the vestige of ancient primitive cultures and traditions. As Louis Allday has shown, such worldviews were particularly prevalent in suggestions fielded by British officials to the BBC about what Arabic dialects and accents should be used for the broadcasts, many of which were regarded by the Corporation as unhelpful or, at the very least, ill-informed.71 Yet the ultimate goal of having listeners in Arabia want to listen to BBC Arabic required the adoption of policy, guided by input from the Corporation and organizations like the Bahrain listener’s council, that contradicted these assumptions to some extent. Indeed, BBC Arabic was inaugurated with acute attention to listeners throughout the Arabian Peninsula, not because they needed to be nursed to modernity, but because modernity’s technological forces, and particularly the repercussions of broadcasting, had already arrived and retained an influence that was completely out of Britain’s control. If colonial officials strictly adhered to their orientalist and racist assumptions without acknowledging Arabia’s existing media enterprises of print media and phonograph records, they would have not been able to give the early BBC Arabic broadcasts and British publicity a competitive edge in the region over the Italian and German propaganda machines.

  • 72 see footnotes 69 and 70.
  • 73 al-Waqayyān, 2007, 61-118.

38Given their preconceptions, which were inspired by existing broadcasting policies established in India and Palestine and founded on a paternalistic rhetoric of rural development, British officials thought radio could be a great modernizing tool for people throughout the Arabian Peninsula, who ostensibly had few newspapers, were mostly illiterate, lived in agrarian settings, and whose cultural traditions placed an emphasis on oral transmission.72 Yet historian Khalīfah al-Waqayyān has shown that, in places like Kuwait, modern Arab print culture has retained significant influence since at least the early 1900s despite widespread illiteracy and the absence of locally printed newspapers in the Gulf until 1939. Certain family dīwaniyyas would subscribe to Arabic journals and newspapers published in Iraq, Egypt, the Hejaz, and elsewhere during the early twentieth century, and have open meetings for reading, discussing, or debating the contents of print publications.73 This had the result that news of current affairs and events would spread verbally well beyond the literate reader or family dīwaniyya to the larger Kuwaiti society, an intertwined process of literate and oral transmission that was later exacerbated by broadcasting. During the late 1930s, the British resident advisor in Hadhramaut, Harold Ingrams, observed a similar phenomena of news transmission there:

  • 74 IOR/R/20/C/1066, 128-129.

If they [Hadhramis] have several versions of a story, they are quite capable of sifting it and will generally adopt the one which has the most likelihood of being true or which is best supported by details. I have noticed this time and again in its simplest form with Bedouins sorting out news brought by word of mouth, and I have constantly noticed in Tarim and Seiyun the careful sifting of news in the newspapers and on the wireless. As regards to the latter, parties sit round the radio and simply listen to one news broadcast after another, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine, London, Paris or Morocco, Rome, Berlin, the unknown station from Syria, Java, and anything else they can get. Practically speaking most of them take little interest in the music. Religious things are sometimes listened to and of course talks. It is the spoken word which attracts the most interest, and news most of all. People write down summaries of the news and after an orgy of bulletins compare notes.74

39While broadcasts blended nicely with age-old practices of oral transmission, another British intelligence summary from 1936 revealed how global broadcasts could also be recycled back into print publications, in this case in one of the earliest newspapers published in the Nejd. It reported that Ibn Saud’s royal diwan in Riyadh had “arrangements for receiving news by radio that are quite elaborate,” with a group of clerks writing down

  • 75 IOR/R/15/2/152, 45.

broadcasts from various foreign stations including London, Rome, Paris, Cairo, Jerusalem, and the North African stations and Holland. Every night they prepare a summary which after being seen by the King is run off simultaneously from dictation on Arabic typewriters and issued free to the chief persons in the Royal family and entourage. Thus (irregularly as perhaps Reuters might think) the Riyadh palace has a daily broadsheet, the first newspaper in central Arabia, the heading and title of which is AD DA‘AIYA” - the Publicity.75

40Perhaps what is most telling about these statements is that they reveal the great variety of Arabic-language bulletins that occupied the airwaves in Arabia during the 1930s. They also show how this globally broadcasted soundscape of spoken word intertwined with the region’s existing practices of oral transmission and early print culture. These complex circulations of news information compelled the British to utilize both print and radio to muster counter propaganda throughout the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian Ocean region, and call on local agents to help them.

  • 76 Rayḥanī, 1926, 10-19.
  • 77 al-Ḥijjī, 1992.
  • 78 al-Rashīd, 1933.

41While Gulf literates like ‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Rashīd would contribute to Iraqi and Egyptian publications during the early twentieth century, the Indian Ocean region also played a pivotal role in the development of journalism and modern print culture throughout the Arabian Peninsula, particularly in coastal regions of Southern Arabia and the Gulf. This resulted in the formation of a deterritorialized print culture before the establishment of local newspapers in Aden and Bahrain in 1939. India, and particularly Bombay, played an important role in the early development of Gulf print, with intellectuals like Khālid al-Faraj of Kuwait and ‘Abdullah al-Zayd of Bahrain establishing Arabic printing houses there during the early twentieth century. When the Lebanese-American journalist and historian Amīn Rīḥanī arrived in the Nejd to begin work on his Modern Nejd and its environs, he noted that many existing books on regional history possessed by Ibn Saud had been printed and published in India.76 As Arabian literates established themselves overseas in places like Southeast Asia where print capitalism was more developed, their publications would be sponsored by local advertisers and often the businesses of other Arab expatriates. In Java alone, Ya‘qūb al-Ḥijjī has identified well over a dozen Arabic newspapers and journals in publication during the 1920s and 1930s, owned almost exclusively by Hadhrami, Iraqi, Kuwaiti, and other Arab authors.77 In ‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Rashīd’s newspaper al-Tawḥīd published in Java, commercial advertisements would target consumers and readers back in the Hejaz, Aden, and the Gulf, revealing the circulation of Arabic print culture in Southeast Asia back to Arabia and its potential influence on cultural and political affairs there.78

  • 79 IOR/R/20/C/1781, 29.
  • 80 IOR/R/20/B/1586.
  • 81 IOR/R/20/C/1113, 23.
  • 82 IOR/R/15/2/174, 32-34, 41-42.
  • 83 IOR/R/20/C/767, 6-28.
  • 84 IOR/R/20/B/1592. File contains no numbered pages. See confidential communique dated April 24th, 194 (...)

42Around the outbreak of war, British officials in Aden were monitoring the influence of anti-British sentiment in Southeast Asia’s vibrant Arabic press which, like early newspapers in Saudi Arabia, could recirculate news obtained from radio broadcasts. In one instance, the publication of the al-Kathīrī association in Surabaya was recirculating damaging news propaganda against the Dutch and British obtained from Yūnis Baḥrī’s Germany broadcasts, which British authorities feared would reverberate back across the Indian Ocean to the Kathīrī homeland of Hadhramaut (Figure 5).79 Strengthening Britain’s wartime publicity against Axis propaganda throughout the Indian Ocean led to not only the establishment of Arabic radio stations in Aden, Mukalla, Bahrain, and Singapore in 1939 and 1940, but also the first newspapers published and printed in Aden and the Gulf. On the latter front, British officials in Aden turned to the Bombay educated Adeni lawyer, Muḥammad ‘Alī Luqmān, who had just established Arabia’s first independent Arabic newspaper in 1939, the weekly Fatāt al-Jazīrah (The Peninsula’s Maiden).80 At the time, colonial authorities deemed Fatāt al-Jazīrah sympathetic enough to British interests so that they subsidized the paper and sent 1,000 copies from Aden to the consulate in Batavia at the beginning of the War to counter publications like those of Surabaya’s al-Kathīrī association.81 Inspired by the Aden government’s efforts, colonial officials in Bahrain subsidized the Gulf’s first newspaper al-Baḥrayyn established in 1939 by the Cairo educated ‘Abdullah al-Zayd, a native of Bahrain who had previously presided over an Arabic publishing house in Bombay. Bahrain’s radio station was also established by the end of 1940, the first radio station in the Gulf.82 Around the same time, Harold Ingrams established a broadcasting station in Mukalla, and wired messages to British offices throughout the Indian Ocean from East Africa to India in an attempt to get Hadhrami audiences overseas to tune in.83 To ensure that Hadhramis at home and abroad received relevant news and entertainment, Ingrams reported that the Mukalla studio was well equipped with “Arabic, Indian, and Javanese” newspapers and a number of “Arabic, Swahili, and Hindustani” phonograph records. He also reported that a clerk for the Mukalla station had been hired, a Somali-born Indian man named Muhammad Ibrahim who spoke fluent Arabic. On the Southeast Asian front, a complaint fielded by “Said Aldjoeffrie, captain of the Arabs at Samarang” in 1940 about the Arabic broadcasting station in Singapore was that the station’s announcer spoke Hejazi Arabic. “Aldjoeffrie” (al-Ja‘afarī) declared that an announcer speaking Hadhrami Arabic would be more suitable for Singapore’s Arabic-language radio broadcast in order to guarantee its influence among Arab populations in Southeast Asia, made up primarily of Hadhramis.84

Figure 7

Figure 7

Right: Annual review for the Surabaya branch of the al-Kathiri Association in Java, 1938-1939 (British Library: IOR/R/20/C/1781). Left: second volume of Luqman’s The Peninsula’s Maiden, January 19th 1941 (British Library).

  • 85 IOR/R/15/2/153, 9-10. Miss Susan was a lesser known singer and recording artist who contracted with (...)

43The strategy of calling on local facilitators and informants to help with print and radio publicity continued as the British were compelled to discover Arabia’s existing commercial music markets. This reveals a level of attention to musical programs among Arabia’s global listenership that contradicts Harold Ingrams’ assumption (quoted above) that there was no such widespread interest: a position he seems to have walked back on after reporting the supply of numerous phonograph records for the radio station at Mukalla. As with other radio stations, a good music selection was essential for giving BBC Arabic a competitive edge throughout the Arabian Peninsula. The Italian station had established a strong musical program early on, and even hired a live band to perform in the studio at Bari headed by an Egyptian singer named “Miss Susan,” or al-Ānisa Sawsan (Figure 7).85 Furthermore, the BBC’s lack of an exciting musical program was a common target of criticism, being compared unfavorably with musical entertainment provided by Axis Arabic broadcasts. Given that they could not afford to bring a musical band to Daventry, the BBC resorted to playing mostly phonograph records of Egyptian music, but were eventually forced to expand their catalog to include Tunisian, Sudanese, Iraqi, Kuwaiti, and Yemeni records for entertaining the diverse and global tastes of Arab listeners.

Figure 8

Figure 8

“Miss Susan” or Mlle. Sawsan, who sang for the Italian Arabic broadcasts during the late 1930s, pictured in a 1931 Egyptian record catalog for His Master’s Voice.

Courtesy of Frédéric Lagrange.

  • 86 IOR/R/15/2/152, 60. See Allday, 2017.

44Efforts to cater to musical tastes of listeners throughout the Arabian Peninsula acutely reveals the tensions between colonial and academic stereotypes of Arabian linguistic and literary culture and the modern technological realities that were shaping poetic musical traditions of the region by the late 1930s. Before the inaugural broadcast, the Kuwait resident, Gerald de Gaury, stated that he believed the announcer of the BBC’s Arabic program should speak in a Nejdi accent, which was “accepted by all unprejudiced persons as the finest in Arabic.” Referring to a passage in Lewis Burckhardt’s Travels in Arabia (1829), de Guary stressed that “by far the best Arabic is spoken in the desert.” 86In the same report, he suggested that the BBC should let a similar stereotype of a timeless and pure Arab culture dictate their curation of musical content for Arabian listeners:

  • 87 Ibid., 59.

A reciter of Bedouin ballads (Qasaid), a player on the pipe (mitbidj), and a singer to the Viol (Rababa), all to be had through the good offices of the Gulf Rulers or the Ruler of Transjordan could be recorded for the gramophone. Non-pure Arab townsmen might pooh-pooh this but it will be a delight to the desert people and simple literates throughout the Arab speaking countries.87

  • 88 IOR/R/20/B/648, 119-122. For more on zāmil, see Urkevich, 2015, 275-277.

45Officials in Aden also had recommendations for making the BBC more palatable for “simple literates” living in the interior regions of Yemen. They similarly suggested making their own gramophone recordings of tribal zāmil chants, which they claimed were more “virile and robust” in character than the Egyptian commercial music played by the BBC, and when broadcasted would capture the sentiment of rural tribesmen in Yemen.88

  • 89 IOR/R/15/2/152, 62.
  • 90 Lambert and al-Akouri, 2020.

46Yet these suggestions were quickly scrapped when the authorities in Aden realized that a local record label had already overseen the mass commercial production of a zāmil recording. Similarly, in de Guary’s orientalist musings about language and music, he also conveniently included an addendum on the commercial recording activities of Gulf musicians at the end of 1937. It stated that “at the present moment Mr. Lall, the agent of His Master’s Voice Co., P.O. Box 118, 28 Rampart Row, Bombay, is sending for Kuwaitis to go to Bombay to record.”89 Also attached was a record catalog for the Lebanese Baidaphone company with over thirty Kuwaiti gramophone recordings listed inside. The addendum also noted that record companies had been established in Aden, which were the first to exist in the Arabian Peninsula. These were the international German Odeon firm and a local label called Aden Crown, both owned by the merchant brothers Ḥussayn and ‘Alī al-Ṣafī. There was also another label in Aden called Jafferphone, owned by the family firm “Messers Syed Jaffer & Brothers” that ran two movie theaters in Aden during the 1930s.90 In sum, de Gaury inadvertently pointed to the fact that, by 1938, music markets in Arabia had already been plugged into a deterritorialized commercial entertainment business whose centers of production comprised a geography that connected the cities of Baghdad, Aden, Cairo, Bombay, and even Surabaya.

  • 91 AlSalhi, 2018.
  • 92 Ibid.
  • 93 ِAlthough AlSalhi (2018, 2021) states that Gulf His Master’s Voice recordings from the late 1930s w (...)
  • 94 AlSalhi, 2018.
  • 95 AlSalhi, 2021.

47As early as 1927, Kuwaiti singers like ‘Abd al-Laṭīf al-Kuwaytī (‘Abdullatif al-Kuwaiti), ‘Abdullah Faḍalah, and the Kuwaiti brothers, Ṣaliḥ (violinist) and Dawūd (oudist) Ezra–or ‘Azrā–traveled to Baghdad to make what were some of the earliest commercial recordings produced for Gulf audiences by the Baidaphone company.91 By 1932, famous Bahraini singers like Ḍaḥī bin Walīd, who was at the time a “servant” or slave to the royal family, and prince Muḥammad bin Fāris al-Khalīfah traveled to Baghdad under the direction of the Bahraini record agent of Iranian origin, A. H. Maḥmūd al-Sā‘ātī, to record with His Master’s Voice.92 During the early 1930s, ‘Abd al-Laṭīf al-Kuwaytī, then one of the most famous singers both in the Gulf and throughout the Aden protectorate, also traveled to Cairo for a recording session with the Odeon branch there. By the mid to late 1930s, A. H. Maḥmūd was sending Bahraini musicians like Muḥammad Zuwayid to Bombay to record with Indian branches of the international firms His Master’s Voice and Odeon.93 When Arabian entrepreneurs finally established their own record labels later in the 1940s and 1950s, all were established in India as subsidiaries of the National Gramophone Company of Bombay before moving their recording studios back to the Gulf, a pattern resembling the development of Gulf print culture earlier in the twentieth century.94 As Ahmad AlSalhi has recently shown, the extraterritorial production that characterized the Gulf’s early record industry is highlighted by the career of ‘Abd al-Laṭīf al-Kuwaytī, who recorded in Baghdad, Cairo, and Bombay for at least ten different record labels during the 1930s and 1940s.95

48Instead of pandering to stereotypes about pure and timeless Arabian musical traditions, British officials were compelled to follow policy outlined in the BBC's 1935 proposal and consult Arabians themselves on what they wanted to hear, which was existing commercial recordings. Even de Gaury was forced to acknowledge this despite his preconceived notions, although he remained adamant that poetic culture in Arabia was emblematic of “pure” Arab tradition:

  • 96 R/15/2/153, 57.

The station [the BBC] confines itself to the broadcast of Egyptian, Syrian, and Iraqi songs and music, while the Kuwait people, and those of the Arab coast of the Gulf, the Yemen, the Hedjaz and other parts of Arabia proper like to listen to local tunes and to the kinds of songs known as Yamani, Aswat and songs of the pure Arabic poetry, all of which are available on records of most gramophone companies.96 (emphasis in original)

  • 97 IOR/L/PS/12/4131, 255-403; IOR/R/15/2/152, 57-62. For more on ṣawt or ’aṣwāt, see Urkevich, 2015, 1 (...)
  • 98 IOR/R/20/B/492-3, 71-74, 95-96; IOR/R/20/B/651.
  • 99 IOR/R/20/B/651.
  • 100 Serjeant, 1951, 5. Also see Lavin, 2021.
  • 101 IOR/R/15/2/153, 81-84; IOR/R/20/B/651.

49The demand for song styles such as “Yamānī,” referring to poetic and melodic styles cultivated in Yemen, and “‘Aswāt,” a genre cultivated in Kuwait and Bahrain during the early twentieth century, compelled colonial officers in Arabia to obtain recordings by ‘Abd al-Laṭīf al-Kuwaytī, ‘Abdullah Faḍalah, and other Kuwaiti artists who performed these genres for the Baidaphone and Odeon companies.97 Due to the demand for local music in the Aden Protectorate, the Sultan of Laḥij, ‘Abd al-Karīm al-‘Abdilī, personally sent the BBC gramophone records produced by the Odeon and Aden Crown labels. These featured local talent from Southern Arabia including Laḥijī artists who sang songs written by the Sultan’s brother Prince Aḥmad Faḍil al-‘Abdilī al-Qumandān, a pioneering lyricist of popular song in Southern Yemen.98 Ostensibly an effort to cater to Arab listeners in Southeast Asia, early BBC programs even list phonograph records of “Malay songs” sung in Arabic being broadcasted from Daventry.99 Like Arabian print culture in Southeast Asia, the Malay Archipelago was also home to a vibrant Arabian music scene during the 1930s pioneered by Hadhrami singers in Java like Shaykh al-Bār, whose gramophone records recorded in Surabaya were widely exported back to Southern Arabia during the 1930s and 1940s.100 The presence of Adeni, Yemeni, and Kuwaiti records being featured on the BBC’s Arabic programs made the Bahrain listeners committee also want to have local talent from their country represented too. They sent His Master’s Voice gramophone records of Ḍaḥī bin Walīd and prince Muḥammad bin Fāris al-Khalīfah, which were played frequently by the BBC during 1938 and 1939.101 By 1940, the BBC had a full arsenal of recordings for audiences throughout the Arabian Peninsula, which, although not played as frequently as Egyptian recordings, undoubtedly helped make the BBC a viable competitor in the region’s wartime airwaves.

50In the end, for the BBC Arabic to gain its competitive edge among the Arabian Peninsula’s global listenership, British officials had to acknowledge that the age-old Arabian customs of passing on news and performing musical poetry had become intertwined with the circulation of global media industries. Indeed, these cultural practices were being propelled by the technological and market forces of broadcasting, print, and phonograph records that greatly transcended what some British officials considered to be more provincial milieus of Arabian cultural production.

Figure 9

Figure 9

Left: Two discs obtained by the BBC to broadcast to audiences throughout the Gulf. Right: ‘Abd al-Laṭīf al-Kuwaytī (‘Abdullatif al-Kuwaiti) performing “malik al-gharam” (“king of love”) accompanied by Ṣaliḥ and Dawūd Ezra (Baghdad, c. 1928) (Courtesy of Ahmad AlSalhi). Right: a performance for His Master's Voice (Baghdad, 1932) by Bahraini performer Ḍaḥī bin Walīd (Courtesy of Hazem Jamjoum and the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership).


51Given the central role that the Arabian Peninsula’s global listenership played in the beginning of international Arabic broadcasting and BBC Arabic during the 1930s, there is much more historical research to be done on the subject. For example, the Arabic broadcasting stations established in Aden, Mukalla, Bahrain and Singapore, as well as the role of the Saudi kingdom in interwar media publicity, are rich topics requiring more research.

52The present article has argued that, even after a difficult start, the BBC Arabic broadcasts were not a watershed moment for the Arabian Peninsula’s listenership during the 1930s. An investigation of British imperial efforts to facilitate the reception of BBC Arabic’s early programs throughout the Arabian Peninsula has revealed the global contours of the region’s existing networks of media capitalism and its associated forms of production and consumption. In order to become a viable competitor with Axis propaganda machines, BBC Arabic was compelled to situate itself–although not always successfully–within a complex and layered circulation of news and entertainment content disseminated by other broadcasts, print publications, and phonograph records throughout the Indian Ocean region and beyond, including between British and Dutch imperial territories. Similarly, the Corporation also had to strike a complex balance between catering to Arab nationalist feeling and political Islamic sentiments gravitating around the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and intertwined with the politicization of the Indian Ocean Hajj. Arab nationalism and political Islam were broad movements driven by individuals like ‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Rashīd and Yūnis Baḥrī who, like the print and radio technologies enabling their work, transcended global imperial boundaries and, in the case of Baḥrī, created severe challenges to Britain’s Islamic and Arab publicity.

53The article also suggests that future studies of colonialism and media publicity in the Arabian Peninsula should further consider the implications of the region being the geographical pivot point between Britain’s Middle East and Indian empires. As it has demonstrated, global competition in international broadcasting led to the assertion of cultural, linguistic, and geographical media propaganda fields, which, in the case of BBC Arabic, saw the creation of a colonial publicity and cultural programing apparatus that was largely centered around Cairo and the mostly Egyptian-staffed BBC studio in Daventry. This pushed Gulf colonial administrations further away from the British Raj’s India Office into the fold of the Foreign and Colonial offices’ Middle East administration, while colonial officials were obliged to filter the inherently global dynamics affecting media publicity throughout the Arabian Peninsula through a much narrower frame of “Middle East” intelligence. This is a trend of knowledge production that has continued with the academic field of Middle East Studies, which has been critiqued by historians like Fahad Ahmad Bishara (2020) as being a much too narrow geographical frame for understanding the historic economic, political, and cultural tides that have shaped the modern Gulf and the wider Arabian Peninsula.

54Indeed, and to give the BBC its competitive edge in Arabia, British officials had to acknowledge that the commercial and socio-political interests of radio listeners throughout the region stretched far beyond the parochial lens of Middle East intelligence, demanding attention to various locales throughout the Indian Ocean region and even as far (or as close) as the ‘Alawī zawiyah in Cardiff, Wales. This serves as an important reminder that networks created by modern communications technologies such as radio and the people who operate and consume them are global phenomena that resist being neatly contained within any succinct terrestrial “area” or maritime geography, be it the Middle East or the Indian Ocean. Thus, rather than trying to identify periodized cultural or socio-political shifts between the two geographical regions, this article encourages further investigation of the historical role media technology played in shaping ideas about geography and culture throughout the Middle East and Indian Ocean arena.

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ALLDAY, Louis. “The Establishment of BBC Arabic & Egyptian ‘Nahwy.’” Asian and African studies blog (British Library), October 4th, 2017.

ALSALHI, Ahmad Ali. “Recordings of ‘Abdullatif al-Kuwaiti: 1927-1947,” Music in Arabia: Perspectives on Heritage, Mobility, and Nation, ed. Issa Boulos, Virginia Danielson, and Anne K. Rassmussen, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2021.

———. Saut in Bahrain and Kuwait: History and Creativity in Concept and Practice. Ph.D Dissertation, Royal Holloway, University of London, 2018.

Al-RASHīD الرشيد, عبدالعزيز. "التلغراف اللاسلكي والراديو في صحراء نجد." جريدة التوحيد عدد ٢, ٣١ مارس, باتافيا (جاكارتا), إندونيسيا, مكاتب العمومية, ١٩٣٣.

AL-RASHīD and BAḤRīالرشيد, عبدالعزيز و يونس بحري. مجلة الكويت والعراقي. سنة الاولى, عدد ٢, أكتوبر ١٩٣١ إندونيسيا: مطبعة الوحدة, ١٩٣١.

AL-ḤIJJī الحجي, يعقوب يوسف. الشيخ عبدالعزيز الرشيد, سيرة حياته, الكويت, مركز البحوت والدراسات الكويتية, ١٩٩٢

AL-WAQAYYĀNالوقيان, خليفة. الثقافة في الكويت, بواكير, اتجاهات, ريادات (طبعة الثانية), الكويت, مكتبة الكويت الوطنية أثناء النشر, ٢٠٠٧.

BAḤRīبحري, يونس. هنا برلين حي العرب, أروع المذكرات السياسية والتاريخية في سلسلة شهرية. عدد ١ و ٤, بيروت, شركة فرج الله للمطبوعات, ٢٠٠٢(؟). تم الحصول على العددين في موقع تاريخ ٢٤ مايو ٢٠٢٠.

BARBOUR, Nevill. “Broadcasting to the Arab World: Arabic transmissions from the BBC and other non-Arab stations,” Middle East Journal, Winter 5(1), 1951, 57-69.

BISHARA, Fahad Ahmad. “The Many Voyages of Fateh al-Khayr: Unfurling the Gulf in the Age of Oceanic History,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 52 (3), 2020, 397-412.

BOSE, Sugata. A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire, Harvard, Harvard University Press, 2009.

CROUZET, Guillemette.“The British Empire in India, the Gulf pearl and the making of the Middle East,” Middle Eastern Studies, 55:6, 2019, 864-878.

FAHMY, Ziad. Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the modern nation through popular culture, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2011.

FUCCARO, Nelida. Histories of City and State in the Persian Gulf: Manama since 1800. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

KAPTEIN, Nico J. G. Islam, Colonialism and the Modern Age in the Netherlands East Indies: A biography of Sayyid ‘Uthman (1822-1914), Leiden, Brill, 2015.

LAMBERT, Jean and Rafik al-Akouri. Patrimonialisation ‘sauvage’ et archéologie industrielle de la musique yemenite: les premiers enregistrements a Aden (1935-1960),” Annales islamologiques (53), 2020, 49-94.

LOWE, Michael Christopher. Imperial Mecca: Ottoman Arabia and the Indian Ocean Hajj, New York, Columbia University Press, 2020.

METCALF, Thomas R. Imperial Connections: India in the Indian Ocean Arena, 1860-1920, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2008. See Chapter Two, “Constructing Identities.”

ONLEY, James. The Arabian Frontier of the British Raj: Merchants, Rulers, and the British in the Nineteenth-Century Gulf, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008.

REESE, Scott S. Imperial Muslims: Islam, Community and Authority in the Indian Ocean, 1839-1937, Edinburgh, University of Edinburgh Press, 2018.

RīḤANī,الريحاني, أمين. نجد الحديث وملحقاته و سيرة عبدالعزيز عبدالرحمن آل فيصل آل سعود, بيروت, المطبعة العلمية ليوسف صادر, ١٩٢٨.

SCALES, Rebecca P. Subversive Sound: Transnational Radio, Arabic Recordings, and the Dangers of Listening in French Colonial Algeria, 1934-1939.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 52(2), 2010, 384-417.

SERJEANT, R. B. Prose and Poetry from Hadramawt, London, Taylor’s Foreign Press, 1951.

STANTON, Andrea L. “Situating Radio in the Soundscape of Mandate Palestine.” Jerusalem Quarterly, Issue 86, Summer, 2021.

———. “Listening in from afar: The BBC Arabic service and the Bahrain listeners' committee, 1938-1943,” British Journal of Middle East Studies, research paper, published online February 24, 2020,

———. “Can imperial radio be transnational? British-affiliated Arabic radio broadcasting during the interwar period.” History Compass 18(1), 2020(b).

———. “This is Jerusalem Calling”: State Radio in Mandate Palestine. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2013.

SLIGHT, John. The British Empire and the Hajj, 1865-1956, Harvard, Harvard University Press, 2015.

URKEVICH, Lisa. Music and Traditions of the Arabian Peninsula: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar. New York and London: Routledge, 2015.

WILLIS, John M. “Making Yemen Indian: Rewriting the Boundaries of Imperial Arabia,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 41, 2009, 23-38.

Archival Sources

India Office Records (IOR):

-R/20 series (at British Library)

-R/15 and L/PS/12 series (online with Qatar Digital Library:

Haut de page


1 al-Rashīd, 1933, 5-6. Translated from Arabic by the author.

2 Tarīkh al-lāsilikī fī al-Ḥijāz (History of Wireless in the Hejaz),” Ṣawt al-Ḥijāz Vol. 21, August 29th, 1932. This article claims that it was the Ottomans who first introduced wireless to the Hejaz during the First World War.

3 al-Ḥijjī, 1992, 331 and 497.

4 Fahmy, 2011.

5 Nelida Fuccaro (2009:182-186), for example, has noted how Nasserist radio stations like Ṣawt al-‘Arab contributed to “egalitarian political acculturation” in Bahrain during the 1950s; however, the interwar period remains largely unexplored.

6 Onley, 2008; Willus, 2009.

7 Bose, 2009; Bishara, 2020.

8 Scales, 2010.

9 Stanton, 2013 and 2020.

10 Stanton, 2020b.

11 My discussion of this “shift” is inspired by a fruitful conversation initiated by historian Ulrike Freitag during Q & A after the “Cultural Centralities of the Arabian Peninsula: a historical perspective” panel during the Culture Made in Arabia conference, April 5th, 2021.

12 Crouzet, 2019; Reese 2018.

13 Barbour, 1951, 61.

14 IOR/R/15/2/74, 122-125.

15 Barbour, 1951, 59.

16 IOR/R/20/B/648, 182-185.

17 R/20/A/3795, 6-25.

18 Ibid.

19 IOR/R/15/2/152, 1-14.

20 Fuccaro (2009:183) has published an advertisement in English for radios by A. M. Yateem Brothers, which indicates that the firm was selling American Philco radios (manufactured in Philadelphia) by 1937.

21 Ibid.

22 Barbour, 1951, 58.

23 IOR/R/15/2/152, 41.

24 IOR/R/20/A/3795, 46. Seager seems to have mistakenly believed that the Italian Arabic station was broadcasted from Rome instead of Bari.

25 Ibid., 46-47.

26 IOR/R/20/A/3795, 53.

27 Ibid.; also see IOR/R/15/2/152, 41.

28 IOR/R/20/B/648, 51-52; Barbour, 1951, 59. Ḥāfiẓ Wahbah also wrote the authoritative Jazīrat al-‘Arab fī l-qarn al-‘ishrīn (1935) and was an intimate friend of Ibn Saud. In his memoirs Arabian Days (1964), Wahbah also recalled early backlash against radio by conservative clerics throughout Saudi Arabia. However, my research conducted for this article has not revealed that such conservatism played any substantial role in determining British radio policy in Arabia during the early days of the BBC broadcasts. As this article notes, there was at times religious backlash against the content of some radio programs, such as the broadcasting of Sufi chanting during Ramadan. In order to cater to what were perceived (although not always accurately) as religious sensitivities among Muslim listeners, the BBC would also reduce musical programing during Ramadan, instead playing more phonograph recordings of the Quran. I thank Philippe Pétriat and Frédéric Lagrange for bringing these dimensions of Ḥāfiẓ Wahbah’s work to my attention.

29 IOR/15/2/153, p.124-140; Stanton, 2020.

30 IOR/15/2/153, 112-140.

31 IOR/R/20/B/648, 116. The original script was published in the Zaidi government’s mouthpiece, the periodical al-Imam (Vol. 137, Dhu al-Q‘adah 1356, p. 4), and indeed does not have Sayf al-Islam referring to his father as commander of the faithful, thus confirming statements of the British report that the Prince went off script. I viewed this periodical at the University of Leiden Archives, March 2022.

32 Content geared toward Palestinian listeners was minimal during the inaugural broadcast probably because of the existence of the Palestine Broadcasting Service, which had already been established under British direction (see Stanton 2013).

33 Lowe 2020; Slight 2015.

34 Ibid.

35 Metcalf, 2008. See Chapter Two, “Constructing Identities”; Willis, 2009.

36 Kaptein, 2015; Reese, 2018.

37 Reese 2018.

38 al-Ḥijjī, 1992, 128-205.

39 Ibid., 214-215.

40 Rayḥanī, 1928.

41 al-Ḥijjī, 224-229.

42 al-Ḥijjī, 1992, 335-360.

43 Baḥrī, 2002 [?], vol.1, 12-13.

44 IOR/R/15/2/153, 247.

45 Baḥrī, 2002 [?], vol. 1, 10-15.

46 Barbour, 1951, 63.

47 IOR/R/20/C/1781, 18-22.

48 IOR/R/20/B/1356.

49 IOR/R/20/C/1781, 51.

50 Baḥrī, 2002 [?], vol. 4, 15.

51 al-Ḥijjī, 1992, 226.

52 al-Ḥijjī, 1992.

53 Baḥrī and al-Rashīd, 1931, 38-43.

54 IOR/R/20/B/1448, 1-2.

55 IOR/R/20/C/1781, 45-48.

56 Ibid., 67.

57 Ibid.; IOR/R/20/B/1591.

58 IOR/R/20/C/1781, 18-22.

59 Ibid., 25.

60 IOR/R/20/C/1113, 30.

61 IOR/R/20/B/651, 239-240.

62 IOR/R/20/B/648, 229.

63 IOR/R/15/2/153, 157.

64 IOR/R/20/B/651, 234-239.

65 IOR/R/20/B/1463.

66 Ibid, 25.

67 See IOR/R/15/2/152 and 153.

68 Barbour, 1951, 60.

69 See IOR/R/15/2/152, 173-174 and 181-187. Early newspapers from the Hejaz such as al-Falāḥ and al-Qiblah in Mecca under Sherif Hussein’s Kingdom of the Hejaz (1916-1924) and later the Saudi papers Umm al-Qurā (e. 1924 in Mecca) and Ṣawt al-Ḥijāz (e. 1932 in Jeddah), periodicals which I studied at Leiden University during March 2022, all reported on global events in China from the Spirit Soldier Rebellions of the 1920s to the Japanese invasion during the late 1930s. Umm al-Qurā also frequently reported on the Spanish Civil War during the 1930s. Even so, the IOR file referenced here reveals that colonial residents like Charles Palgrave in Bahrain thought that global events such as those in China, including Chinese names, should be “simplified” for listeners in the Arabian Peninsula, revealing a common patronizing thread in colonial discourses regarding broadcasting in the colonies, whether in India or in Arab countries (see following footnote).

70 As Andrea Stanton (2013) has noted, a British colonial administrator named C. L. Strickland, who laid the groundwork for the paternalistic approach to the Palestine Broadcasting Service’s Arabic program during the 1930s, drew on his previous experience as a civil servant for the Government of India in the Punjab and Peshawar, where the colonial government had contracted the Marconi company to provide simplistic radio programing for what they considered the provincial tastes of rural farmers. Yet as a later report from the Government of India to the Aden Protectorate offices stated, such patronizing broadcasting efforts, which were mostly “digests of agricultural pamphlets” and weakly funded, were ultimately unsuccessful, with listeners taking little interest in the broadcasts due to lack of entertainment value, relevant reporting, and other factors (see IOR/R/20/B/648, “Report on Progress of Rural Broadcasting in India, 1938”). As the report forwarded to Aden noted, All India Radio was ultimately obliged to take over the broadcasting service, and thereby focus on providing broadcast content that actually catered to the tastes and concerns of rural listeners. Based on this report and others throughout the Arab world about the dullness and substandard reporting of the PBS during the late 1930s, it would seem that C. L. Strickland’s groundwork for the PBS, inspired by unsuccessful precedents in colonial India, contributed to the relative unsuccess of the station at this time throughout the Arab world, especially among listeners who were globally oriented and preferred Arabic programs that met the standards of the other international radio stations they had access to.

71 Allday, 2017.

72 see footnotes 69 and 70.

73 al-Waqayyān, 2007, 61-118.

74 IOR/R/20/C/1066, 128-129.

75 IOR/R/15/2/152, 45.

76 Rayḥanī, 1926, 10-19.

77 al-Ḥijjī, 1992.

78 al-Rashīd, 1933.

79 IOR/R/20/C/1781, 29.

80 IOR/R/20/B/1586.

81 IOR/R/20/C/1113, 23.

82 IOR/R/15/2/174, 32-34, 41-42.

83 IOR/R/20/C/767, 6-28.

84 IOR/R/20/B/1592. File contains no numbered pages. See confidential communique dated April 24th, 1940 for this reference.

85 IOR/R/15/2/153, 9-10. Miss Susan was a lesser known singer and recording artist who contracted with the Gramophone Company and His Master’s Voice in Egypt during the early 1930s. I thank Frédéric Lagrange for this information.

86 IOR/R/15/2/152, 60. See Allday, 2017.

87 Ibid., 59.

88 IOR/R/20/B/648, 119-122. For more on zāmil, see Urkevich, 2015, 275-277.

89 IOR/R/15/2/152, 62.

90 Lambert and al-Akouri, 2020.

91 AlSalhi, 2018.

92 Ibid.

93 ِAlthough AlSalhi (2018, 2021) states that Gulf His Master’s Voice recordings from the late 1930s were made in Baghdad, correspondence in the India Office Records with Bahrain’s HMV and Odeon agent, A. H. Mahmood, in file IOR/R/15/1351, as well as the statements made by De Gaury in IOR/R/15/2/152 suggest that Gulf recording sessions for that company were also happening in Bombay during this time.

94 AlSalhi, 2018.

95 AlSalhi, 2021.

96 R/15/2/153, 57.

97 IOR/L/PS/12/4131, 255-403; IOR/R/15/2/152, 57-62. For more on ṣawt or ’aṣwāt, see Urkevich, 2015, 174-176.

98 IOR/R/20/B/492-3, 71-74, 95-96; IOR/R/20/B/651.

99 IOR/R/20/B/651.

100 Serjeant, 1951, 5. Also see Lavin, 2021.

101 IOR/R/15/2/153, 81-84; IOR/R/20/B/651.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1
Légende Al-Rashīd’s al-Tawḥīd (Attauhid), published in Bogor (Buitenzorg), Java, 1932-1933.
Fichier image/jpeg, 263k
Titre Figure 2
Légende Program for the inaugural week (3rd-8th of January, 1938) of the BBC’s Arabic broadcasting service. These programs were distributed to colonial offices throughout Arabia.
Crédits (British Library: IOR/R/20/B/648)
Fichier image/jpeg, 343k
Titre Figure 3
Légende A Phillips loudspeaker blasts a BBC broadcast to a large audience from the top of a building in Khormaksar, Aden, December 1939.
Crédits National Archives (London, UK): CO 323/1742/9
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Titre Figure 4
Légende Al-Rashīd (second from left) and Baḥrī (second from right) in Java at a farewell banquet for Hadhrami Sayyid Ibrahim al-Saqaf, 1931. Although initially friendly with the ‘Alawīs in Java, al-Rashīd and Baḥrī’s relations with them soon deteriorated. (al-Kuwayyt wa al-‘Irāqī, Vol 1, 1931, p. 39)
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Légende First volume of al-Rashīd and Baḥrī’s al-Kuwayyt wa al-‘Irāqī, September 1931.
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Légende American Sylvania radio tubes and England’s latest General Electric radio model (available from dealers in Mecca, Medina, and al-Ta’if) advertised in the Hejazi periodical Ṣawt al-Ḥijāz (Jeddah), March 14th 1940.
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Légende Right: Annual review for the Surabaya branch of the al-Kathiri Association in Java, 1938-1939 (British Library: IOR/R/20/C/1781). Left: second volume of Luqman’s The Peninsula’s Maiden, January 19th 1941 (British Library).
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Légende “Miss Susan” or Mlle. Sawsan, who sang for the Italian Arabic broadcasts during the late 1930s, pictured in a 1931 Egyptian record catalog for His Master’s Voice.
Crédits Courtesy of Frédéric Lagrange.
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Légende Left: Two discs obtained by the BBC to broadcast to audiences throughout the Gulf. Right: ‘Abd al-Laṭīf al-Kuwaytī (‘Abdullatif al-Kuwaiti) performing “malik al-gharam” (“king of love”) accompanied by Ṣaliḥ and Dawūd Ezra (Baghdad, c. 1928) (Courtesy of Ahmad AlSalhi). Right: a performance for His Master's Voice (Baghdad, 1932) by Bahraini performer Ḍaḥī bin Walīd (Courtesy of Hazem Jamjoum and the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership).
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Gabriel Lavin, « The Airwaves in Arabia: BBC Arabic, British Imperialism, and the Arabian Peninsula’s Global Listenership, c. 1933-1940 », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 17 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2023, consulté le 29 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Gabriel Lavin

Department of Ethnomusicology, University of California, Los Angeles

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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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