My Experience as an American Student in the Gulf: What It Is Like Being Watched

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This past January, I participated in the Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Program (ILDP), sponsored by Queens College. ILDP aims to foster cultural and religious understanding through dialogue for national student leaders. The program took students to Muscat, Oman, Dubai, and the United Arab Emirates for a total of two weeks. The most impressionable aspect of my trip was perhaps experiencing two modern surveillance states where people still seemed to be happy despite living in non-democracies. The concept of “big brother” constantly watching has always instilled fear in the west, but perhaps this “brother” is looking out for a nation’s best interests – he is a “brother” after all. My experience in surveillance states as a western student challenged my own notions of freedom and national identity. I aim to share the most impressionable instances of surveillance and media control from my western perspective.

            In the UAE, as well as in Oman, I noticed my messages to family on apps such as Viber and facetime were not going through. Oman and the UAE block the use of these apps. Looking to case studies like that of Iran, where the government shut off internet access as a response to civil unrest, or the case in Lebanon, where the government proposed a tax on free WhatsApp calls, the blocking of Viber and Facetime seemed less extreme compared to other Middle Eastern neighbors. It’s important to note that the limiting of these apps is not only to control its use in a social and political context, but also as a means of ensuring the prosperity of national telephone companies who lose business at the expense of these free calling apps. This may imply, however, that all other apps I was using while in the region were being monitored by the government. At times it was impossible to reach out to my family members in real time. This was especially concerning when Iran threatened to bomb Dubai if the United States made a move after the murder of Qasem Soleimani. Thankfully, our program coordinators did an excellent job in ensuring our safety.

            Perhaps what was most different and at times concerning as a westerner in the Middle East was the constant surveillance. This is by no means claiming that the United States does not somewhat watch its own citizens, but the surveillance while in the Middle East felt much more overt; the government did not seem to care if you knew you were being watched and perhaps they wanted you to know you were being watched. While meeting Dr. Nabil Alkhatib, media leader for Al Arabia, a Saudi Arabian news channel, a question was asked about the monitoring of media. Looking to events like the recent murder of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, there is a clear and eminent danger in navigating what is acceptable in Middle Eastern media. Dr. Alkhatib answered simply, along the lines of, “You are always being watched – even now,” to which he motioned to the corner of our conference room, where a camera the size of a soda was filming us.

            There were multiple occasions on my trip that I felt I was being watched. The most blatant time, and perhaps the most acceptable time, was on our trip to Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Besides the understandable reminders to fix my hijab and remain modest, I had noticed people wearing earpieces. As I posed in front of the mosque, a man dressed in all black came over and told me to delete the photo. He had told me that there was no posing in front of the mosque, and I deleted the picture. Nonetheless, upon looking over my photos, I noticed multiple figures dressed in black suits lurking behind pillars. I understand that this is an acceptable place to have high security given the prestige and religious connotations of the mosque, but the high-level security was impressionable. There were moments in which meetings would be interrupted by unknown individuals who would sit quietly in the back of the room taking notes. It’s safe to say that I became paranoid, or perhaps hyper-aware of surveillance. 

Although uncomfortable at times, my discomfort has since transformed into deep reflection. I have a great deal of gratitude for my experiences with the Ibrahim program and hope to continue researching surveillance states.

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