Icon of defiance and hope: Gamal Abdel Nasser’s image in Gulf history

The private museum of Salih al-Hassan, tucked away in a quiet residential area of Muharraq, Bahrain, is a treasure trove of artifacts documenting the material culture of the Gulf. As might be expected from a man who named his eldest son Abdel Nasser, numerous portraits of the eponymous Egyptian leader adorn the walls of the converted majlis. I stop in front of one such picture, superimposed onto an illustration of two peacocks. Many such peacock paintings were imported from India to decorate homes in the Gulf around the middle of the twentieth century. While most featured Islamic symbols such as calligraphy and representations of holy places, some incorporated photographs of rulers.

Demonstrators raise images of Abdel Nasser in Muharraq, Bahrain (circa 1960s). Photographed by Abdulla Alkhan.

 I am visiting the museum at the same time as some elderly Bahraini gentlemen, members of a WhatsApp group dedicated to commemorating Gamal Abdel Nasser. One of them notes my interest in the artwork and explains: “In the olden days, when we had a wedding in the neighborhood, we used to collect these pictures from the neighbors and hang them up in the house where the wedding was held.” Today, it is surreal to imagine an Egyptian president’s portrait peering down from amidst peacocks upon a traditional Gulf wedding.

On another occasion, I spot a few peacock pictures at an antique market and ask the dealer if he has any featuring Abdel Nasser. Shaking his head, he says: “Those sell fast and fetch high prices. He still has his admirers in Bahrain.” I later find evidence of the leader’s enduring popularity in the Gulf state while visiting a government ministry in Manama. Entering an office, I am surprised to see Abdel Nasser’s portrait on the wall, a throwback to the 1950s and 1960s when this was a familiar sight in workplaces, schools, shops and cafes throughout the Gulf. 

Remarkably, the history of Nasserism in the region is now largely forgotten. This can be partly attributed to governments in the Gulf, which have sought to suppress the memory of the popular mobilization and revolutionary tendencies that the ideology entailed. Yet academic literature on the Gulf has also contributed to this amnesia by portraying the region as a lost world virtually untouched by modernist ideological currents, where primordial tribal and ethno-sectarian loyalties have always reigned supreme. Moreover, the few existing studies on modernist ideologies in the region tend to focus on political groups and movements while neglecting the broader impact these ideologies have had on the state and society. Nasserism in particular transcended political doctrine to become a broad cultural phenomenon in the Gulf between the 1950s and 1970s. Popular adulation for the Pan-Arab leader found expression in the local press, poetry, and postage stamps, and was even inscribed onto the urban fabric. Abdel Nasser still lends his name to a main road and public park in Kuwait and a commercial street in Sharjah, while Dubai’s central Baniyas Square is still referred to colloquially by its former title: Gamal Abdel Nasser Square.  

The widespread veneration of Abdel Nasser’s image perhaps best illustrates the extent to which the leader became a symbol upon which people in the Gulf of various backgrounds projected their hopes and dreams. At a time when new political identities were being forged, the president’s portrait became a marker of shared values and identity, helping to bridge divisions between communities, classes, and regions. This quasi-religious practice was all the more remarkable given that the veneration of images was previously uncommon in the Gulf. Affection for Abdel Nasser was of course by no means universal, and he continued to have his ideological opponents in the region. Moreover, it is doubtful that his diverse army of admirers shared much in common beyond a broad opposition to Western colonialism and a desire for independence and self-respect. Nevertheless, it can safely be said that no secular symbol has unified as many people in the region before or since. 

In the years following the 1952 Egyptian Revolution, Abdel Nasser’s popularity in the Gulf grew in tandem with his stature in the new military government. By that time, the people of the region had long regarded Egypt as the cultural center of the Arab world, avidly following its press and sending their sons to study at its schools and universities. The Egyptian government had also garnered goodwill through the teachers it provided to Kuwait and Bahrain from the early 1940s. This did not prevent people in the Gulf from welcoming the Free Officers’ rise to power, which many hoped would restore the dignity the Arabs had lost with the 1948 defeat in Palestine. On this basis, fundraising campaigns for the Egyptian army were held in Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain beginning in 1955. In the latter, a mass gathering was held where a portrait of Abdel Nasser was auctioned off, with Crown Prince Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa placing the winning bid in an effort to placate popular sentiment. A reporter from the opposition-oriented Bahraini newspaper Al-Watan described the scene: “The peoples’ palms almost burned from the energetic applause and splendid rapture spread by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s picture as it passed among the spectators. I felt as if each spectator almost jumped from his place to touch the legendary figure that looked out upon the people with confidence and pride through the glazed paper.”

As occurred elsewhere in the Arab world, it was during the 1956 Suez Crisis that Abdel Nasser’s status as Pan-Arab hero became consolidated in the Gulf. The events sparked unprecedented popular demonstrations throughout the region, including in Qatar, which already had a history of oil workers’ activism. Qatari academic Ali Khalifa Al-Kuwwari recalls participating in a strike with fellow oil company employees: Brandishing pictures of Abdel Nasser, they commandeered company lorries to transport them to Doha, where large protests were taking place. One of the protests’ leaders even strapped the president’s portrait to his forehead. 

In Kuwait, a mass protest movement erupted under the leadership of the local branch of the Movement of Arab Nationalists. Its supporters and sympathizers used Abdel Nasser’s image as a (sometimes literal) badge of identity. The British-controlled Kuwait Oil Company reported that vendors in the town’s central Safat Square sold “pictures of Nasser suitable for car display and houses, and button-hole badges.” Another dispatch stated that “consignments of portraits of Abdul Nasser have been received and are being distributed widely both to taxi-drivers and shopkeepers.” British government and oil company officials attempted to gauge the public mood by the prevalence of these pictures.

A photographer uses images of Abdel Nasser and other political figures as a backdrop during Eid festivities (Kuwait, 1960). Published in Risalat al-Naft magazine. From the collection of Ali Alrais.

The Kuwaiti authorities’ response to this protest movement was initially heavy-handed, as when security forces violently attacked demonstrators carrying a portrait of Abdel Nasser on August 16, 1956. However, as popular pressure mounted, the government was forced to negotiate with the opposition and accede to many of its demands. Moreover, it increasingly allowed for displays of Nasserist sentiment and imagery, even in official settings. According to British correspondence, on the first anniversary of the founding of the United Arab Republic in 1959, the Kuwaiti authorities permitted a “parade round the town with [a] portrait of Nasser.” The head of public security Sheikh Abdullah Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah, whose forces assaulted protesters in 1956, accompanied the procession. 

At a subsequent celebration held at Shuwaikh Secondary School, “the only portrait of the [Kuwaiti] Ruler on display was sandwiched between larger images of Colonels Nasser and Aref.” There were limits to the ruling family’s tolerance, however, and when Kuwaiti opposition figures delivered audacious political speeches at this event a renewed crackdown ensued. Although the momentum of Kuwait’s Arab nationalist movement subsequently diminished, Nasserist ideology and iconography continued to have a powerful influence on both the popular and official levels.

A marker of Nasserism’s penetration into official circles in Kuwait was the prevalence of the Pan-Arab leader’s portrait in government workplaces. In 1958, the ruler’s representative to the Kuwaiti Oil Company, Bader Al-Mulla, provoked anxiety among the company’s British administrators by displaying Abdel Nasser’s photograph in his office. In 1963, Jordanian officials expressed concern to the British government over the level of Egyptian influence in Kuwait, noting that “Nasser’s portrait [appears] cheek by jowl with that of Emir in most Kuwaiti offices.” 

No Kuwaiti government institution was more influenced by Nasserism than the Educational Department, which became the Ministry of Education after independence in 1961. Led by politically minded Kuwaiti intelligentsia, Palestinian teachers, and educators seconded from Cairo, the department constituted an island of Arab nationalism within the Kuwaiti state. Nasserist ideology permeated local textbooks from the mid-1950s, while the leader’s likeness appeared at such events as art exhibitions and sports days. According to the British Council’s representative in Kuwait in 1959, “even school girls dangle miniatures of Nasser at their waists.

“Messenger of Peace” by Wahid Fayyumi, artwork from an exhibit hosted by Kuwait’s Educational Department in 1958.
Published in Maʿrad Musabaqat al-Butula al-ʿArabiyya (Kuwait: Maʿarif al-Kuwait, 1958).

A similar environment pervaded the schools of the Trucial States (the future United Arab Emirates), whose educational system was administered by the Kuwaiti government during the 1950s and 1960s with help from Egypt and Qatar. This did not apply to Abu Dhabi, however, which did not accept educational assistance from these states. In 1959, the British Political Agent in Dubai lamented that there was “a picture of General Nasser in practically every room in the schools.” Abdel Nasser’s portraits even appeared in Bahraini schools, which were more tightly controlled by the British authorities. In 1961 the British Council’s representative there reported: “there have been cases of the Ruler’s photograph being removed from the classrooms in the Secondary School and Nasser’s substituted.”

While Abdel Nasser’s image served as a symbol of opposition, it also stood for the promise of a better future that — it was hoped — would accompany the Pan-Arab awakening. Nowhere was this clearer than in the poverty-stricken Trucial States, which had long been neglected by the British authorities. 

In 1964, the Arab League advanced a scheme to provide development aid to the area. In his memoir, the Kuwaiti diplomat Bader Khaled Al-Bader describes the cheering crowd that greeted an Arab League delegation visiting Dubai: “Arab flags were raised, particularly that of the United Arab Republic, and pictures of President Abdel Nasser were more prominent than others.” Sharjah’s ruler Sheikh Saqr bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, a Pan-Arabist with close ties to Abdel Nasser, was the main advocate for Arab League aid among the local rulers. This led the British, who saw the aid scheme as a vehicle for Egyptian expansionism, to orchestrate a coup against the sheikh in 1965. 

Two anecdotes illustrate how even those at the margins of political life in the Gulf projected their aspirations for freedom, dignity, and a better future upon the image of Abdel Nasser. The first is recounted by Sharjah’s current ruler Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi. He recalls that an old lady named Amna bint Ali was in the habit of walking around the souk with a portrait of Abdel Nasser hanging from her neck. She taunted passing British soldiers, demanding that they salute the picture. During a demonstration in 1963 in support of the Tripartite Unity Talks between Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, a passerby dared to spit on Amna’s hallowed icon. Her vehement response roused the crowd into a frenzy that drove them to burn a car. A member of Kuwait’s medical mission to the Trucial States in the 1960s narrates the second anecdote, documented in a recent book. Visiting Oman’s rugged Musandam Peninsula to tend to some sick tribesmen, the doctor encountered a small shop on a remote mountain road. Seeing a picture of Abdel Nasser on display, he asked the shopkeeper if he knew whose likeness that was. “That’s the Arabs’ paramount sheikh (sheikh al-ʿArab al-ʿūd),” responded the Bedouin.

In 1970, crowds bearing portraits of Abdel Nasser gathered in many Gulf cities to lament the president’s passing. By this time, however, his image was already losing its luster in the eyes of a growing number of his erstwhile devotees. As in other Arab regions, the 1967 Naksa shook the faith of many in the promises of Nasserism. The defeat caused splits within the Gulf’s Arab nationalist movements, which saw their influence decline. A significant segment of their activists drifted further to the left, viewing Nasserism as insufficiently radical. Others espoused Islamism, whose influence surged dramatically in Gulf societies in the 1970s and 80s. 

Sharjah’s Ruler Saqr bin Sultan Al-Qasimi (far left) seated next to Assistant Secretary-General of the Arab League Sayyid Nawfal. Abdel Nasser’s portrait appears above the doorway (Sharjah, 1964). Photographed by the late Bader Khaled Al-Bader.

Another development that contributed to a rightward shift in Gulf politics was the exponential increase in oil prices following the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, which empowered the ruling monarchies at the expense of popular forces. It was not long before the latter experienced a series of setbacks: in 1975 the Omani authorities quashed the Dhofar Revolution, while Bahrain’s rulers dissolved the country’s parliament and cut short its nascent constitutional experiment. Kuwait followed suit the following year, though in this case, the interruption of parliamentary life proved temporary. 

Developments in Egypt, where President Anwar Sadat was undertaking a policy of “de-Nasserization,” also impacted popular opinion in the Gulf. Egyptian media and cultural production, which previously carried the Nasserist message to the region, now attacked the late leader’s legacy. Other developments, such as the 1990 Gulf War and the subsequent strengthening of American influence in the region, further eroded Pan-Arabism’s popularity. Abdel Nasser’s once-ubiquitous icons thus gradually faded from view, but they never disappeared completely. 

A popular procession in Dubai following Abdel Nasser’s death in 1970. The sign surrounded by the president’s portraits reads: “The Dubai Mawkib of the Baharna joins the Arab nation and the ruling family of Dubai in offering condolences to the Egyptian people on the loss of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, may God have mercy on him and grant him paradise.”
Photographed by the late Noor Ali Rashid.

Back in modern-day Bahrain, another excursion takes me to an old neighborhood of Muharraq, the country’s second city. In the 1960s, its status as a hotbed of Pan-Arabist protest earned it the epithet of “Port Said,” after the Egyptian city that resisted British troops during the Suez Crisis. In his memoir of growing up in the town, the Bahraini poet Qasim Haddad states: “Sometimes you feel that because of their excessive enthusiasm for Gamal Abdel Nasser, the people of Muharraq act as if they are really part of the Egyptian city of Port Said, in loyalty to this name that they like to boast about.” In an alleyway, I encounter a peculiar building decorated with a collage of bric-a-brac and pictures of personages as diverse as Bahraini rulers and Shia ayatollahs. There, prominently displayed and surrounded with Pan-Arabi symbols, is a portrait of Abdel Nasser. Returning some years later, I find that the structure has been demolished. As time passes and his elderly enthusiasts pass away, will the last traces of Abdel Nasser’s image disappear from Bahrain as they have in neighboring states? 

Abdel Nasser’s picture adorns the façade of a now-demolished building in Muharraq, Bahrain. Photographed by Wafa Alsayed.

 

Talal Al-Rashoud is an assistant professor of modern Arab history at Kuwait University. Twitter: @tsalrashoud

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