The Intersections of Poetry and Politics in Saudi Arabia

Poetry plays an important, although sometimes contested, role in public speech in contemporary Saudi Arabia:

By ArabLit Contributor

On December 24, the Saudi public prosecutor announced the results of a year-long trial for various individuals accused of the murder of Saudi columnist and media figure Jamal Khashoggi, then writing for the Washington Post. Most notable among those accused was Saud al-Qahtani, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s media czar and online enforcer. Accused of being the mastermind behind the assassination in several media accounts over the course of 2018 to 2019, Qahtani ultimately faced no charges due to “lack of evidence.” Soon after the announcement, a lengthy formal poemascribed to Qahtani began making the rounds on social media – Barrani illi kulina bi ’ihtikamihi, or “Declared Innocent by He Who Judges Us All.”

In recent years, there has been an uptick in interest in this type of nabatipoetry, a vernacular poetry popular in the Arabian peninsula. This interest spiked in particular with the broadcast of Sha‘ir Al-Milyun, or “Million’s Poet,” from Abu Dhabi. In addition to a panel of judges, audiences for the show can vote via text for their favorite performer – at times stoking tribal identities as various groups rallied around their “own” poets. While Emirati Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed has sponsored “Million’s Poet” and other competitions, Sheikh Muhammad bin Rashed (ruler of Dubai), has produced verse of his own – whether criticizing neighboring Qatar or referencing the “treachery and betrayal” of his estranged wife Princess Haya.

William Tamplin, whose book Poet of Jordan covers the highly political verse of Muhammad Fanatil Al-Hajaya, notes the ability of poetry to provide culturally salient method of offering “rhymed, metered, controlled criticism” of Arab rulers.

Yet even if poetry has occasionally moved rulers to act on behalf of citizens in Saudi Arabia, Paul Marcel Kurpershoek cautions that much poetry in the Kingdom amounts to a “formalized statement” for particular occasions. Technical skill is not an absolute requirement, as poets from the region have long been hired to produce verses on demand. Likewise, despite the length and technical completeness of the poem ascribed to Saud al-Qahtani, per Kurpershoek “the chosen rhyme is relative easy” – mashub, derived from tawil.

Still, writing verse has not always been seen as a reputable activity in conservative Saudi Arabia. At a majliss in Saudi Arabia, for example, some Saudis complained that an unwillingness to embrace the art form in the past meant that a “Saudi art form” had effectively been monopolized by the United Arab Emirates.

Accordingly, openly publishing these kinds of poems has been relatively uncommon among Saudi rulers and elite officials. Legendary Saudi bureaucrat Ghazi al-Gosaibi, for example, was known for his skill at producing verse. Having clashed with King Fahad as Minister of Health in 1984, he published a poem entitled “Last letter of Mutanabbi to Saif al-Dawla [the patron of Mutanabbi]” referencing the tensions between them. He was promptly dismissed from his position.

Prince Khalid al-Faisal, current governor of the Mecca region and a longstanding patron of arts in the Kingdom, is one of the few members of the Saudi royal family who has published several volumes poetry. These have covered a range of issues, from apparently criticizing the influence of the Arab Spring (though Khalid denied that this was his intent) to more standard fare, praising the Kingdom’s armed forces.

Yet times are certainly changing – many princes now publish poems or even verses set to music under their own names. Saud al-Qahtani himself has retained his pen name, Dhari, but his own name appears on this poem and is openly referenced in the verse.While a few individuals have expressed doubt that the verse was actually written by Qahtani (due to the number of times he references himself in the third person), online commentators and news outlets alike presented the qasida as Saud’s work.

While most of Qahtani’s poem speaks for itself – declaring his innocence, castigating his enemies, praising his rulers – it is worth noting the sense of deep hurt and outrage that the poem expresses over his treatment over the past year (that is, since the killing of Jamal Khashoggi). Rather than simply noting his innocence and offering praise of himself and Saudi Arabia’s leadership, he speaks of “wounds [that] have healed,” how his enemies can “choke on their hatred,” and how they can “shut up” if they can furnish no credible evidence of his crimes.

Also worth noting is who receives praise, and how much. King Salman, the de jure ruler of Saudi Arabia, receives 3 lines (at most) of direct praise. Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, de facto ruler and Qahtani’s direct patron? 11 lines.


Declared Innocent by He Who Judges Us All

O God, in whose hand lies the Final Judgment/

and by whose command the living die and the newborn live

I fulfill my obligation to express utmost gratitude/

As Truth prevails, with the world as a witness

Dispel the darkness of doubts cast on Truth /

And Truth, no matter how long absent, its victory is assured

From the High deserts of Najd to the Tihama plains/

the happy news of Saud’s innocence was declared,

I was declared innocent by He in who judges us all/

Allah has legislated justice, and He is the greatest of all to serve

No matter sits higher than His matters/

And no one can exceed what He decrees in [dealing with] another

To those who worried Saud’s mother with talk of execution/

Show that the talk is false – how many days for you, Saud!

Raise your voice loud and clear, decisively/

And tell them all that Saud is here – he’s here!

You’ve destroyed their worthlessness, and now in their ruins/

They’ve become like the Makers of the Ditch

[Quranic reference (Suratal-Buruj) to persecutors of the faithful who faced an eternity of punishment in the afterlife]

Oh mother, my wounds have healed, my health restored/

Look, the innocent one is, by the Crown Prince, supported

Replace the garb of sadness with a smile/

The days of darkness, and doubt, and hatred (kūd harship) are gone

And my Father – for him, my heart is filled with respect/

A sheikh – and among the people, his reputation is safe

Dad, do not blame me too much/

I’m innocent, and far from all criticism

I am your son, high of stature/

Except for the Pleiades [i.e. except the impossible], my ambitions are boundless

From the house of Akhu Nourah [i.e. Nourah’s Brother, King Abdulaziz] to al-Yamamah palace/

News such as this is followed, and watched closely

The news echoed in Abu Dhabi and Manama/

And passed by Kuwait, perfumed by muskand oud

Floated like clouds over the skies of Badhdad/

Strike Cairo like echoing thunder and lightning

From the Maghreb [Morocco] to the Levant the news kicks up dust/

Echoes back to Oman and then returns.

To those pleased [by the news] – thank you, to you and your concern/

Those who are upset can get upset – nobody asks about them [i.e. they are ignored]

Doha has only pure hatred for me, so be it/

Let them choke on their hatred for this country

The unjust, hateful campaigns they’ve led/

And their media – all of it directed right as Saud

They want to break Saud, or at least defeat him/

Yet I’m from Qahtani stock, steadfast as a mountain

I have Truth on my side, walk the righteous path/

What fault do I have except defending my homeland?

Whoever does not gird himself [to defend] his home country/

Can’t be counted among the ranks of real men

And from the moment the end of [my ordeal] was known/

They spread news of me though, to be sure, no truth was to be found in it

Those who wear the tarbush(fez) [Turkey] and people of the turban [Iran and Hizbullah]/

The door of forgiveness is closed to them

How can you credibly ignore your won history/

When that history is not hidden or lost [i.e. common knowledge]?

It takes no more than scratching the surface with a thummah branch/

to lay bare the black pages of their history

The old history of the Turks and their regime/

Filled with injustice and hatred and ingratitude

None of us have forgotten those events save the most despicable wretches/

How many alliances and solemn promises the Turks betrayed

After their greedy forays, they plead for peace/

Whoever thinks the people of the Arabian Peninsula are pushovers is ill-fated

Each of us showed his commitment to the battle/

Our tribes rose up with swords and rifles

The Turkish army fell apart, their arrows went wide/

They returned with broken banners, worn out

The war here, if it grows white-hot/

We, wedefend religion and of the state

We inherited both the vanguard and the troops surging in its wake/

If things get dicey, each of us falls back on the true character of his origins

I don’t bury my head like an ostrich/

Instead I seek to rise higher and higher- to the very peak

I lead them on [the campaigns] like a camel it led by its nose/

And open doors slammed shut in the face of the people

And enemies, tomorrow they will come to regret/

And stand transfixed with dazed minds and knitted eyebrows [i.e. at a loss]

They were unable to achieve victory or rejoice in wrath/

Their campaigns against me collapsed, to no gain at all

For the accused, bring forth evidence of his crime/

Or shut up in the absence of form evidence

I take pride in being blamed by my country’s enemies/

They are the greatest point of pride for Saud, and the tale of Saud

Saud trusts in God and in His appointed leaders/

As he strives in all the ways of obedience and loyalty

He takes pride in his rulers, and backs up his words/

As a firm mountain can only be supported by another great crag

And Salman – Allah extend his rule as he extends/

The glory of Islam, his true aim and goal

Our enemy cannot even rest in his sleep/

For the enemy of the Kingdom is forever pursued (comes to grief)

But for the well-behaved, we only have love and generosity/

Our fists drip with fat [i.e. from a slaughtered and roasted animal] from our generous spending and hospitality

Oh you whose two grandfathers were true Arabs in values and stature/

Around you, the banner of victory is firmly tied

Abdul-Aziz, may God have mercy on him/

In heavenly Paradise, beneath the acacia trees

In his day against the Turks he unsheathed his sword/

And the enemy was from Al-Ahsa thrown out

And Rakan bin Hathlin, the very symbol of gallantry/

Is your grandfather – the ancestors of your bloodline rank most highly

I mean, of course, the Crown Prince, the fount of peace/

With him, this country became the envy of all

With our hearts he spreads word of his good standing/

With Muhammad, our ambitions have no limit

We are with him in peace and in the fight/

Servants of Allah’s religion and soldiers of the state

Inheritor of time-honored glory and the reigns [of power]/

To this glory, History stands as witness and has witnessed

Behind you stands History as a series of pitched tents/

In front of you stretches the Future, fresh-faced and smooth

Those who valued their religion and built it up/

Here their majliss stands on hallowed ground [i.e. sweet-smelling earth]

Your father and your uncles, chief and chieftains/

Their steps on this earth each bringing forth flowers

The Kingdom is a beauty spot on the cheeks of Islam/

You are the guardians of its affairs, keep climbing the lofty heights

The banner of the Unitarians [i.e. Wahhabis] stands here/

Wreathed by clouds and moved by cool breezes.

The author and translator dabbles in literary translation and other forms of writing, and prefers to remain anonymous due to sensitivity surrounding the presumed poet in question.