This might be a peculiarity of the Middle Eastern monarch. Or it might relate to any monarch in any country the world over.   But, coming from a democracy one of the oddities we noticed, one of the things that certainly strikes us as Not Quite Right, is the ubiquitous presence of photography featuring the face of each country’s ruler — on signposts, in barbershops, in supermarkets, malls, promotional materials for national festivals, airport warning signs, greeting signs, instructional signs, etc, etc, etc.

These photographs might be smiling.  They might be stern.  They might feature the ruler in military gear or in traditional clothing or in a western suit.  The photos sometimes include the monarch’s family, especially if he is actively grooming his son, or sons, to succeed him.

One thing interesting about our perception of this blatant self-promotion:  our children notice it more than we do.

My son Jack standing under Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan's nose

Is this because they’re more in-tune to media, more saturated by it, more a part of a new generation that really thrives on media messages?  In Oman, when we first arrived, they actively sought out and compared various pictures of the Sultan:  he’s smiling here, he looks grumpy here, his beard hasn’t turned white yet in this one.  In Jordan they laughed and laughed at the multitude of different photos of the King, asking us if the King did anything other than take pictures of himself.  In Morocco they commented that the king was a good looking guy and they wanted to see a photo of him on a jet-ski, which is apparently one of the Moroccan king’s favorite pasttimes.  And, in the United Arab Emirates we caught this photo of my youngest son obviously very interested in former ruler Sheik Zayed’s huge portrait.

The question this brings to mind is whether — like the similarly ever-present advertising images of scantily clad women in America (largely absent here!) — does the image of a country’s ruler eventually fade into the subconciousness of his people?  Is the ruler’s presence in advertising eventually taken for granted?  Does the forced consumption, the endless repetition, reinforce the ruler’s prominence or reduce it to a gimmick?


3 responses to “Megalomania

  • Shehrazadeblog

    Excellent observation. Last time I was in Iraq, I was fourteen years old, and the first question I asked my mom, does this man only take photos of him self, amazingly there was a museum in Baghdad just for Sadams photos! eating, drinking, riding a horse, swimming…..and everything else. I have seen this phenomena in Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi, Jordan, much less in UAE. Surprisingly did not see it in Palestine, Lebanon or Turkey. But the worst by far was in Baghdad and Syria, never seen any thing like it. The ultimate form of dictatorship, it’s unfair to compare saddam to Sheikh Zayed, the last one was loved by his people, I always loved the man, may God rest his soul. But over all narcissism is a trade mark for men in power in the middle east. Things now finally are changing, but the road will be very bloody and full of sacrifices.

    • Benjamin Buchholz

      True about not being fair to compare Sheik Zayed to some of these other autocrats. It just happened I had this super cool picture of him at three times the size of my son! It does seem that the people of the UAE (or at least of Abu Dhabi) hold Sheik Zayed in great reverence and that tells me he was a good ruler, shrewd and capable of drivind a hard bargain but in it more for his country than for himself (although personal glory isn’t a bad side effect).

    • Benjamin Buchholz

      And, good story about the Saddam museum! I would have liked to see that place.

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