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Cartoon sparks bitter row over Saudi support for Palestinian cause

Cartoonist Mahmoud Abbas tells MEE he was not singling out the kingdom over the global oil crisis, as the furore on social media rumbles on
A Palestinian cartoonist's caricature of the oil crisis was accused of 'mocking the Gulf' (Mahmoud Abbas/Facebook)

A Palestinian cartoonist’s caricature of an Arab man struggling amid the global oil crisis has caused outrage in Saudi Arabia, and led to competing hashtags on social media regarding support for the Palestinian cause. 

Mahmoud Abbas, a cartoonist based in Sweden, depicted an exasperated man being pursued by a tumbling barrel of oil. 

“The purpose of the cartoon is to show the oil crisis and its impact on the Arab world and the Middle East region - as it relies heavily on oil as a primary source of income,” Abbas told Middle East Eye. 

Global crude oil prices crashed to unprecedented lows this week, with US oil reaching negative figures for the first time in history. 

One of the catalysts of the decline was an oil price war between Riyadh and Moscow, which Middle East Eye revealed was launched by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after a "shouting match" with Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

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Despite this, Abbas maintains that his cartoon was not about Saudis. 

“I did not mean Saudi Arabia in particular, especially since it was Saudi Arabia that decided to reduce the price of oil at its own will,” he explained. “I am surprised why only the Saudis launched the attacks against me.”

Several Saudi commentators took to social media to criticise not only Abbas, but Palestinians more widely. 

Journalist Abdullah al-Bander condemned the publication Pal Times for publishing the image, and accused it of being “ungrateful”, in reference to Saudi support for Palestinians. 

Translation: A short story
- Abuse filled with racism
- Fear and apologies because of condemnation and attacks
- Threw out an apology and deleted his account
Being ungrateful for favours makes you the worst creature on the face of the earth

Commentator Sukina Meshekhis accused the cartoon of mocking the Gulf, and hit back by saying that while the price of oil will rise again, the “caricatures will remain in the memories” of those they insulted. 

Translation: A caricature from a Palestinian page makes fun of the decreasing price of oil and of course they are mocking the Gulf. How similar today is to back then, a situation which is not too dissimilar from the 1990s when Kuwait was invaded. The price will go up again and the caricatures will remain in the memories of the countries who they have a grudge against

Abbas criticised those who associated his work with the plight of the wider Palestinian struggle. 

“When I draw caricatures, I am personally responsible for them, and no one else should include my homeland Palestine in the matter,” he said. "They also have to accept freedom of expression."

‘Palestine is not my issue’

Shortly after the cartoon was published, the Arabic hashtag “Palestine is not my issue” (#فلسطين_ليست_قضيتي) trended on Twitter, with many Saudis sharing their discontent with Palestinians in their struggle against Israeli occupation. 

One user posted an alternative cartoon in which Palestinians were shown as being raised and fed on “hatred and treachery”. 

Translation: #PalestineIsNotMyIssue 

Elsewhere, a Saudi writer indicated that Palestine was not her concern due to its policewomen joining Israelis to help maintain peace. The Palestinian Authority and Israel have practised close security coordination in the occupied West Bank since the 1990s.

The top reply to that tweet suggested that Palestinians do not deserve “sympathy or mercy” because they lack conscience and trust. 

Translation: I swear to God Miss, after this video Palestinians do not deserve sympathy or mercy because they have no conscience and cannot be trusted. And our homeland [Saudi] is our case, may God protect it from all evil, misfortune and hatred 

Some social media users brought up historical and geopolitical reasons for not supporting the Palestinian cause.

One cited former Palestinian Liberation Organisation chairman Yasser Arafat supporting Saddam Hussein during the invasion of Kuwait, while another accused Palestinians of “glorifying the Turks who handed them over to the West”.  

Translation: #PalestineIsNotMyIssue Yasser Arafat pleads to the King Fahd to forgive him and look past what happened, after Arafat stood alongside Saddam Hussein in the invasion of Kuwait

Translation: Palestinians are not enough for the Palestinian cause. And they will not free it. They were not men enough throughout their history, just servants to those who defeated them. They wait for people to free them, since the Turks gave their country to the British occupation. At the same time, they glorify the Turks who are the ones that handed them over to the West 

Turki al-Hamad, a Saudi analyst and novelist, suggested that while Vietnamese and Algerian freedom fighters resisted occupation from within their countries, Palestinians looked to others to save them. 

Translation: The Vietnamese resisted from within and sacrificed more than 1.5 million people and won. The Algerians started their uprising from the inside, and gave more than 1 million people until they won. Where have the Palestinians been since 1948? Political parties in every Arab corner, yet they cry “where are the Arabs?” and they want Palestine to be liberated. Strange

‘Palestine is my issue’

Not all Saudis on social media were critical. The hashtag "Palestine is my issue" (#فلسطين_قضيتي) has been used to offer an alternative narrative. 

One Saudi human rights activist said that Palestine was the issue of “everyone who is free”. 

Translation: #PalestineisMyIssue and is the issue of everyone who is free

Others pointed to historical and religious examples of Saudis helping Palestinians. 

Translation: From history - Majhoud bin Ghobash al-Zahrani, the first Saudi and Arab hero to heed the call of Al-Aqsa Mosque and go to Palestine to support the Palestinians in the 1948 war. The beloved Saudi people were and are still the first champion of the question of Palestine, and it will not harm them 

Translation: The Saudi nation is one of the ones that love and are loyal to the Palestinian cause, both in word and deed, because to them it is a matter of religion not just about people

Abbas thanked those who tweeted in support of the Palestinian cause and said it showed “the awareness of many Saudis”. 

The debate prompted by his cartoon even attracted the attention of the official King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre, which stressed that the kingdom had provided humanitarian support to “alleviate the suffering of the Palestinians”. 

Translation: Over the years, Saudi has not wasted time in standing in solidarity with Palestine, through providing aid, humanitarian relief and development in all fields in order to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinians

In recent months, the Saudi government has been accused of turning against Palestinians, after it arrested dozens of Hamas supporters and accepted US President Donald Trump's so-called "deal of the century" plan to address the Israel-Palestine conflict.

If implemented, Trump's scheme would result in the annexation of the Jordan Valley and illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, around 30 percent of the territory.

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