For weeks now, a viral dance video called “Barbs” has been a raging hit throughout the Arab world. It’s racked up over 23 million views on YouTube and social media in the Gulf states are bursting with “Barbs” clips featuring young people imitating the dance moves or making up their own dances to the song. Two soldiers from Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, were even arrested for uploading a 14-second clip in which they copied some of the moves while in uniform. But perhaps most surprising of all is that the dance video originated in Saudi Arabia.
Entertainment is not Saudi Arabia’s strong suit, to put it mildly. Sure, it has an extensive music industry and a young and growing movie industry, but Saudi women still have to fight for their right to drive, the kingdom has no commercial movie theaters and “modesty police” enforce strict gender segregation in the public sphere. The Saudis also have a reputation in the Arab world not only for corruption on account of their vast wealth, but also for being stern and humorless, in keeping with their ultraconservative society. This is of course the stereotypical view of Saudi society, but many in the Arab world would say there is a degree of truth to the stereotype, certainly if you compare Riyadh to other major Arab cities like Beirut, Cairo, Tunis and Casablanca. But young Saudis have their own ways of getting around the restrictions, like opening galleries that show contemporary art and uploading to YouTube comedy series as well as music and dance videos.
“Put your foot like this, put the other one like this, and move your head like this, and ... Barbs.” That’s about it for the words, which are sung in a Saudi dialect of Arabic. “Barbs” — pronounced barbess — is slang from the peninsula’s Najd region meaning messy, untidy or done in an amateur fashion. The performers break-dance to hip-hop music laced with the Gulf region’s popular Khaliji beats.
Not much information about the video’s creator, Majed al-Esa, can be gleaned from the internet. His Instagram account says he is a director and editor who draws inspiration from music. In an interview on a YouTube channel he said the idea behind the video was “to frame local Saudi culture in new and foreign forms.” The video has made a big splash on social media, sparking lengthy discussions between fans and foes. Frivolous as it may be, in a few short weeks the video has already accomplished what Arab politicians have been vainly trying to achieve for years — to bring the Arab people together.