This Hezbollah-supporting Syrian Star Could Ignite a New Mideast Conflict

George Wassouf is considered a musical icon in the Arab world. But a new documentary on his life is causing political uproar. That’s how it goes when you’re an outspoken Nasrallah supporter, and your show is on a Saudi-backed channel

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George Wassouf in concert. TV giant MBC is supported by royal Saudi funds. Wassouf is a supporter of Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and has close ties to Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
George Wassouf in concert. TV giant MBC is supported by royal Saudi funds. Wassouf is a supporter of Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and has close ties to Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab

When singer George Wassouf was first dubbed “Sultan el-Tarab” (the King of traditional Middle Eastern music), he never imagined the title would follow him for nearly half a century. Nor did he imagine that his life would be at the center of a political spat between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.

Wassouf rose to stardom in the early 1980s at age 13, as his rendition of “Al Hawa Sultan” became a massive hit – first in Lebanon and then quickly spreading throughout the Arab world. Born in the Syrian village of Kafrun to an Orthodox Christian family, Wassouf ascended from poverty to great wealth. With the birth of his first son, he gained another honorific, “Abu Wadia.” His discography runs 30 albums deep, which have sold millions of copies worldwide, and his fan base spans the Arab world and Arab-speaking communities in North America and Europe. At the age of 59, Wassouf’s fame shows no signs of diminishing.

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A scene from TV show 'Masirati.' 'It reveals secrets unknown to the public.'

A new documentary series, “Masirati” (“My Way”), about the singer’s life has reignited the fervor surrounding him. The documentary premiered on November 21 on the Shahid Channel, which belongs to the Arab TV giant MBC group. The media group identified Wassouf’s commercial potential early and has been promoting him since the early 1990s. “All I wanted as a child was to sing, play music, and be on stage,” Wassouf declares in a trailer that went viral within hours of being uploaded to the channel’s YouTube page.

Over the series’ eight episodes, Wassouf indulges the audience with details of his personal life – from his childhood, to his move to Lebanon, his love of the oud (the traditional Arab string instrument), his successes and the failures he encountered along the way. “A 45-year career in the music industry is a long road that includes beautiful moments of success, but I’ve also had very hard moments,” he says in the first episode. “I want you to know everything, now, before I die. I want you to hear the story from me.”

The tweet from Ali Zhrani exposing Wassouf's support of Nasrallah.

Don’t give him a platform

The series’ debut brought its share of political controversy, enraging the Saudi elite. MBC is supported by royal Saudi funds. Wassouf is a supporter of Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and has close ties to Syrian President Bashar Assad and his family – all bitter enemies of Saudi Arabia.

Against the backdrop of the diplomatic crisis between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, protests broke out on social media. Supporters of the Saudi regime demanded that CEO Ali Jabbar explain why he chose to promote Wassouf over any number of famous Saudi figures.

The head of the film committee of the Saudi Arabia Society for Culture and Arts, Mohammed Al-Bshair, tweeted: “On the occasion of the George Wassouf documentary, we wish to pay attention to our symbols – people important to the Saudi nation.”

Media figure and royal family confidante Ali Zhrani dug through the archives to substantiate his criticism, fishing out interviews where Wassouf publicly proclaimed his support for the Shi’ite Hezbollah leader. “Anyone who supports a criminal like Hassan Nasrallah, who is hostile to Saudi Arabia and its leaders, should receive no platform or role, definitely not in a documentary,” he tweeted. “How, why and what is the secret – we’re waiting for answers to these questions!”

Saudi media figure Fahed al-Shamri also expressed his outrage at the media company’s choice. “This is a humiliation of the Saudi people. An artist who supports Hezbollah shouldn’t get a platform funded by Saudi money.” The choice of Wassouf of all people has thus far remained unexplained, and for his part, he has remained above the fray, contenting himself with a thank-you tweet to his fans.

The trailer for 'Masirati.'

Upon the series launch, MBC CEO Sam Barnett said that “Few artists in the Arab world have had a career like George Wassouf. For over 40 years, and despite the stroke he suffered, which has paralyzed half of his left side, he has no intention of stopping,” he said. “After a long absence, he will appear in an outstanding film about his life, revealing secrets unknown to the public.”

Remote control

In support of the broadcast, London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi quoted Kuwaiti author Dawia Al Ajmy, who detailed Wassouf’s contribution to Arab music and culture. “The Saudi audience’s rage has overflowed into the political realm. They have forgotten who Wassouf is. Shahid Channel is a profit-oriented platform that seeks high ratings, and everyone knows how popular Wassouf is,” he said. “There is no other artist from the Arab Gulf who has reached the masses like Wassouf.”

George Wassouf in a 90s concert sponsored by MBC.

The controversy surrounding Wassouf exemplifies the duality of Saudi Arabian media outlets. On one hand, the regime supports Sharia law and the use of religious and political orthodoxy against its opponents. On the other hand, the regime is the prime funder of MBC Group, which promotes entertainment, drama and musical programming.

To elude the criticism, the Saudi kingdom has privatized MBC, and its corporate headquarters are located in England and the United Arab Emirates. This allows for a form of remote control – freeing culture and art content from coming in direct conflict with religious values. This is the explanation offered by Alsid al-Asban, who writes about Saudi Arabia’s covert control of Arab culture through media outlets over the past decade.

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