- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2006


Two Oscar-winning U.S. films have caused headaches for government censors in the conservative Muslim Arab states of the Gulf, including booming and relatively tolerant Dubai.

“Syriana” — a sinister tale of America’s goals of fighting terrorism, promoting democracy in the Middle East and securing its oil and military interests — premiered in theaters in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Wednesday with two minutes of controversial scenes cut out.

Before it could be released, it took four months for censors to comb through the movie, partly shot in Dubai two years ago. Missing from the UAE version are scenes showing mistreatment of Asian workers in the Gulf and references to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the late Saudi Arabian King Fahd.

The movie has opened in Egypt but is unlikely to be screened anywhere else in the Middle East, distributor Shooting Stars said. It has been assailed by many as anti-Arab, anti-United States or both.

George Clooney, the film’s co-producer and co-star, won an Oscar for best supporting actor at last month’s Academy Awards.

Italia Films, the Beirut-based distributor of “Brokeback Mountain,” said it had dropped plans to try to show the movie, about two cowboys falling in love in the conservative American West, in the Gulf region after discussing its taboo subject matter with concerned ministries and receiving negative feedback.

“We asked whether a film with such a subject would be approved. They told us they would rather not deal with it,” said Jean Shaheen of Italia Films.

The movie, which stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, won three Oscars, including one for Ang Lee for best director.

Homosexuality is a serious offence in the Gulf, punishable by flogging and imprisonment. In February, 11 men were sentenced to six years in jail in the UAE after a raid on a homosexual party in a desert hotel.

Many say censorship has spurred piracy and even clandestine Internet screenings of movies such as “Syriana” and “Brokeback Mountain” in the region. On a recent afternoon, Chinese vendors were seen hawking pirated DVDs of both films and hundreds of others at an outdoor coffee shop in Dubai.

The practice of censorship in Dubai clashes with the image the city, which is aiming to attract 15 million visitors by 2010, wants to project as a cosmopolitan business center and a glamorous tourist destination.

Aleem Jumaa, head of the Dubai censorship office said: “We would never allow anything that is disrespectful to the country or the president, causes security problems, insults religions, exhibits immorality like nudity or promotes vices like alcohol and drugs.”

Mr. Jumaa said those prohibitions are outlined in the country’s printing and publishing law. He said “Syriana” was an exception because his office felt it required a second opinion from authorities in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the seven-emirate federation and the source of its oil wealth.

The cut scenes show Asian workers fired from an oil rig and one of the laborers, Wassim, getting into an argument with police, who beat him and his father with batons. Wassim later is lured by a radical Islamist cleric.

The poor pay and living conditions of Asian migrants toiling on Dubai’s projects received plenty of media attention after a violent riot on March 21 at the site of Burj Dubai, slated to be the world’s tallest skyscraper.

UAE censors also did not like a comment made by actor Matt Damon’s character that a major Saudi construction company owned by bin Laden’s family “air-conditioned [the holy city of] Mecca and made billions and billions.”

They also cut a brief shot showing the late Saudi King Fahd, who was a close American ally, in a framed photograph posing with the powerful and corrupt lawyer character played by actor Christopher Plummer.

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