“I haven’t slept in two days. I was on the plane from Washington D.C, I watched two movies, and then they announced ‘Please buckle up, we are about to land’. It’s crazy!” So starts our interview with Sultan Al-Qassemi, renowned Twitter-artist and commentator on Arab affairs.
This evening he is at the COBRA art museum in Amsterdam as the keynote speaker at the launch of Gulf Arab Guide – a website featuring information about culture in the Gulf.
Although exuberant and ebullient in talking about his passion for art, Sultan Al-Qassemi is most famous for his Twitter account – which has over 140,000 followers – and his use of it during the Arab Spring, specifically the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. It spurred TIME magazine to name him one of the ‘140 most influential Twitter accounts’.
Dressed in a smart jacket, grey trousers, and a raffish pink shirt with matching stripy tie, Sultan Al-Qassemi has all the look of the professional. Constantly checking his iPhone he seemed at first aloof and distant. But, when approached by Your Middle East he burst out into excited, warm and sustained conversation.
But first question – about use of Twitter by the Israeli army during its Gaza attacks – makes him lose his cool.
“First of all, I think that the entire Israeli operation was despicable in every sense of the word…And even to add insult to injury, announcing their operation on social media, I mean it is just audacious, brazen, and despicable.”
His face, as he mouthed the word, seethed with anger. He looked every inch of the passionate Twitter user many have come to see him as. Although he claims to strive to be neutral and listen to all sides, he said that “I have nothing remotely neutral to say about what they did in the last few days in Gaza.”
Our conversation moved into whether there were any lines he would not cross, or material he would not share, with his numerous audiences.
“I try to be as balanced as possible. Everything I tweet about Qatar, Bahrain, Egypt, Syria…believe it or not I also tweet about the UAE.”
As an Emirati, Sultan Al-Qassemi is very sensitive to the perception that he purposefully does not tweet about the UAE.
“There are two issues: people don’t check my favourite tweets…and perhaps there aren’t that many things that are negative about the UAE,” he said. “When there is a Reuters or AFP article that does represent any country in the Gulf in the best of light, I will not shy away from tweeting it.”
Turning to Saudi Arabia, which has a very vibrant Twitter scene, does he think this is a sign of the Kingdom opening up to the world?
“Well, it’s nothing that the government invited. The people of Saudi Arabia have always been open, it’s just the rigid laws that minimise interactions with Saudis in general. Social media broke these barriers, and allowed person to person interaction.”
During our talk, we learnt that Sultan’s favourite artist is Edward Hopper, that he would gladly spend days in the Parisian Quai d’Orsay museum, and that his favourite non-UAE country is Egypt. But when what person on Twitter he most avidly followed, he demurred quietly, politely saying that he was unable to answer.
The formal interview ended, but he picked up a final conversation. Asked what his favourite Edward Hopper painting was, he told this anecdote.
“All my life I have wanted to see Hopper’s ‘The Nighthawks’, and last week I was in Chicago where it is. I wanted to see it, I was excited. But I got there and I was heartbroken, because it was gone; on loan to Paris. I was sad.”
As we move towards the exit, Sultan says one final thing.
“The world knows me because I tweet in English. But there are people out there who tweet in Arabic, who do far more than I do, and deserve far more recognition than me.”