Wanted dead or alive: Despite ‘Leaving Neverland,’ Michael Jackson’s star seems undiminished in the Middle East

This week marked 10 years since the death of Michael Jackson. (AFP)
Updated 02 July 2019

Wanted dead or alive: Despite ‘Leaving Neverland,’ Michael Jackson’s star seems undiminished in the Middle East

  • “He’s been a part of the best moments of our lives,” Arabs remember a musical icon

DUBAI: This week marked 10 years since the death of Michael Jackson. As Saudi Arabia prepares to welcome “Thriller Live,” an international tribute show dedicated to the late King of Pop, which toured the UAE earlier this year, it seems Jackson’s stardom — at least in the Middle East — is not fading. Many fans can’t believe it has already been 10 years since the passing of this megastar; a man who’d spent pretty much his entire life in the spotlight, in all senses; a man who wrote and sang some of the finest pop songs ever, and who became the first (and so far the only) pop star to enter the Dance Hall of Fame. 

His undeniable talent was otherworldly. As was Jackson himself. That was thanks in part to his odd mannerisms — his air of childhood innocence, his tremulous speaking voice — and in part the fact that his skin color and appearance changed so markedly throughout his life.

As a performer and musician, Jackson was idolized around the world. He became an enormous part of people’s lives — and arguably the most recognizable person in history, despite all the surgery. 

He was also, it is alleged, a serial pedophile. 

Those allegations date back. In 1993, Evan Chandler accused Jackson of sexually abusing his 13-year-old son Jordan. In January 1994, Jackson reportedly reached a financial settlement of $23 million with the Chandlers and in September that year the criminal investigation was closed. 

In the early 2000s, similar allegations were made. This time, the case went to trial and Jackson was found not guilty in 2005. Former child actor Macaulay Culkin, star of the “Home Alone” films and a frequent visitor to Jackson’s Neverland ranch (along with several other young boys), testified in support of the pop singer at that trial. As did another of Jackson’s former child friends, Wade Robson. 

Robson is one of two men featured in the documentary, “Leaving Neverland,” released earlier this year. Along with James Safechuck (who, when he was younger, also told investigators that he had not been sexually abused by Jackson), Robson now alleges that Jackson did sexually abuse him as a child, and provides graphic descriptions of the acts they engaged in. 

The allegations made in the documentary have been rebuffed by Jackson’s estate, which is suing HBO (which screened the documentary in the US) for $100 million. Both Safechuck and Robson are currently appealing against judgments in their own lawsuits against Jackson, which were dismissed in 2017. 

“Leaving Neverland” is perhaps the strongest blow yet to Jackson’s legacy. But it has also served as a rallying point for his supporters, who fervently refuse to believe their idol could have been guilty of child abuse.

Jackson has a huge fanbase in the Middle East. For many, he was the first superstar they heard on heavy rotation in the region, as radio only really took hold in the Gulf in the 1980s. As Saudi Arabian journalist and artist Rym Ghazal explained to Arab News: “I don’t think MJ knew just how much his music shaped a whole generation of Arabs — just how many fans he had here and just how devoted they remained throughout his ordeals. We might not have heard of The Beatles or Elvis Presley, but we sure knew Michael Jackson.”

Ghazal is, she admits, a huge fan. She even named one of her childhood pets MJ. 

“His music and his songs remain timeless,” she says. “He truly put his heart into each song and they touched on universal issues that I could identify with. He sang for the world, for the environment and about healing and kindness at a time when no one even gave nature a second thought. He also sang about accepting others as they are and topics that hit a chord with the public. He was ahead of his time and an enigma.”

Regarding “Leaving Neverland,” she says she has “doubts about its validity” because of the element of “massive financial compensation sought” and because it is “one-sided.” But she also makes a point that many others have echoed: That art should be assessed separately to its maker.

“Regardless of whatever happened in Michael Jackson’s personal life, that doesn’t take away the powerful messages and the beautiful music he created,” she says. 

Others also say that Jackson’s personal life should not affect appreciation of his music. Ahmed Haram, a student at the American University of Sharjah, counts Jackson among his “top artists, very talented,” and says the documentary’s allegations “just made me lose a little respect for him, that’s all.”

Dubai-based Saudi Arabian radio host Hassan Dennaoui (aka Big Hass) says he does not believe the allegations against Jackson, and suspects there may be a conspiracy behind them. 

“MJ was a pioneer, a music genius, an entertainer at heart, with the most humble intentions to make people happy and just dance. In my opinion his legacy will prevail, even with all the ridiculous allegations that targeted him when he was still alive and recently with the lame excuse of a documentary,” he says. “The world is drenched in the will to cause harm regardless of consequences. Personal interests, money and bigger agendas are brought forward and prioritized over the reputation of artists such as MJ. My convictions about him have never changed: the artist and the human being he was show a fragile — sometimes misunderstood — individual who was put into stardom too early but succeeded.

“He was also planning to convert to Islam, which I am sure many parties in power wouldn’t want to happen, as they knew MJ’s positive influence,” he continues. “Or else they wouldn’t have tried to sabotage his reputation and discredit his entire career.”

Others suggest that Jackson’s own well-documented troubled childhood could lie at the root of the allegations against the star. “He was a talented musician who didn’t have a chance at a normal, healthy life,” says Emirati banker Mohammed Murashi. “I don’t know if the allegations against him are true, and if they are it’s inexcusable, but I’m certain the abuse he supposedly faced and unusual life left him with numerous issues, and could have contributed to his lack of social norms.”

Mawaddah, a young lady from Jeddah, says that “Leaving Neverland” has not affected her opinion of Jackson’s music, but that it has made her relationship with the singer more complicated.

“I am still a fan of his music. Before, I liked him as a person too. I thought he was a nice, very liberated guy. And then I watched the documentary,” she tells Arab News. “Right now, every time I go to my playlist on my phone or my computer, I just get that image in my head. I still like his music, but I just leave, most of the time.”

In Dubai, “Leaving Neverland” was shown at Cinema Akil. There were plenty opposed to the film being shown. Journalist William Mullally, who moderated a panel discussion that followed one of the screenings, tells Arab News there were “a lot of people who were very against it being shown in the first place, and a lot of people who felt it needed to be shown.” The cinema and Mullally himself received “hundreds of messages” from people saying that the film should not be screened. “It really did feel like the pressure was on in order to downplay any accusations.”

He continues: “At the discussion itself, it felt like a lot of the room was pro-Michael Jackson, and two of the four panelists were very skeptical of the allegations and pushed back very hard against anything the film had to say.”

The arguments in support of Jackson in the room that night, Mullally says, felt very much like “the kitchen-sink defense,” with audience members claiming that the documentary was suspect because it failed to mention that one of the accusers had dated Jackson’s niece when he was younger. Others said there just wasn’t enough proof presented for them to believe that Jackson was a pedophile.

“But when they were questioned on what exactly they would require in terms of proof, it got a bit hazy,” says Mullally. “It did seem like there was some kind of dissonance in their ability to talk about allegations in general, and the way that predators operate in general, and then apply that same logic to the Michael Jackson story.”

Mullally understands that impulse though, even if he doesn’t share it. “I grew up as a Michael Jackson fan myself. And for a long time I was skeptical of these allegations when they were coming out in the Nineties and the 2000s. I think it just hurts harder with Michael Jackson. He means so much to us. He’s been a part of the best moments of our lives: playing at our weddings, becoming closer to our family members, and discovering ourselves through music. And I think because of that — because he feels almost like a member of the family — people have a knee-jerk reaction to defend him as if he is a member of the family,” he says. “They don’t want to let Michael go.”

Startup of the Week: Protein Laboratory: Making healthy eating fun and easy

Updated 17 September 2019

Startup of the Week: Protein Laboratory: Making healthy eating fun and easy

  • And with growing health awareness, many Saudis are switching over to more nutritious dietary habits

JEDDAH: An enterprising Saudi family is aiming to take the world by storm with its scientific approach to healthy eating.

The Bogari’s newly opened Protein Laboratory restaurant in Jeddah is the brainchild of brothers Ahmed, Hussain and Hassan.

The three doctors got the inspiration for their startup from hospital laboratories while studying in medical school, and with the help of their parents set about establishing their innovative culinary venture.

In recent years the health and fitness fad has become a flourishing business sector in the Kingdom, which has witnessed a dramatic rise in the number of gyms and fitness centers.

And with growing health awareness, many Saudis are switching over to more nutritious dietary habits. However, eating clean can be a challenge for those with busy, modern lifestyles who do not have the time to prepare meals.

Enter the Protein Laboratory, opened to add fun to the idea of healthy food. “We wanted to reintroduce the concept of healthy food to the Saudi health and fitness community,” Ahmed, 27, told Arab News.

“We believe that healthy food does not have to be boring and achieving your goal of fat loss can actually satisfy your taste buds and leave you happily full at the same time.

“We are planning to expand in Jeddah and Makkah to help more people achieve their fitness targets while enjoying tasty food, and we are aiming to be recognized globally,” he said.

The trio started planning their enterprise while studying at medical college but credit their parents’ support for helping turn their vision into a successful business launch.

Their father guided them in setting up the company and their mother took responsibility for the restaurant’s kitchen, playing a major role in developing recipes and supervising operations.

The brothers’ association with the field of medicine also helped them in their efforts. Ahmed was first inspired by hospital laboratories and the way researchers worked on minor details to get the best possible results.

“The long counters, glass walls, and test tubes are what I liked the most, in addition to the complete transparency of the place. It is exactly how I wanted our restaurant to be. Everything to be prepared and cooked just in front of the customer with a high level of attention to detail,” he added.

The idea behind the name Protein Laboratory was to ensure customers had the option to select, mix and create ingredients according to their taste or preference.

“Customers can order their meals according to their nutritional needs and preferences, starting with selecting the protein base, cooking method, side dishes, the sauce and portion of the meal’s components in grams.”

Ahmed said: “We use the healthiest cooking methods possible. We don’t use frozen meat; we blend our own spices and make sure everything is always made in the healthiest way.”

The brothers and their mother work like scientists. “We spent one year testing ingredients and creating healthy recipes. We had only one goal in mind: High protein in a healthy meal and a portion that could help us and others to stay healthy while still eating the food we desired with higher quality and better taste,” Ahmed added.

Their lab salad dish includes more than 20 organic ingredients high in protein, fiber and antioxidants. The restaurant’s burger has only 396 calories, and one of their best-selling desserts is a sugar-free banana pancake.

“We aim to make our prices within everyone’s reach,” Ahmed said.

One of the services offered by the restaurant is subscription to a meal plan drawn up according to the nutritional needs of the customer and delivered to their workplace or home.

Protein Laboratory is located in Helmi Kutbi Street, in Jeddah’s Al-Zahra district and can be followed on Instagram @proteinlabsa.