A seemingly innocent greeting between the Omani foreign minister and the EU foreign policy chief has created controversy on Twitter.
Hosting crucial nuclear talks between Iran and the West, Oman welcomed an American, European and Iranian delegations on Sunday ahead of a deadline of November 24 set by the parties by which they must reach an agreement.
A picture of Omani foreign minister Yousuf Bin Alawi greeting EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton with a cheek-to-cheek kiss has some Twitter users up in arms, and others calling out their “nonsense”.
The picture shows Ashton enthusiastically greeting Bin Alawi as an uneasy Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and US Secretary of State John Kerry look on.
It is not common for Gulf ministers to greet women in public in such a manner. In neighbouring Iran, ministers can get into trouble for merely shaking hands with a woman.
Prominent Saudi-owned Al Hayat newspaper highlighted the picture as the main rotating image on its website, cropping out all of its other elements with the exception of the controversial ‘kiss’ in a story about negotiations that Oman hosts, but is not party to.
The picture led to the Arabic hashtag that translated to #YousefBinAlawisKiss with some criticising the minister for what they considered to be “inappropriate behaviour”.
The hashtag had Omanis fuming — not at the controversial greeting but rather at what they saw as an attempt to malign the minister’s character as he attempts to mediate an end to a bitter three-decade conflict between Iran and the United States.
Many supporters used the opportunity to “hijack” the hashtag by tweeting favourably about him. A user going by the handle Saidsalim10 said in Arabic: “This man strives to reconcile two parties to bring about a peaceful climate [in the region] while fools [focus on] greetings he was compelled to participate in”.
Another user albusaidi_2015 said: “Hands off Bin Alawi. Leave alone the man who works for the sake of peace and security. Enough with the pettiness and foolishness. Leave us alone”. Another user said: “God help the creator of this hashtag”.
Previously a low-key minister, Bin Alawi has in recent years gained immense popularity in Oman, largely due to his unique public stands on regional issues. In December 2013, he made news by intervening in a conference in Bahrain to express his country’s staunch opposition to the Gulf union, and more recently for Oman’s hosting of secret talks between the US and Iran, as well as his repeated public calls for the Gulf states to end their rift with the Islamic Republic, and with Qatar.