To #socialmedia or not to social media – #Gulf newspapers say yes, Gulf governments say no

The last twelve months have been a defining year for social media across the Middle East. Citizen journalism has flourished. Most of the mainstream media publications have also adopted or begun to adopt social media as another channel to reach the general public.

The first adopters were media outlets in the UAE, particularly those who were already well established digital media. You have the likes of arabianbusiness.com who tweet at @ArabianBusiness – the site has over 27,000 tweets and 13,000 followers on Twitter and almost 3,500 likes on Facebook. Dubai’s largest English-language newspaper Gulf News which tweets at @gulf_news, has over 21,000 followers on Twitter. Abu Dhabi’s The National has a number of prolific social media users on its writing staff, including @ben_flanagan…

…and @amna_alhaddad

Interesting for those based outside of the UAE is how media re now turning to Twitter and Facebook. Saudi’s largest English-language publication, the Arab News, has long had a Facebook site. Arab News has more likes than Arabian Business. Rival publication Saudi Gazette has a Twitter feed on its site, and recently launched its Twitter handle, @TheSaudiGazette, last month.

Similarly in Bahrain, its largest English-language newspaper the Gulf Daily News now has Twitter and Facebook aggregator tools on every newspage. We’ll doubtless see more media using social networks to reach a wider audience.

While the Gulf’s media is moving ahead with social media, the region’s governments are clamping down on what could be termed anonymous social media users probably due to the role that social media has played in the Arab Spring.

Bahrain was the first to propose legislation. The country’s parliament discussed new punishments for cybercrime that include 10-year prison sentences and fines of up to 300,000 Bahraini Dinars. Kuwait and UAE are following suit. Both countries have questioned and/or detained bloggers of late for varying reasons. One article this week in Kuwait’s media suggested that the country could ban anonymous social media activity.

UAE officials have suggested that anyone caught using social media ‘irresponsibly’ will be punished.

Will the drive to regulate social media in the Gulf work? Can’t wait to find out!

Viral conversations – Saudi Women’s Forum streamed live with #womanforum hashtag

I often get asked about Saudi Arabia, about its people, customs and culture. But every so often you can get a glimpse into this magic kingdom and enjoy a peak at the real Saudi. Last week, on the 10th and 11th of December, the Saudi Center for Women’s Studies held a conference on women’s rights and responsibilities. For the first time I can remember for such an event, it was streamed live on the internet, including with commentary in English.

While I’d love to have a peak at the number of unique users on the site, social media activity in the Kingdom surged during the two days. Writing with the hashtag #womanforum Saudi and Arab nationals shared and commented on the views presented by the speakers (as this is Riyadh/Saudi women speakers did not share the same hall as the men and so were not visible in the video if you were wondering why there seemed to be no women at a women’s conference).

Most of the tweets and updates were in Arabic, but others did post in English.

http://twitter.com/#!/commitmentphobi/status/147175873446019073

The organizers of the event even used Facebook to upload pictures of the event and the speakers involved. If I can dig out the link I’ll add here.

Several days later in both English and Arabic media articles were published on the event. Here’s the link to the Arab News story, and the other for the Saudi Gazette piece.

While the media did pick up on important aspects of the event, the pieces were published several days after and lacked both the immediacy of the social media feeds as well as the cut and thrust of the debates online. With Saudi women and their rights being such an important topic in the Kingdom today, you’d have to ask if one article in a newspaper could do justice to the entire event.

As an addition to the above much of the argument for Saudi women working has been waged online. This is one video that was circulated this week using the womanforum hashtag. The video was uploaded in March but was circulated again this time round due to the renewed focus on women’s rights and work in Saudi. There’s nothing like a viral conversation, even in the magic kingdom.

Bahrain’s order to reinstate unemployed employees, students and #BHSacked

The recent events in Bahrain have been covered from a to z locally, regionally and globally. Much of the conflict between the government, its supporters and opponents has gone online. Bahrain has seen a surge in the use of social media this year both pro-government and pro-protestors.

As the conflict in Bahrain has ebbed and flowed much of the debate has gone online. One group of Bahrainis who have been particularly vocal have been those who lost their jobs and university places due to their actions and views which they expressed publicly.

This group, led in part by the medics sacked from Salmaniya Hospital and other medical institutions, have been pushing for their reinstatement. The campaign, much of which has been directed online via Twitter and Facebook, has been given added impetus by the findings of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report which investigated human rights abuses committed following the events of 2011 in Bahrain.

In its report, on pages 406 and 407, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry called for the reinstating of those who were fired from their posts. To quote verbatim from point 1664.

More generally, the report confirmed that, following on from HM King Hamad’s Eid speech, it was decided that there would be no further dismissals when the remaining 1,423 cases were reviewed. The maximum penalty upon review would be a 10-day suspension from work and salary. In other words, 1,423 dismissals by the public bodies have been overturned by the CSB and these people have already gone back to work on normal pay.

Despite the official statements there still seem to be many on the island who have not returned to work. Protests have been ongoing before the release of the BICI report at the end of November. Activities by those demanding their reinstatement has been stepped up over the past week. These protests have been extensively covered online via social media. Using the hashtag #BHSacked protesters have extensively uploaded pictures and videos of their protests.

One of the sacked doctors today protesting outside Bahrain's Ministry of Labor

They’ve also sent their messages to prominent journalists on twitter such as @nickkristof. Check out the link for a video shot from an iPhone today at the protests outside Bahrain’s Ministry of Labor.

What’s most interesting from a corporate communications point of view is how many of those who support this group have set up their own twitter accounts in the name of companies who have laid people off, including Alba and Gulf Air. Here’s a link to one tweet from a profile called antiBatelco (I’d love to embed but Twitter still hasn’t rolled out the option yet). They’ve used company logos for their account profile pictures. None of the companies affected seems to have taken to social media to defend their actions.

So what does the government of Bahrain do? What can it do? Not much legally, seeing as the human rights commission appointed by the King himself has stated that those who were fired be reinstated to their jobs. There’s little hope that people will fade away after a period of time either. As those protesting are both unemployed and educated there’s little hope that they’ll either stop protesting or taking their cause online.

The difference today is how social media and the use of images and video can keep a campaign running and running. Both sides in Bahrain have been quick to take up the use of online tools to argue their cases. However, digital media changed who now has the most share-of-voice and influence. Social media has exacerbated that shift. A group of motivated and IT-savvy activists with a couple of iPhones and Blackberries with internet connections can now challenge their governments. Where do we go from here? For those protesting back in Bahrain, it’s to get back to work.

Choosing your words carefully – Dr Kamal Subhi, coffee shops and ‘no more virgins’

SNL mocking Saudi study about women drivers (with Arabic subtitles) There’s always more than one way to say anything. This isn’t communications advice, but rather common sense pure and simple. There was nothing unusual in terms of the gist of a report on the effects of Saudi women driving which was handed to the Kingdom’s Shoura legislative Council. The document, written by Saudi academic Dr Kamal Subhi, basically said that women shouldn’t be allowed to drive (a basic document of what purports to be the report can be found here).

What unfortunately made headlines was the reasoning for Dr Subhi’s conclusions. Rather than rolling out the traditional lines of culture, of traffic congestion, or of legislative and practical difficulties, Dr Subhi was much more imaginative in his language.

To quote from the Associated Press:

The report by Kamal Subhi claims that allowing women to drive will threaten the country’s traditions of virgin brides, he said. The suggestion is that driving will allow greater mixing of genders and could promote sex.

Continuing the story, the UK’s Telegraph newspaper reported:

[The report] warned that allowing women to drive would “provoke a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce”.

Within 10 years of the ban being lifted, it claimed, there would be “no more virgins” in the Islamic kingdom.

It pointed out that “moral decline” could already be seen in those other Muslim countries in which women are allowed to drive.

In the report Prof Subhi described sitting in a coffee shop in an unnamed Arab state where “all the women were looking at me”.

“One made a gesture that made it clear that she was available,” he said. “This is what happens when women are allowed to drive.”

The news report spread across the internet. Comments poured in online and through social media. Twitter users posted their own views using the hashtag #drkamalstudy. The news story even made its way onto US television, with Saturday Night Live including it in their material (watch the video below).

There’s no doubt that there are many in Saudi who are against women driving. However, today’s local news goes global in an instant. It goes without saying to me that the comments attributed to the report and to Dr Subhi do not do any good to the image of the Kingdom or its women.

The same point could have been made, but with language that was banal, boring, and staid. Unless you really believe that women driving will mean more divorces, extra-marital sex, and looser morals. With more and more attention being paid globally to local media, thanks to digital and social tools, there’s no such thing as a local story that will stay local. It’s often the case that people would double-speak, ie say one thing to one audience and pass off another message to a different audience (Yasir Arafat was known for his double speak in Arabic and English). You cannot do this today. Someone will always relay your message, translate it and then distribute to and through their own networks.

Prominent Saudi blogger Eman Al Nafjan wrote a piece on this issue for the English newspaper The Guardian.Saturday Night Live mocking Saudi study about women drivers (with Arabic subtitles) As envisioned, Dr Subhi blamed the Western media for twisting his message. To quote Eman:

“In this statement he writes that he knows the west, and his study follows international scientific standards no one can refute. He claims that he is so greatly respected by his western counterparts that they offered him citizenship. The problem with the international press report, he says, is that it was commissioned by a Saudi hater who used a miserable reporter to write a piece that unfairly summed up his 16-page paper into half a page.”

I’m a huge fan of the Kingdom, its people and cultures following the years I and my family lived there. While I may not agree with everything that the country’s government does I still have to respect the laws of the land. However, no one can defend the indefensible. And the reasoning and language used in this report just makes me cringe. It’s not what Saudi Arabia should be making the headlines for.

The customer is always right – AlShaya and a social media backlash

My favorite retail marketing phrase is the customer is always right. While this may be the case in Europe and America where the phrase was coined, here in the Gulf retailers can and often do put in place policies that would not seem to be consumer-friendly.

One of the largest retailers in the Gulf is Kuwait-based M.H. AlShaya. According to media reports AlShaya manages over 55 brands across the Middle East and operates 2,000 outlets in 15 countries. AlShaya is a monster retailer, and its brands including Debenhams, H&M, The Body Shop, Starbucks, Boots and Mothercare.

At the end of September Alshaya announced a new policy whereby it was scrapping its previous returns policy. No longer would shoppers at AlShaya stores be able to return faulty and unwanted goods for a cash or credit card refund. Instead, they would be given store credit.

To put it mildly this policy hasn’t gone down well online. Today twitterers used the hashtag #noshaya to blast the retailer for its returns policy. Prominent Saudi twitter activist @maialshareef and Dhahran-based @hindkz came up with the hashtag to vent their frustration at the change in policy returns. Those in the GCC in particular have been criticizing the policy, especially in Saudi Arabia where most retail shops do not have changing rooms. If the clothes you purchase do not fit when you try them on at home, you will not get a cash or credit card refund.

Twitterers have called for boycotts of M.H. AlShaya’s stores until the policy is changed. Some have also been contacting M.H. AlShaya’s retail partners such as H&M asking for them to force a change on M.H. AlShaya. One twitterer with the handle of @b_e_s_t wrote to @HM

Could you please review H&M store policy in Saudi Arabia. Your agent in the region refuse to pay refunds even with the receipt #noshaya

Some people online have defended M.H. AlShaya. One with the username neenoism noted that people should be angry at the Saudi authorities for refusing to install changing rooms.

Ill be buyin smthin from some ALSHAYA store eventually. Put the money on the damn card. Boycott Saudi for banning changing rooms. #noshaya

While it’s been a few months since the initial announcement re the returns policy, the only assumption for the timing of the backlash is that M.H. AlShaya has only implemented the policy recently. One of the region’s most prolific bloggers @khaled has summed up why people are upset. When compared to the brands they represent (most of whom seem to give consumers a refund even if the product or purchase is not faulty) M.H. AlShaya’s returns policy is anything but consumer friendly.

Recent social media campaigns against the likes of Qtel and AlMarai have resulted in major concessions either being promised to or made for the public’s benefit. This seems to be the start of what either may be a very short but focused campaign against M.H. AlShaya’s consumer policies or a long-term hashtag which sums up the dissatisfaction of its customers.

Google, Blackberry and Apple, where’s the Arab content?

I had the chance to sit with some very switched on and influential telecoms executives twice this week. While the first was a shin-dig for the most widely respected telecoms awards ceremony in the Middle East, CommsMEA, the other was a tea and dinner with a number of senior people from Saudi Arabia.

I love to sit down for a tea or a coffee. You hear more over a cup of warm water and a tea bag than you will ever do in an all-day meeting. The one thing that the executives were discussed was a content portal. One in particular was fed up. He told me, Blackberry and Google move too slow. All Google wants to do is sell Adwords rather than provide our country and region with a portal to sell applications.

Let me tell you a bit about apps, in case you didn’t know. Those programs that you can download to your smartphone are big business. The global leader by a mile, Apple has sold or given to iPhone owners 18 billion apps through its online store. Apple today offers over half a million apps to customers worldwide. Well, anywhere apart from the Middle East that is.

The problem for most of us consumers in this region is that we cannot pay for content online for our smartphones. Why? Because our credit and debit cards aren’t accepted by these online gateways. While consumers with a US or Europe-based credit card and address can choose from millions of songs, apps, and videos, those less fortunate souls in nearly all of the Gulf can only access free-to-download programs (the one exception is the UAE where Apple launched an online content store for local credit and debit card holders in August of this year).

What annoys telcos so much is that they’ve deployed state-of-the-art data networks based on LTE technology. In other words, they’re ready and waiting to see consumers download hundred of megabytes of data a day. Data is the next big cash cow for mobile carriers in the Middle East. So it’s annoying to see yourself all ready to go out and having no ride to get there.

But while Apple rules the roost when it comes to content, where’s Google and Blackberry? Everyone I know in this region has a Blackberry device, and yet the only application people seem to use is Blackberry Messenger or BBM for short. Similarly, Google’s Android mobile phone operating system is winning fans from across the region. So why aren’t they willing to beat Apple at its own game and roll out content stores for the region?

It’s getting to the point of desperation when operators have to develop their own online content and app store. But if that’s what it’ll take to get Google, Apple and Blackberry moving then so be it. Similarly, the more apps we shift in this region, the more content we’re actually going to get in Arabic (there’s always been a issue in the Middle East with the lack of Arabic-language applications for smartphones). The more content we have in Arabic, the more apps the operators and content owners will sell. It’s simple logic, and it’ll make lots of money. So what are you waiting for Google, Blackberry, and Apple. Where’s the Arabic content.

The only thing I’d like to know is whatever happened to Microsoft?

PS Claire good to see you at the CommsMEA event. Did you ever hire that comms director?