Paris Hilton and the holy city of Makkah – where’s the synergy?

This is one of the few images that I could find of Paris which would be suitable for this blog. This isn’t her attire for the store’s opening however.

Socialite and party-lover Paris Hilton. And the holiest city to all Muslims worldwide, Makkah. These two don’t often find themselves in the same magazine or TV programme, let alone in the same sentence.

However, all of that has changed with the launch of Paris Hilton’s fifth store in Saudi Arabia. And yes, you guessed right. The store will be in the holy city of Makkah.

Ms Hilton tweeted about the opening with a picture of the store. She also added that this was her fifth store in Saudi Arabia out of a total of 42 stores worldwide. Seems we just can’t get enough of Paris Hilton over here.

Unsurprisingly there’s been a fair amount of reaction within Saudi itself. The news was first covered in Saudi by the national newspapers and has quickly been picked up by international outlets including CNN. The CNN piece, which you can read here, neatly sums up the differing reactions to the store’s opening.

The commercialization of Makkah isn’t recent. For years the city has been transformed by a host of high-end shops, stores and malls. It’s very different in another city I love dearly. Most of the old city of Jerusalem (Al-Quds in Arabic) has resisted change, and is all the better for it in terms of its spirituality and warmth.

Returning back to Paris and Makkah, what does a woman who has been embroiled in a sex tape and enjoys her party lifestyle have to do with Makkah, the holiest city in the world to over a billion people. Dare I say, this is slightly different from a high-end brand such as Gucci in the sense that Paris Hilton the person (and her lifestyle) embodies the brand. Will the news engender a debate about what is happening to a city that means so much to so many people. Makkah should be cherished and conserved. I for one hope it does. In the meantime, if you are in Makkah and you’re in desperate need of a bag do remember Paris Hilton (and say astaghfirullah while you’re doing it).

Makkah is most associated with Islam, spirituality, belief and forgiveness

PS as a PR stunt I’d have to give Paris Hilton and her team top marks for the online reaction as well as the media coverage.

How Dubai’s Tamweel Tower fire and its aftermath has been shaped by social media

Dubai woke up Sunday morning to a horror story. In what seemed to me to be a throw-back to the movie the Towering Inferno a fire broke out on the roof/top floor of a 34-storey tower in the city’s Jumeirah Lakes Towers development at around 2am. Incredibly, no one was killed or seriously injured and the tower’s 600 residents were evacuated from the building.

The fire, which you can see a clip of below, took several hours to be brought under control. However, for the families who lived in the property which is owned by the Islamic mortgage company Tamweel, their ordeal has only just begun.

According to news releases and press statements Tamweel has been supporting those made homeless by providing them with hotel accommodation.

At Tamweel, our very highest priority is the safety and well-being of the owners and residents,” said Varun Sood, Acting Chief Executive Officer, Tamweel. “Our staff are on site and have provided transportation and hotel accommodation, in coordination with DMCC, to any resident who requires such assistance. We will continue to work with the Building’s Owners Association to assist all residents and we remain fully committed to ensuring their well-being.

It’s no exaggeration to say that many families lost everything in the fire. Radio interviews with Tamweel Tower residents spoke of people running out wearing only their underwear and having to borrow clothing from others after they’d assembled at the emergency evacuation points outside the building. A wonderful piece was written in the Khaleej Times, a piece that conveyed the feeling of loss and confusion. If you’re hoping to gain a sense of how much some people were going through on the morning of the fire then do click through and read.

The tragedy has been covered extensively in both traditional media and on Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. Residents were tweeting from the site pictures and uploading videos before the first stories had been published online (I read one Twitterer write in the early hours of the 18th that traditional media were yet to publish anything on the fire – if I can find his tweet I’ll publish here).

The morning of the tragedy companies and individuals started to reach out via community forums and other online media to offer their services and support as well as provide details for those who want to volunteer and donate.

One Dubai restaurant chain offered to host residents and businesses based in Tamweel Tower at their premises

Many people posted details of people to get in touch with for donating items to those left homeless

These community charity efforts are ongoing, as is the support given by Tamweel, and will be some consolation for residents who have lost all of their belongings in the fire.

The speed with which social media has allowed people to express their support and rally others in the community to help the victims of the Tamweel Fire has been remarkable. How long would businesses or government bodies take to do the same? What is interesting to note is that Dubai Police also use Twitter to put out news alerts.

For me, what’s also been striking is that the owner of the building Tamweel doesn’t have a social media presence. I’m sure, after what has happened, that will change in a very short space of time.

Middle East journalists you must follow – Caryle Murphy @CaryleM

I’ve long thought about and planned to write on journalists who have been based in Saudi Arabia and the wider Gulf and who write about the realities of life in the Arabian Peninsula.

A journalist both by profession and by passion, Caryle Murphy

The first person I’m writing about is a woman I have admired for years and whose reporting is still a lesson to all of us in the media industry on both how to write both objectively and arouse the reader’s interest. Caryle Murphy is a multiple award-winning journalist, author and scholar. She’s devoted herself to her profession and her recognitions, including a Pulitzer, hardly do her talents and impact on the profession justice.

Before I start here’s a brief biography on Caryle from the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars where she was a Middle East Program Public Policy Scholar up until July of this year.

An independent, freelance journalist, Caryle Murphy was a long-time reporter for the Washington Post, covering both domestic and international affairs for the paper. She also is the author of Passion for Islam (Scribner 2002), which explains Islam’s contemporary revival and the roots of religious extremism in the Middle East.

From 2008-2011 she worked in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where she reported for GlobalPost, the Christian Science Monitor, and the National in Abu Dhabi. Murphy has been appointed a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington for the last quarter of 2011.

She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting (1991) and the George Polk Award for Foreign Reporting for her coverage of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait from inside the emirate. She was also a recipient of the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation and the 1991 Edward Weintal Diplomatic Reporting prize. In 1994-1995, she was the Edward R. Murrow Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

I had the privilege of meeting Caryle for the first time when she moved over to Riyadh in 2008. I’d been at the launch event for the English-language The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi and had been watching a video made by all of their foreign correspondents. The person who stuck out the most was this American blonde lady who had the Faisaliah Tower behind her and confidently proclaimed that she was The National’s Saudi correspondent based in Riyadh.

Intrigued by the thought of an American female reporting from the heart of the Kingdom, I fired off an email to Caryle asking to meet with her. What you’ll first notice about Caryle is how sharp she is as an interviewer. She’ll have done meticulous reading on a subject and she’ll get to the crux of the matter in no time.

Having seen her do numerous interviews I know that Caryle isn’t afraid to ask about any subject, no matter its sensitivity. However, she’ll always be aware of cultural taboos and will frame questions in such a way that her interviewees would not feel offended, insulted, or unable to answer.

During her time in Saudi Caryle has written on women’s rights, the issues surrounding 9/11, religion and state, and the role that tradition plays in this deeply conservative country. For me, what has stood her apart has been the way in which she has crafted her writing, and how she asks questions of her readers. Caryle humanizes a story in a way few others are capable of.

The sad news is that Caryle is no longer based in the Middle East. She’s still writing on the region from the US however. You can follow her on Twitter at @CaryleM and also read her archive of work for The National here. Carlye also has her own website which is http://www.carylemurphy.com but this is undergoing a sprucing up at the moment and so may not be viewable.

However, do check out the below video from the beginning of 2012. Caryle is talking at USC Annenberg School of Journalism about Islam and Saudi Arabia. And if you’re reading this Caryle, I can’t wait to read your next piece of work on the Kingdom and the Middle East!

A Bentley and the Saudi pre-occupation with desert drives

A short but fun post for you. Saudis love their cars. And they love their desert driving. A typical weekend in Riyadh will involve a drive off the tarmac and into the desert.

Here’s what happens when two of Saudi’s favourite past times come together. Enjoy the video and remember, don’t drive the Bentley into the desert.

Finance and entrepreneurship goes digital with souqalmal.com

I love entrepreneurs, I really do. At their best they’re gutsy, bold, decisive, innovative, and they’re not afraid of risk. Frankly, we need more entrepreneurs in the Middle East.

I had the pleasure and the opportunity to meet the person behind the idea of souqalmal.com last week. After stints with GE, Mastercard and the consultancy firm Bain Ambareen Musa took the jump into the entrepreneurial space to found souqalmal.com.

Souqalmal.com is the first website I’ve come across in the region which provides a comprehensive view of a variety of financial products, including credit cards, personal finance, home and vehicle finance, insurance and personal banking accounts. In other words the portal is an Gulf-based version of money.co.uk (the site presently caters to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) and is both incredibly easy to use as well as very handy when comparing different products in the market.

Souqalmal isn’t just about providing the basic data however. The site lets subscribers rate products, just as you would do on a Tripadvisor for a hotel or amazon.com for a book. As a consumer you get to rate that service and provide your input to hundreds and thousands of others who will be using the site. That consumer feedback element should raise the bar for the financial services industry in the region by highlighting what is both good and bad about the product and it services.

What I love most about what Ambareen is doing is that she’s established a business that is providing a much-needed public service. She’s dived in, she’s pushing ahead, and I do believe that she and souqalmal.com will improve what and how the financial sector offers and deals with the region’s consumers. I for one wish her all the success in the world, and can’t wait to start putting down my thoughts on souqalmal’s review sections!

Will Souqalmal.com and one person’s entrepreneurial spirit change the face of consumer banking in the Gulf? Let’s hope so!