Seizing the moment – the GCC’s energy subsidies and communicating a solution

Is energy a problem for the Gulf? At first thought one wouldn’t think so. However, the Gulf region is facing a ticking bomb. To put it as simply as possible, the cost of producing electricity is becoming unsustainable. Demand for electricity has reached a point where countries are burning up to a fifth of their daily oil production. Unfortunately electricity prices have barely risen over the past couple of decades.

I didn’t realize the scale of the problem of electricity subsidies and the growing demand for electricity in the Gulf region until I worked in the energy sector. The issue is slowly gaining the attention that it deserves. One of the most impressive public sector leaders I know, Dr Saleh Al Awaji, has been constantly working to highlight ways to reduce energy consumption in Saudi Arabia. Only last week the BBC’s Middle East analyst Bill Law wrote a compelling article on the subject, which should be read by everyone who is concerned about energy consumption in the Gulf.

Bill Law's article on electricity subsidies makes for a a compelling read.

Bill Law’s article on electricity subsidies makes for a a compelling read.

And this brings me to my argument. In marketing and communications we all hope to plan and work to a long-term plan. For me, what distinguishes the good from the great are those professionals who know when and how to seize the moment, take the initiative and weave these waves of interest in related subjects into the communications plan.

So, what would make sense within the context of the above issue of energy subsidies? Possibly a company’s vision and thoughts on how its technology can reduce residential energy consumption, or improve the efficiency of electricity distribution, or ways in which alternative energy can complement traditional fossil fuel energy production.

The idea is simple. But it’s all about timing and approach in order to gain the maximum coverage for a company and its thought leadership. I’d love to see how energy leaders such as GE and Siemens are aiming to help the Gulf’s utilities and governments in averting the electricity subsidy cliff.

Of course there are times when it may appear in bad taste to seize the moment and partake in tactical, opportunistic communications activities. For example, promoting armored backpacks days after the devastating school shooting in Newtown.

If you were a company producing armored backpacks for school children would you promote your product after a deadly shooting?

If you were a company producing armored backpacks for school children would you promote your product after a deadly shooting?

Teaching with passion: the story of PCCI and Mariano ‘Jun’ Miranda

Video

You’ll not meet a more passionate photographer and teacher than PCCI’s founder Jun Miranda


I’ve been away from the sandpit for a couple of weeks. While I do miss home, I’ve had the pleasure of being in the Philippines for several weeks with my better half. Several years back we were told by a dear friend of ours, the late Moses Dizon, about a training center in the Philippines that specialized in photography and creative imaging. The center’s name was the
Philippine Center for Creative Imaging.

After lots of planning and preparation we flew over to Manila to enroll in a number of photography, creative and web design training courses. We fought through Manila’s traffic and got to grips with the capital’s manic urban planning to walk through the doors of PCCI as it’s best known. And then we met Mariano ‘Jun’ Miranda.

Some institutions are modeled after their founders. Think Apple, think Steve Jobs. The same is true of PCCI and Jun Miranda. To call Jun a photographer wouldn’t do the man justice. Beyond his abilities and skills he is a firm believer in education and teaching. With a number of colleagues he set up PCCI 12 years ago. He believes in teaching but with passion, in educating others to empower them, and in enjoying the learning experience.

I had the chance to sit down with Jun for a couple of minutes to record a short interview. Have a listen to the man and if you get the chance visit PCCI. You can see more of what they’re up to at their website which is http://pcci.com.ph/.

Has Nokia refound its mojo? And is Microsoft responsible?

Years ago, there was only one, the phone to rule all phones. No body ever asked for a phone. They asked for a Nokia. Saudi Arabia was the land of Nokia. And the rest of the Gulf wasn’t far behind. One tale I was told about the Finnish phone behemoth was that Saudi was the largest market worldwide for Nokia’s Communicator series of phones.

Saudi ten years back. Yes, Saudis loved their Nokia Communicators (this isn’t a Communicator but they’re about the same size).

And the came Apple, followed by Samsung, HTC, Blackberry and other mobile devices of all shapes and form. And Nokia was no longer the same company that it was before.

But then, there was a change. Nokia came together with Microsoft. And something new was born.

The Lumia 920 in all its glory. Yellow is optional.

The portents didn’t speak well for the partnership between the two companies. I remember owning a Windows-based SPV phone about ten years ago. While the phone did last, it wasn’t the easiest device to use. Microsoft hasn’t had a good track record when it comes to mobile operating systems. And Nokia’s Symbian has died a death. How would the two companies compete with Apple’s iOS software and Google’s Android platform?

As a reformed optimist and a gadget monster I took the plunge and ordered a new Nokia Lumia 920 on its release last month. I liked the look of the hardware – the Lumia has a 768 by 1280 pixel screen which is slightly larger than the iPhone 4, a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm processor, 32Gb of storage, an eight megapixel Carl Zeiss lens camera, NFC, Bluetooth, HSDPA and HSUPA connectivity and all the Wi-Fi that you’d need. The phone is chunkier than most, weighing in at 185 grams and with a dimension of 130.3 by 70.8 and 10.7mm, but I like my phones chunky and plumpy.

Going beyond the hardware, what I liked most about the new Nokia Windows-based lineup was the software. The operating system is simple to use with tiles on the front page to heavily-used applications and functions. The front screen can be easily customized to meet the needs of the user, it’s intuitive and copying files to and from the phone is so simple (though Microsoft still needs to work on the Windows Phone app which tends to crash when copying music). I can also sync files to my desktop and laptop using Microsoft’s Skydrive. All in all, the phone’s operating system is a joy to use and Microsoft is heading in the right direction when it comes to usability (though I’d love to see more shortcut buttons or tiles.

But there’s more good stuff to come. Nokia has long been a leader in the maps space following its acquisition of Navteq in 2008. The maps on the Lumia 920 are rich with detail including 3D rendering, they’re simple to use and most importantly they’re full of detail. With Nokia Drive you can do away with any other GPS software and hardware you may use for driving. Again, the system is easy to use, the voice directions are clear and I haven’t found any glaring mistakes in terms of geography and topography.

The most fun thing about my Nokia 920 experience so far is the Nokia City Lens, which is the smartest use of augmented reality so far. Basically, the City Lens allows you to look at the screen and view what locations of interest are nearby (be they restaurants, hotel, museums, shops, or even famous sights). Once you click on a point of interest you’ll be able to view pictures, read reviews and be guided there by Nokia Maps. Much of the content on Nokia City Lens is consumer-generated, which is going to make the application even more interesting as time goes by. As my brief explanation hasn’t the app any justice have a look at the embedded video.

I have tried the camera and true to form Nokia’s cameras as wonderfully clear. There’s much more I need to play around with on the camera settings, but I leave the photography to my talented wife.

And the downside? The applications, or lack of, currently available for the phone. There’s no Instagram as of yet and no native Twitter application, Whatsapp is still unstable, and compared to the iPhone and Android-based phones Microsoft needs to do more to convince developers to create apps for Windows 8 Mobile.

Having tested the phone both at home and abroad I know that Nokia is onto a winner. The Windows 8 environment will grow and develop with time and Nokia has bet its future on the operating system (it’s only crashed twice, which is remarkable for a Microsoft device). I’d love to see Microsoft publicize the operating system more (they’ve been surprisingly quiet in talking about Windows 8 Mobile despite it being crucial to their vision of a connected PC-phone-tablet ecosystem).

The question is now, will Nokia pick itself up again in the Gulf? While Blackberry is dying a death globally, the Canadian manufacturer is still doing remarkably well in the Gulf due in part to its Blackberry Messenger Service. Apple retains bragging rights to the best smartphone around, despite (in my view) doing remarkably little with the device since the launch of the 3GS. And then there’s Google. Can anyone stop the search giant with its Android operating system?

I’m certainly hoping that Nokia comes back strong. The product is one to shout about. Will its marketing be strong and bold enough to cut through the disappointment and ambivalence that many people feel about Nokia today in the Gulf to rediscover the love affair that they once had with the Finnish giant? Toivotaan niin Nokia! Game on Apple!

What is the future of the internet in the Middle East?

The past week has thrown out a couple of fun and serious stories and news reports about the internet in the Middle East. The first was Iran reportedly deciding to create its own version of YouTube in order to filter out what it deems to be inappropriate content posted on the world’s largest video-sharing network. There’s a screenshot from the Mehr site, which loads remarkably slowly for a site which hosts videos for viewing and sharing, below.

Will Iran's version of Youtube be as big a hit as the original?

Will Iran’s version of Youtube be as big a hit as the original?

The second story wasn’t as funny. The International Telecommunications Union had gathered its member states in Dubai to discuss a number of issues at the World Conference on International Telecommunications. The one which hit the headlines was internet regulation. In short, a number of countries from the Middle East and other emerging regions submitted proposals that would have allowed member countries to monitor and control data flowing through their respective parts of the internet.

While this is already happening in many parts of the world, the proposed resolution would have basically made it legal and proper for all 190 or so of the ITU’s “member states” to have the power to regulate the Internet to promote security, fight spam, et cetera.

A number of opinions and views can be found online on the issue, including interesting posts by technology historian Peter Salus entitled The UN and your Business: Why ITU Dubai Loss is your Gain and Why the ITU is the wrong place to set Internet standards by Tech writer Timothy B. Lee.

I for one am concerned about the future of the internet and online access. While internet filtering and domain blocking isn’t new to the Middle East (the Gulf’s telecommunications bodies block material that they deems offensive including religious or pornographic material) it’s clear that the past two years have opened a Pandora’s box when it comes to control of the internet. Governments in Egypt and Tunisia tried to close off access to the internet to stop revolution. That didn’t work. Gulf countries have legislated against online threats. As I’ve pointed out above Iran is building its own country-wide internet whilst blocking access to foreign-hosted sites that pose a threat to the Islamic Republic.

So where are we headed to next? How far will governments in the Middle East go in order to secure their own national communications networks? And is there anybody or anyone out there who will bring some common sense to the issue of web regulation in the Middle East?

While I don’t expect multinationals like Google and Yahoo (or even Facebook) to step up to the plate and say to Arab governments we will not regulate the web for you (after all, Yahoo and Google didn’t say no to China), I am hopeful that the region’s populations will become more vocal about their online rights. Egyptians and Tunisians have proved that they will demand and protect their new-found rights. Let’s hope others, especially in the Gulf, will begin to seriously think about what their governments are doing online and asking:

  • Who is watching me online?
  • What online data do they want and why?
  • Can I be jailed for my online activities? Do I have to self-censor my thoughts and activities?

What is the future of the internet in the Middle East? Are we headed towards a patchwork of national or regional wide webs aka Iran? Or will sense prevail? Goodness knows we need commerce and entrepreneurship to flourish in this region to generate more jobs and an open internet is essential to both. Answers on an email, an online comment, or (if your connection is monitored) a postcard please!

Are you up for some (more) government censorship and online monitoring?

The pride of the Gulf: Kuwaitis and their determination to realize their civil rights

Kuwait has seen unprecedented levels of demonstrations over the past month

Kuwait isn’t a place one would naturally associate with freedom and democracy. The country and its nationals are often derided by other Gulf Arabs for a number of reasons (if you live in the Gulf you’ll understand what I’m talking about here).

When it comes to participation in government, there’s no doubt in my mind that the rest of the Gulf could learn a great deal from Kuwait. The country has always had, by GCC standards, a vibrant and active political scene. Kuwait’s Constitution guarantees democratic representation by virtue of Article 6, Part 1 which states that “the System of Government in Kuwait shall be democratic, under which sovereignty resides in the people, the source of all powers.”

When talking about civil protests in the Gulf area a common refrain has been to ask “why are there any protests at all?” The perception is that Gulf Arabs have money, and that they are looked after and provided with all that they may need by their respective governments. This may be true in some cases, but it misses the point entirely. Kuwaitis are demanding more say in their government and how the country is ruled.

The challenges in Kuwait are best summed up by Kuwaiti opposition leader Musallam Al-Barrak in his article for the Guardian newspaper. You can read the article here, but I will also quote from it below.

We are protesting against an unconstitutional change in the electoral law pushed forward by the emir. The electoral system divides Kuwait into five districts; 10 parliamentarians are elected from each district. Previously people could cast four votes per ballot, but the new law permits voters to cast only one. This change aims to quell the national assembly’s role, as it facilitates the governing authority’s control of electoral outcomes – which in turn undermines the country’s democratic legitimacy.

On a deeper level, however, the demonstrations are against individual rule, something Kuwaitis have long and actively refused. In 1962, when the current constitution – which limits the governing authority’s role – was issued, it established that the public has the right to impose its opinions on the emir through the elected national assembly – a right that the governing authority refuses to acknowledge. The current struggle is therefore a struggle for power. Is power – as stated in the constitution – for the public, or is it – contrary to the constitution – for the emir?

The majority of people also believe that the government, representing the ruling family, is not serious in its battle against corruption. In fact, people are convinced they are sponsoring it. This belief was one of the reasons behind the dissolution of the 2012 parliament and the recent changes in the electoral system, following the opposition’s exposure of evidence that state money was being transferred to private accounts in London, Geneva and New York, and of the previous government bribing parliamentarians in 2009.

I for one am proud of the Kuwaiti people for standing up for what they believe to be their rights and against the actions of Kuwait’s ruler. They’ve shown bravery, determination, and a belief in themselves despite the very real risks to themselves. Kuwait’s people, both men and women, clearly believe in themselves and their ability to take the country forward. Kuwaitis have proved that they are prepared to risk a great deal for the right to govern themselves and fight corruption.

In his article for the Guardian Al-Barrak writes that in the end the people of Kuwait will be triumphant. I would hope that any victory for democratic participation in Kuwait would be felt by others across the Gulf. Will we one day look back to Kuwait in 2012 and say this is where the Gulf’s Arab Spring began? Today Kuwait and its people should be seen as the pride of the Gulf.

While the country does seem to be going through an unprecedented crisis, I do also feel that the Emir of Kuwait should be recognized to an extent for allowing protests (or at the very least, not cracking down in the same/similar manner to his GCC neighbours). Maybe I’m wrong on this, but Kuwait would seem to be the one country in the Gulf which allows for its nationals to protest openly. While I have read about and been told of attempts to use force and arrests to dispel protestors I certainly couldn’t imagine these scenes being repeated in any other city in the Gulf as of today.

For more on what is happening in Kuwait watch the below report from Al Jazeera’s English channel which makes for fascinating viewing.

Saudi-based journalists to follow – Reem Shamseddine

Following on from a recent post about one of my favourite journalists who covers issues related to the Kingdom, here’s a second piece for those interested in the media world of Saudi Arabia.

There are few newswires in the Kingdom (the most prominent are Bloomberg, Dow Jones, and Reuters) and the best established is Reuters. The venerable London-based news agency was the first to set up shop in Riyadh and has since expanded its bureaus to Jeddah and Al-Khobar.

Reuters has some stellar reporters working in and covering Saudi Arabia. For me, their star is the person who has been serving Reuters the longest in Saudi Arabia. Reem Shamseddine is Reuter’s main correspondent for Saudi Arabia’s energy sector and it’s a position that she has held for almost four years. During that time she’s broken every major energy story in Saudi Arabia, and in the process covering giants such as Aramco, SABIC, Dow Chemicals, Maaden etc…

Despite the size of the oil and gas industry and affiliated sectors in Saudi Arabia (the Kingdom is one of the largest oil exporters worldwide), there’s no more challenging assignment than trying to break through the myriad number of embedded public relations professionals to actually get to and report the actual story. Reem has consistently shown an ability to develop contacts and to understand the issues that are central to Saudi Arabia’s energy industry.

Reem is the type of journalist who will be thoroughly prepared for an interview and will question the interviewee on every subject. She’ll quite literally leave no stone unturned in her search for a story or piece of information.

If you’re eager to read more about Reem’s work, have a look at these articles online including interviews with the Deputy Minister for Electricity and Water and the Chairman of Saudi Electricity Company Dr Saleh Al-Awaji, an overview of Saudi Arabia’s mining sector, and of course numerous pieces with Aramco including this one on its production plans.

If you’re working in the energy or industrial sector there are a handful of journalists that you must know and deal with. Reem Shamseddine should be at the top of that list. Reem can be reached by email at Reem.Shamseddine(at)thomsonreuters.com and at Twitter on the handle @shamseddine_r

Reem Shamseddine has met with and interviewed the good and the great of Saudi Arabia’s oil and gas industry and energy sector such as the Minister for Oil Ali Al-Naimi