One story, two different takes – How Saudi Gazette is reporting and Arab News isn’t

One story has dominated Saudi media for the past week, the tragedy of 13-year-old Reham Al-Hakami who contracted HIV through a mistaken blood transfusion at a government-run hospital in the south of the country (I’ll cover this story and the outcry it has caused in a blog-post soon).

However, reading the English-language press today is a confusing affair. If you pick up Saudi Gazette, you’ll find not one piece but two on Reham. The first is a news item about another Saudi woman who has contracted AIDS. The second is a scathing opinion piece from the paper’s Arabic-language sister publication Okaz written by columnist Khaled Al-Sulaiman.

The column, which was first published in the Arabic-language daily Okaz, was rerun in Saudi Gazette

The column, which was first published in the Arabic-language daily Okaz, was rerun in Saudi Gazette

And then there’s the main piece on the Ministry of Health in Arab News, which focuses on a letter from the King thanking “the Health Minister Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah and for obtaining certificates from the US-based Joint Commission International (JCI) for 15 medical facilities and accreditation from the Central Board of Accreditation for Healthcare Institutions (CBAHI) for 50 hospitals over the past 12 months.”

And here is the main piece on the Ministry of Health from Arab News. There's a second article covered, which is also not related to Reham

And here is the main piece on the Ministry of Health from Arab News. There’s a second article covered, which is also not related to Reham

I know which newspaper I’d rather be reading today. The team at Saudi Gazette and its owners should be praised for their editorial integrity and coverage of the issue.

Incidentally, Arab News is known as the Green Truth owing to the colour of its front and back pages and the quality of its copy. While the colour print hasn’t changed there’s been a noticeable shift in editorial since Khaled Al Maeena left at the end of 2011. During those two years Arab News has had two editors-in-chief (Abdulwahab Al-Faiz and now Mohammed Fahad Al-Harthi) and has lost staff to Saudi Gazette. I for one hope that Arab News receives the investment and political backing from its owner SRMG that the newspaper needs to compete editorially with Saudi Gazette.

Saudi Bubblers and women’s scuba diving in the Kingdom

Here’s something you may not know about the Kingdom – Saudi has some of the best diving spots in the world. The Hijaz coast which borders the Red Sea offers a richness of marine wildlife that is unparallelled (the islands around Farasan are replete with dolphins, turtles and sharks). Saudi can rival or even beat neighbors like Egypt when it comes to a diving experience. But, as always, the secret is in the marketing.

I had the pleasure of talking to one person who is doing his utmost to tell everyone he meets about the beauty of Saudi Arabia’s Hijaz Coast and the wonders of diving for both expats and the country’s nationals. Nawaf Al Otaibi is one of the founders of Bubblers, a Saudi-based group that aims to give as many people as possible the chance to fall in love with diving off Saudi’s coast.

“We set up Bubblers to offer people new to the sport a simply way to get certified and also give divers the chance to get back into the water once they’ve completed their certifications. We wanted to help people dive in an organized fashion, and we focus on arranging group trips that range from one to five days in length. We also offer snorkeling to people who want to dip their toes into the water but aren’t yet sure about taking up diving. Our aim is to show to as many people as possible what the Red Sea has to offer and we’ve found that eight percent of our snorkelers sign up for a full diving course as soon as they’re out of the water and back on the boat.”

Bubblers is the first Saudi-based scuba diving community that bills itself as multinational – the group has a Facebook presence and just under two hundred members to date. And Bubblers aims to please all. “We have a diverse group of divers, including Saudis. We’re finding that more and more Saudis are joining us on our trips. Over the past two months, Bubblers has arranged four trips, each with a maximum of twenty people. The ages have ranged from 11 up to 72 years. We take care of everything, from A to Z, even including flights from Riyadh, food and other transportation needs. We’re also finding that women are taking up the sport. They can dive fully hooded and covered, and we welcome then on board our trips.”

No matter how good you are, if you’re a newbie or you already have fish gills, Bubblers can take care of you through a host of diving courses and training, including the basic open water diver developed by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, as well as the advanced open water diver, master scuba diver and dive master certification.

And on the issue of women diving in the Kingdom, you may be surprised. Scuba diving can be done in my favorite piece of clothing, the burkini, and a recent article in English-language newspaper Arab News focused on demands from Saudi women for female-only diving areas. I’ve pull a quick quote from the article, which highlights the obstacles women face when diving in the Kingdom.

An increasing number of women scuba divers want designated areas to dive in the Red Sea to avoid the obstacles they face when trying to obtain a permit for a diving trip.

Just to whet your appetite have a look at these pictures from Bubblers divers, including the talented photographer Mr. Vincent Al Hawary.

If your interest has been piqued then call Nawaf on and start planning for an unforgettable experience. His details and details for the rest of the group’s founders can be found in this handy pdf brochure made by the team at Bubblers (please do click on the link below). Of course, you won’t need me to tell you that you will need Adobe Acrobat or a pdf viewer to open.

Bubblers Profile

Mission Impossible? Rehabilitating the image of the UAE’s expat education system…

The question used to be who’d be a teacher. Today it’s more likely be to who’d be a school owner in the UAE? The country’s private education system has been under attack recently for the cost of educating (mainly) expatriate children. There was a wonderful article written by Arabian Business Editor Courtney Trenwith about the issue of high school fees in the UAE, and an apt comparison was made between secondary education in the UAE and tertiary education back in the United Kingdom.

An Arabian Business investigation last month revealed the startling fact that it costs more to send a child to some Dubai schools than a British university.

Fees for a three-year old are as high as AED55,000 (US$15,000) per year, while they escalate to AED69,283 for a typical child aged six to nine, to AED79,733 for many ten to 13-year olds and as much as AED96,140 for the most expensive secondary schools.

Meanwhile, a year’s tuition at universities such as Cambridge and Oxford is less than AED53,000. Until recently, UK university fees were even cheaper.

One of the largest private education firms is GEMS, which claims to educate over 110,000 children and be the leading Kindergarten to Grade 12 private education operator in the world. In December of 2012 GEMS announced that it would close Westminster School in Dubai, which caters to 4,800 pupils from ages five to 18-years old.

The issue which has been covered extensively by the online portal and business publication Arabian Business has caused an uproar with parents who are naturally concerned about the disruption to their children’s education. In a letter sent to parents which was published by Arabian Business, GEMS said the Westminster School would shut in June 2014 with students being given priority placement in other GEMS institutions.

“In recent times our ability to invest the resources required to produce the improvements needed, both educationally and in infrastructure, have been severely restricted because of the current fee structure… We simply cannot offer a high quality education at this level that we see as our duty to provide. Indeed, salary increases during the same period have been at a level higher than any fee awards,” wrote GEMS executive director Dino Varkey to parents.

And now we come to the issue of communications. There are few subjects as sensitive as education, especially when it is for your own children. As the largest company in the industry and one which seems to be making the most headlines, GEMS should realize it needs to do more in terms of its messaging. The company is currently looking to hire a PR and communications manager in Dubai through LinkedIn (if you’re interested in Mission Impossible do click through here).

The question I’d pose to GEMS is how can anyone justify charging more for a year in high school than for a year in university? As there’s little to no public schooling system here for expatriates (in theory an expatriate child can go to a government school but fees will still apply) what are parents to do apart from swallow the bitter pill? But will that help GEMS and the other companies in the long-run? Isn’t the issue more than simply looking at how to spin the company line on high educational costs and school closures? Isn’t this more about the fundamentals of the business, which need reassessing?

The very same Dino Varkey told Arabian Business editor Anil Bhoyrul in an interview in March 2011 that:

“The ambition that we work towards is five million students by 2024. If we got to the five million number as a conservative [estimate] we would be a $60bn company; we would be employing 450,000 teachers, 55,000 senior leaders – that’s the size of organisation that we are trying to build. ”

In the meantime I spotted this recently in a book store in Dubai. As always, if you don’t keep the customer happy someone else will muscle in and try to offer a better service at the same or a lower cost regardless of your communications strategy.

There's always an alternative but would your child be happier and better off boarding in the UK than going to school in Dubai? And would it be cheaper?

There’s always an alternative but would your child be happier and better off boarding in the UK than going to school in Dubai? And would it be cheaper?

The benefits of spell-checking in the Middle East: GCC Chief condoms Bahrain

I’ve often considered being a journalist in the Middle East a curse. I’m surrounded by poorly spelled English signage, all of which I not-so-secretly want to correct. I used to find myself shaking my head from side to side as I’d count all the grammatical and spelling mistakes in certain areas of Riyadh.

While those in charge of signage may have the excuse of not being near a spell-checker when producing the prints, journalists cannot plead the same. And the below is just a shocker. I’m assuming that KUNA, Kuwait’s News Agency, has a good roster of staff to both write, edit, and proof-read. I just hope that someone amends this story and quick. But for posterity here’s a screen capture.

The headline says it all...

The headline says it all…

Fre! It’s wine, it’s in Saudi Arabia, and it’s legal (for now…)

No, it’s not how you say good morning in Swedish or Norwegian (although it’s fairly close I’ve been told). Instead, Fre is a modern miracle of science. Fre is wine without the alcohol. Don’t ask me how it’s done, or if the company thought of Saudi Arabia when they conceptualized Chardonnay without the 14.5 percent on the bottle. But Fre is magical. And it is available in Saudi Arabia.

Now, I know there will be skeptics out there. You will say, it’s only apple juice with a fancy name. No, Fre is different. We’ve tried Fre on numerous foreign friends, and presumably some wine connoisseurs, who’ve come to visit us in the Magic Kingdom. Once we had a group of executives from a very well-known IT brand visit the compound and they thought we were running the biggest alcohol racket in all of Jeddah once they’d opened the cupboards. We weren’t. It was Fre.

Our savior on many an occasion we had foreign guests! And it tastes like the real thing too!

Our savior on many an occasion we had foreign guests! And it tastes like the real thing too!

We first discovered Fre in a popular Chinese restaurant in Jeddah opposite Takhasusi hospital. After that we were hooked, though my wife always swore that the stuff has alcohol in. We always used to find Fre in Jeddah, in Sawary supermarkets or sometimes Danube. There’d be the occasional shipment to Riyadh, to Tamimi Safeway, but Tamimi usually stocked the cheaper and less fancy Vinola. I once took a bottle with me from Jeddah to Riyadh on an internal flight. The x-ray machinist didn’t know what to do with me, bless him.

Fre isn’t cheap at around 50 or 60 Riyals a bottle, but there’s lots of variety (Brut, Merlot, Chardonnay, Moscato, and White Zinfandel) but it’s cheaper than the other stuff one may find in Saudi Arabia and it’s certainly more enjoyable than a stay in a prison cell. Now go and buy some! And if you don’t believe me then look at this video. I just wish I had the distribution rights for this stuff!

Social media brand hijacking – Emirates and Etihad fakes and lessons for a corporate online presence

A story broke at the beginning of the month about a couple of campaigns out there in the social media universe. Both piggybacked on two of the UAE’s most established brands. Essentially, the two campaigns offered those who followed the chance to win free flights with Emirates Airline and Etihad Airways.

According to the UAE’s English-language newspaper The National which broke the story here in the UAE, the promotion launched on the picture-sharing site Instagram and stated that the first 20,000 people who would follow each account and would share the respective campaigns with a specific hashtag would receive free tickets for themselves plus one to Dubai or Abu Dhabi. The Emirates Instagram account was named EMIRATESPROMOTION while the Etihad campaign ran under the hashtag #EtihadPromotion.

The branding is there, the name may be dodgy, but there's no official Emirates account. So why not believe it?

The branding is there, the name may be dodgy, but there’s no official Emirates account. So why not believe it?

Too good to be true you may think, and the campaigns were fake. That didn’t stop 10,000 people following the fake Emirates account which featured the company’s logo and photos skinned from the company’s website. I don’t know how long the fake competitions were up and running for, but both Emirates and Etihad put out statements warning people not to fall for the fake campaigns. The Emirates statement is below.

To all our fans, Emirates has three official social media channels which are:

When we launch competitions or new social media channels, you will be the first to know via our Facebook, G+ or YouTube channels and on

Thank you for your continued support

Emirates also sent a statement to the Australian website The Vine stating that “Emirates Airline does not have an official Instagram account. Any Emirates-related accounts or promotions on Instagram do not belong to us.”

Similarly, Etihad wrote on its Twitter account that “Etihad Airways has no association with any accounts or promotions (such as #EtihadPromotion) competition currently running on Instagram as we don’t have an official Instagram account yet. Thanks for checking.”

How does this concept sound to you? There’s lots of random people out there on social media, and scams and the internet aren’t mutually exclusive. So why do brands focus on some social media channels and not others? For example, both Emirates and Etihad don’t have Instagram accounts. Emirates doesn’t even have a Twitter account. Wouldn’t it be best for a brand simply to park their presence on the major social media channels (no one can do everything on social media, there’s simply too many channels and sites out there).

And this point may be even more relevant albeit off on a tangent for Emirates, which spends several hundred million dollars on sports marketing (the most recent announcement being the tie-up with Formula One). Isn’t the airline missing out through not focusing on social media? Imagine how much Emirates could achieve in brand positioning and amplifying that sports marketing spend by promoting itself through social media. As I’ve said before, technology is a wonderful leveler. It’d seem a waste not to wring every single penny in return on investment from those mega-bucks sports sponsorships.

So next time you see a promotion which is too good to be true just send a Facebook message to the airlines and ask them if they’ve gotten round in Instagram (or Twitter in Emirates’ case). And, as they say in France bon chance!

This gentleman clearly feels Emirates would benefit from more social media presence. Do you?

This gentleman clearly feels Emirates would benefit from more social media presence. Do you?

Are the Saudis the QR Code kings of the region?

The Magic Kingdom always seems to get a bad reputation when it comes to adoption; everyone else always seem to think that Saudi Arabia will be the last to the party. However, on my last trip to Riyadh a couple of weeks back I was pleasantly surprised to see QR codes at the airport and throughout the city.

I’m sure that even if you can’t recall what QR codes are, you will have seen them in magazines or on posters. QR codes (the QR stands for quick response) are optical machine-readable labels which resemble bar codes. QR codes have become popular in consumer advertising in the United States, Europe and Asia due to their ease of use and the ability to guide/track a consumer’s actions through the technology; smartphone users (that’s most of us nowadays) can use QR-code scanner apps to open a website which relates to the advertiser and its products. For an example of a QR code have a look below; the code is even branded.

A branded QR code from the BBC (credit:

In Riyadh’s King Khalid Airport the mobile operator Mobily is using QR codes on its advertising boards to direct traffic to product microsites. Riyadh Municipality is also using QR codes to help the public identify street names and places. Similarly, Jeddah Municipality has started rolling out a QR code tagging system for its streets. To quote from the English-language daily Arab News article.

Visitors and residents will be able to learn of a street name, location and GPS coordinates by taking a snap shot using their smart phone reader.

“The signs have already been mounted at number Jeddah’s districts,” said undersecretary for projects and urban construction at the Jeddah mayor’s office Ibrahim Kutub Khana. “This includes Basateen, Muhamadia, Naeem and Salamh. These new signs includes a property’s GPS coordinates, street name and location inside the district. To make locating and navigating in Jeddah more easier and convenient visitors and residents.”

By pointing their smart phones at the QR code tag, all the information is stored inside a database. The information can be accessed through satellite positioning systems.

Plans are also under way for installing additional new signs in more of the city’s districts.

Not only are advertisers using QR codes, but the Saudi government has managed to implement a system for two cities, each with a population of seven million people. How’s that for a regional first? Let’s hope other advertisers in the region follow the Saudi lead and start using QR codes in their advertising/content.