Is Saudi in love with or scared @*#$less by Twitter?

Does this make sense? To anyone? (credit: Arab News)

Someone tell me, what is going on in the Magic Kingdom. Today we have a wonderful piece of editorial quality in Saudi Arabia’s English-language newspaper Arab News. The piece, titled Twitter may be linked to IDs, suggests that the country’s government is studying how to link Twitter accounts to identification cards, presumably to better monitor what all those naughty people are doing on the social media site. Here’s a link to the article and a quote from the piece below (as a journalist in Saudi I’ve never heard of the IT expert, but I’d probably disagree with his comments).

Twitter users beware. The Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) is currently studying the possibility of linking the access to microblogging site with the personal identification of social media users, according to sources.

The move is likely to create ripples in the social media circles.

A source at the CITC described the move as a natural result of the successful implementation of CITC’s decision to add a user’s identification numbers while topping up mobile phone credit.

Twitter has changed Saudi, period. And it’s not just me saying that either. There was a wonderful piece on Twitter and Saudi Arabia by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour about how the social media site has transformed how Saudis communicate.

Even the Saudi government has got in on the Twitter act. Public figures including culture and information minister Dr. Abdul Aziz Khoja, labor minister Adel Al-Faqih, and commerce minister Dr. Tawfiq Al-Rabiah all use Twitter, as do religious figures. A number of Saudi royals are also on Twitter and merrily tweeting away. And then there’s Al-Waleed. At the end of 2011 the Rainbow Prince and number XX on Forbes’ billionaire list Prince Alwaleed bin Talal announced a $300 million investment in the website. He said at the time that: “the move demonstrates our ability to identify promising investment opportunities with high potential for global impact.”

The above article follows on from a piece earlier this year in Arab News, which I’m going to quote in its entirety and which you can read yourself here.

It is very difficult to monitor Twitter, one of the most popular social networking sites in Saudi Arabia which at the moment has more than 3 million active users, according to Abdulaziz Khoja, Saudi Minister of culture and information.

“The ministry cannot monitor everything published on Twitter,” Khoja said in a statement.

He stressed the difficulty of monitoring what everybody writes, relying on the need to raise awareness among society members regarding what they write and publish on Twitter, a local paper reported.

Nonetheless Khoja declared that the ministry is following up what is happening on Twitter with a number of government agencies.
The minister highlighted the need to raise the consciousness of the active users of social networking sites and to assist the Ministry of Culture and Information in the monitoring process.

However, Khoja refused to compare the situation of social sites with online newspapers, which have been streamlined following a recent regulation.

Khoja stressed that the control on Twitter should originate from individual values and community culture. “With time, individuals will learn to express their opinions and to deal with the events in a more understanding, knowledgeable and accommodating approach,” Khoja said.

So what’s next? Monitoring what people say/think? Good people in positions of authority, Twitter is a channel and not the source. Someone tell me, what is going on. All I hear is tweet, tweet, flip, flop, flip, flop.

How communities are turning to social media when traditional media fails them: #Thx_Tom_Collins and Bahrain

Professor Tom Collins was the subject of a public campaign on the social media site Twitter. Supporters thanked him via the hashtag #Thx_Tom_Collins for his political stance and decision to resign (credit: Irish Times)

As the Middle East’s media channels have become polarized over the past 24 to 30 months, communities who find that they have little if any representation in these traditional media channels have made social media their medium of choice when spreading and disseminating their viewpoints and opinions.

A great example from Bahrain this week was a campaign organized to thank the Professor Tom Collins, the president of the Bahrain campus of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), for his decision to resign from his post after the cancellation of a major conference on medical ethics in island. The RCSI had hoped to facilitate the event at its Bahrain campus but the key organizer Médecins Sans Frontières cancelled the event shortly before it was to be held.

Professor Collins resigned after the news of the conference’s cancellation broke. He has been roundly condemned in Bahrain’s national media for his decision which he said was done “in protest over the cancellation of the two-day event which was to examine “medical ethics and dilemmas in situations of political discord or violence.” The conference’s themes were sensitive in Bahrain following widespread arrests of medics in early 2011 at the country’s main hospital and their subsequent trials, a number of which are still ongoing.

The Twitter-based campaign was launched on Thursday 28th March at 8pm Bahrain time and was organized primarily by many of the medical community in Bahrain who were arrested over the course of the two years.Their message was clear and I’ll post some of the most popular tweets below.

What I find fascinating about the above is the role of the media during a time of crisis. For me, media such as newspapers can have a viewpoint but journalists should (theoretically) report the facts. When you’re disenfranchising such a large proportion of the population what happens to that newspaper not only during a crisis but after the crisis has passed, when agreements are made and a compromise is drawn up. With traditional media suffering globally due to a loss of public trust should editors be fighting the demand to be so overtly biased? What are your thoughts?

Trials and Tribulations at Abu Dhabi’s The National

The National, Abu Dhabi’s English-language newspaper, hasn’t had a quiet week. First comes a blog post which The National admitted was ‘one of the most controversial ever’ in the paper’s five year history. The blog, which was written by an intern journalist named Ayesha Al-Khoori, was pilloried for its description of her driving habits and speeding even though she herself was attempting to argue that lowering the UAE’s driving minimum driving age from 18 would be a mistake. This blog, which garnered hundreds of responses and mentions on the comments section as well as on social media sites, was followed by an attempt at an apology which for me seemed to miss the point (Ayesha claimed her message was lost, but I’d argue that there was no consistency in her initial message).

For a review of the blog and The National’s editorial guidelines including how it reviews and edits work (which didn’t seem to be the case with Ayesha’s blog) then read this piece by Mita56 which sums everything up nicely.

To top off a bad start to the week, someone made a serious error when writing The National’s daily electronic newsletter (have a shufty below).

Have a look and spot the boo-boo. It's a big one.

Have a look and spot the boo-boo. It’s a big one.

If you didn’t spot the mistake, I’ll give you a hint. The late person referred to in the photo-caption should be the founder of the country (Allah yurhamu) rather than HRH his son who is very much alive and is the President of the United Arab Emirates.

The National has been stung recently by a couple of tell-all pieces by ex-journalists. One of the most recent was Tom OHara, who wrote a warts-and-all account of his two years in Abu Dhabi in the American Journalism Review in December 2012/January 2013. You can read his revealing piece here.

I was at the launch party for The National in 2008 and remember the roster of journalists on display. There was a Pulitzer-prize winner reporting for the paper even. Hopes were high that we’d have a newspaper with the temerity to tell it like it was, which is still a rarity in the Middle East. Over the years I’ve looked forward to reading The National’s copy from a group of journalists whom I have dealt with and whom I think very highly of.

As a former journalist I respect and admire good journalism. In today’s Gulf we need more quality content to explain the why behind the what. My hope is that The National’s management steer the paper back to what it aimed to be five years back, to “establish an institution on par with some of the greatest newspapers in the world.” Trials and tribulations are all well and good (unless you’re the person behind the drama), but The National needs to raise its standards and focus our attention back on the quality of its content. The National, we need you more than ever.

The biggest, flashiest and most expensive… Dubai’s obsession with superlatives

When it comes to Dubai you just can’t keep a good thing down…

It was a satirical website that got me onto this topic. I was on one of my favourite web sites in Dubai, the Pan-Arabia Enquirer, enjoying a parody of the stereotypical superlative press release that used to be all the rage in Dubai before the financial crisis (I’ll admit to having written a couple of those releases in my time pre-2008). If you enjoy your Middle Eastern satire served piping hot and creamy have a read at the parody here and check out the site.

Well, back to the subject of the post and it seems that the superlative is making a comeback in the part of the world in the only way possible… the biggest, flashiest, and most expensive is back with the world’s most expensive abaya (only costing 65 million Dirhams) which made an appearance in Dubai to the most lucrative photography competition in the world (with prize money totaling 300,000 Euros in case you’re wondering), and then there’s the most prestigious and richest horse race in the world.

The list of the biggest and the best is endless. There’s so many world records over here that Guinness opened up an office here just to keep up and reduce their costs (it’s cheaper to have someone over here permanently than keep flying them over I’m guessing).

What’s the reason behind the drive to constantly go above and beyond and splash the cash? Is it for the publicity, the attention or recognition? There’s no end to the next big thing in this remarkable city, but I’m hoping that the concept of less is more one day catches on in Dubai (and if it does you can be sure Dubai will do it better than anyone else and go more Spartan than the Greeks).

Hello, hello??? Skype, the VoIP fiascos and the UAE’s telcos (oh, and also the TRA)

Skype may be finally available by accident in the UAE but I doubt that Du took action after listening to the consumer. In fact, does anyone in the UAE’s telco sector listen to what consumers want? (Credit: Blakeandkaty.com)

Who hasn’t heard of VoIP, or voice-over-IP for those of us who are allergic to abbreviations. Or, put in a different way, who has not heard of Skype? The software, which allows users to call other users for free over the internet or call phone lines for (usually) lower fees than it’d cost to use a telecommunications operator, is the most popular VoIP software on the market today. Skype is free, it can be downloaded in a matter of minutes, and it’s incredibly handy. Skype and other software products have been out for what seems like an eternity (Skype was released in 2003 and I’ve been using it since 2004) but all of this malarkey might have passed you by if you lived in the UAE. Why? Well, let’s put it this way, Skype may cost the UAE’s two telecommunication companies quite a bit of cash and so it and other VoIP products designed for public consumption have been banned in the country.

The UAE’s telcos, Du and Etisalat, and the country’s official body for the industry, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, have played a merry dance with consumers to sidestep the issue. In a series of flip-flops that would make any politician proud the TRA took the lead in terms of banning Skype only to change its stance in 2010 when the body claimed that the country’s telco operators were free to license VoIP solutions.

Of course the telcos didn’t take any action, Skype’s website remained blocked and while people could download the software via third-party providers you wouldn’t be able to charge your account and make net-to-phone calls without a friend loading our account from outside of the UAE (the exception used to be the Free Zones where Skype was for a time in 2004-2006 unblocked – of course this changed in due course).

After years of talk and no action, something strange was spotted by the hawks at the National newspaper this week. Skype’s website was accessible for people who used the internet service provided by Du; they could open accounts and load money onto the service. The original article is here and is worth a read. The country’s other ISP Etisalat is still blocking Skype.

The mystery deepened the next day after the media rushed to Du for a quote. While initially tight-lipped Du did release a statement as follows:

“There has been no change in the treatment of VoIP traffic, including Skype, on our networks.”

So, Skype is available from Du. It can be used to make calls and yet there’s been no change. No, it doesn’t make sense to me either. I’m sure the confusion over the issue will continue for some time. Microsoft, Skype’s owner, claims to not know what is going on. And there’s no suggestion that Etisalat, the other larger ISP, will unblock the service any time soon. If anything is a lesson in bad communications then this should be it.

Let me contrast this with the rest of the region, where Skype is freely available and not blocked. And don’t even get me started on Apple’s Facetime which is also not available in the UAE and yet accessible across the rest of the GCC.

A decade after its release and we’re still no closer to understanding when VoIP software will be freely available to use in the UAE. Even the launch of Blackberry’s Z10, which uses a solution called BBM Voice to make and receive calls over data networks (ala VoIP), was apparently delayed by the UAE’s refusal to allow use of the programme in the country. And I quote:

On Sunday afternoon, BlackBerry announced that the phone would still go on sale, but it was confirmed that the BBM Voice would not be available when the device was launched.

“We are currently in talks with BlackBerry on launch of BBM Voice and Video services,” Farid Faraidooni, chief commercial officer of Du, said in an emailed statement. “We shall soon commence testing phase to assure the right consumer experience. We remain committed towards launching new and innovative services that add value to customers in the UAE marketplace.”

Etisalat could not be reached for comment.

For a country that prides itself on being a hub for the region’s tech sector I’ve always found this issue embarrassing. It smacks of greed, of protectionism, and of not wanting to adapt to today’s technology where it will impact revenues. In other markets such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia the regulatory body acts on behalf of the consumer. Unfortunately, we’re some way off that concept here. So for now, I’ll be using my Skype as much as possible. I’m hoping that all of you good people in the UAE will join me online and on Skype sooner rather than later.

Understanding the Gulf’s psyche through social media (well, mainly Twitter)

What are the religious police up to now? Didn’t they learn from #Dammam-Hayaa-Closes-Dinosaur-Show? (credit: expo2020)

I’m endlessly fascinated by social media and how people interact online. For me, online interactions tend to shed light on people’s off-line personalities. In this post I hope to share my own observations about how each of the Gulf’s nationals deals and interacts online.

Let’s start with Bahrain. Bahrain possibly has the highest concentration of social media users in the Gulf. Bahrainis are very media-savvy and that shows in their effective use of social media channels. The country’s polarization following the events of February and March 2011 is evident online, with the two sides doing their utmost to ensure that their voices are heard. Bahrain has some of the most-followed Twitter users in the Gulf but they inevitably relate to the political and human rights situation on the island. There’s a lot of trolls out there as well, so be aware that if you’re going to delve into any issue relating to Bahrain you’re going to draw attention to yourself.

Emiratis are fiercely patriotic and proud of their country’s achievements over the past 41 years. Emiratis speak in unison when it comes to politics and are the most supportive nationality in terms of the country’s leadership. Unlike Saudi, Kuwait, or Bahrain you’ll find little debate on the country and its long-term direction but more insight into social issues particularly those which affect the national community. You’ll find royal family members online, members of the Federal National Council, a police chief and lots of UAE-based expats.

Kuwaitis are known for many things, including being opinionated. This is no different online. The Gulf country with the most blogs per person Kuwait is all about politics and disagreement. Kuwait’s politics is just as vibrant online as it is in the country’s parliament, and when you mix in other electrifying issues such as the Bidoon, the country’s rulers, the Arab Spring and religion you’re going to come up with an incendiary cocktail. Some of the most interesting Tweeters are Kuwaiti bloggers and parliamentarians. Just handle with care!

The Qataris are a mischievous bunch. When they’re not commenting on Qatar’s latest attempt to buy a path across the globe (what next after Marks and Spencers?) they’re making the most out of their sense of fun with raucous commentary on the latest goings on in their country. Their musings on Qtel’s attempts to rebrand itself to Ooredoo were biting, as was the boycott against the very same company for its poor customer service (is anyone in the UAE and Etisalat listening?). The Qataris are a wonderful bunch to follow. And one or two of them love their Dunkin’ Donuts coffee!

Saudis, yes you cannot avoid them online just as you cannot avoid them in the physical world. I love Saudis and I love them just as much in cyberspace. They’re open, they’re diverse and they talk about everything. Saudis are not afraid to poke fun at themselves and they’re just at home talking about social issues, politics, arrange boycotts (aka AlShaya and Al-Marai) and even debate religion. There’s some remarkable Saudis online, from preachers to royals and ministers. Saudi is one of Twitter’s fastest growing markets. And they watch more Youtube than any other country worldwide. They are officially living online. And yes, one of them owns (a bit of) Twitter.

And finally, there’s the Omanis (I’m skipping the alphabetic sequencing on this one). I’ve rarely come across Omanis on social media, possibly because I’m not close to issues that they write about or follow. Omanis are known to be kind, courteous and have a fun sense of humour. Which means I really should go and find some Omani tweeters to detox from all of the politics and debate in the rest of the region.

A blogging masterclass with David Hobby at GPP

Am taking the weekend off to go to school! And today is going to be an exciting one! I’m attending a one-day class hosted by Gulf Photo Plus on blogging given by David Hobby. David is a one-man blogging machine with over ten blogs on the go. Over 15,000 people find his site through Google searches alone every day. And boy does he talk! David you should have video blogs if you don’t already.

The write-up from GPP’s website is below… Will let you know how it goes.

Whether you are a photographer, another kind of creative or work for just about any company with an internet presence, a well-run blog may be the most powerful tool on the web. And for those who are willing to take the reins of a company blog, this might be the closest thing to “fire proof” that exists in 2013. Employees who can expand a company’s footprint through effective social media are far more valuable to the business.

A well-crafted blog can do many things. It can establish both recognition and credibility. It can produce income. It can produce strong search engine optimization. It can create a direct channel to your customers, present and future. But blogging does not come naturally for most people. While the platforms may be easy to learn, the process itself can be daunting.

How do you choose a name for your blog? How do you create a voice? Why is it important to understand organic SEO? Where do great ideas come from, and how do you shape them for your blog? For company bloggers, how do you strike a balance between being corporate and being human? Where do you look for ongoing inspiration? How do you leverage external platforms? What steps can you take to help something go viral?

David Hobby created Strobist.com in 2006. Five years on, it receives over 3,000,000 page views a month and was recently named one of the Best 25 Blogs in the World by Time Magazine.

David Hobby is the man behind strobist.com. If you haven’t checked it out please do, now! (credit: lisadierolfphotography.com)

David Hobby is the man behind strobist.com. If you haven’t checked it out please do, now! (credit: lisadierolfphotography.com)