Is the media a government tool or an independent voice – thoughts from Abu Dhabi

Freedom of expression or expression of national institutions? We’re still very much in the latter camp in the Middle East (image credit: http://www.menassat.com)

There was a fairly low key but important discussion this week in the UAE’s Federal National Council. The body, the closest thing that the UAE has to a parliament, welcomed Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the country’s Foreign Minister, to discuss the issues of the media and the work of the National Media Council, the UAE’s regulatory body for the sector.

The below excerpts are from an article in Gulf News which ran this week. Have a read through the quotes:

The National Media Council came under fire from the House for its “weak role in [the] Emiratisation of the media, dominance of foreign media content and lack of plans to promote the [UAE’s] cultural identity.”

The NMC was also criticised for the lack of coordination between the media outlets and universities, lack of training programmes for journalists and broadcasters, and a failure by media outlets to address concerns of citizens.

The FNC also voiced concern over the UAE’s low ranking in the press freedom index. Ali Jasem, a member from Umm Al Quwain, said the UAE ranked 158th on the Press Freedom Index last year.

Shaikh Abdullah said he expected that the ranking will improve once the new media law is issued with an article that bans jailing journalists for exercising their duties.

Shaikh Abdullah said discussions in the FNC lacked a uniform stand on the issue of freedom of expression.
“Some members demand a higher ceiling of freedom and less control, while others call for censorship, which is confusing,” Shaikh Abdullah said.

Shaikh Abdullah reiterated that the NMC respected the editorial policies of all media outlets operating in the country and that it never intervened in their work or nature of their content.

“The country’s policy is to leave the executive work to the media outlets, whether owned by the local governments or the private sector, so that there will be no contradiction between [the NMC’s] work and theirs,” he added.

Shaikh Abdullah said media outlets are “our partners and they are wholeheartedly contributing to the UAE’s media strategies.

It’s fairly common in the Middle East for the media to be seen as a tool of government policy. The media reiterates the government line and rarely engages in debate. This viewpoint hasn’t changed much despite attempts by global media outlets, newswires such as Reuters and Bloomberg, to write uncensored about a range of social, political and cultural issues.

What’s noticable from the above is that even in a country which is fairly media-friendly by the standards of the Middle East there’s still a view that the media needs to be an instrument of policy which ‘promotes cultural and national identity.’ I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been raised in a part of the world where a strong, independent media fosters debate, promotes transparency and holds others to account. How far are we from this state of affairs in the Middle East? Your guess is as good as mine. However, in the meantime I’ll keep flying the flag for a media sector that has the teeth to do its job and act as an independent voice for discussion, debate and originality.

How to pull off a public relations fake coup – the handsome Emirati who didn’t get kicked out of Saudi

Saudi Arabia often has the ability to surprise, delight and amaze in equal measures. But every now and then, it’s not the Magic Kingdom that surprises as much as the lack of knowledge and ignorance shown by the outside world. One story broke in April that didn’t fail to grab headlines the world over.

Allegedly three Emirati men were kicked out of Saudi Arabia’s largest cultural festival by the religious authorities for “being too handsome”. The three men were asked to leave Janadriyah and then deported from Saudi to protect the virtues of the Saudi women present. The story was broken in America by Jezebel and the piece makes for a very entertaining read.

There’s been literally thousands of pieces now written on this and the ensuing ‘outing’ of one of the men, an aspiring actor whose name is Omar Borkan Al Gala.

Unfortunately ladies, which Omar obviously exists the story is a hoax. LiveLeak website was one of the first to break the news of the hoax and this is how whoever was behind the public relations coup did it.

Let’s start firstly with the facts. We have three Emirati men who were kicked out of Janadriyah. Firstly, this is feasible. Riyadh is a conservative place and the religious authorities are present at Janadriyah to monitor all the naughtiness that goes on. However, having been to the Festival a number of times these three would have had to have whipped off their kandouras/thobs to get kicked out such is the amount of inappropriate behaviour that can occur at Janadriyah.

There was an incident at the UAE pavilion when one of the religious authorities objected to Emirati singer Aryam’s presence at the event. He himself tried to force her removal but was instead arrested by the National Guard. The incident was captured on Youtube and is below.

The other apparent truth is that one of the three Emiratis who was outed was present at Janadriyah. However, he had gone into the family section where single male bachelors are not allowed and started dancing. His dancing apparently wasn’t to the taste of everyone present and he was asked to leave the area according to LiveLeak which quotes from a news piece which now seems to have disappeared.

And that seems to be the basis for what then happened.

Someone with an active imagination, a good deal of time and a great deal of media talent spotted an opportunity to seed a story with Elaph.com, an online website that focuses on news in Saudi Arabia. The original story, which has disappeared into the caches of the internet, wrote that three Emiratis had been deported from the Janadriyah Festival and Saudi Arabia for being too handsome. There was a quote to this effect from an ‘unnamed’ Saudi official.

The story quickly snowballed after getting picked up by the English press in the Kingdom, and one of the three men, Omar Borkan Al Gala, apparently outed himself on his Facebook page. The man became a celebrity overnight. He’s been interviewed worldwide and he’s already picked up acting work.

The story surrounding Borkan Al Gala, which loosely translates to Volcano of Love, contains numerous inaccuracies. The first is deportation from Saudi Arabia. As an Emirati and a GCC National he cannot be deported from Saudi Arabia under these circumstances. I’ve never even heard of a GCC National being deported from one country to another. Strike one…

Secondly, the other two Emiratis have never been outed. You’d think that they’d be in on the act as well and keen to grab their fifteen minutes of fame. But unfortunately, the ladies will have to wait for their pictures to be plastered over the web. Strike two…

And finally, the story broke via a news website from an ‘unnamed Saudi official’. Saudi officials rarely speak out of turn, especially on such a topic. It took over a week for Al Gala’s name to be ‘leaked’. In this day and age of instant social media updates, I’d have assumed that this story and the identity of the three Emirati men would have been the news item on both Saudi and Emirati Arabic-language Twitter networks. But no, that wasn’t the case. Strike three…

I’ve got to give it to Al Gala. He’s made the most of the opportunity, of the ignorance about Saudi Arabia, and of the lack of fact-checking on this one. It’s a fun story and one which doesn’t do any harm. But seriously, being too handsome for Saudi? Have the Emiratis met any Saudi boys lately? In the words of my partner, “Saudi men are much more attractive…”

He got kicked out of Saudi and I didn’t? But I’m impossibly handsome (source: http://www.hippobrigade.com)

Putting the communications cart before the horse – internal communications, Emirates and no bonuses

There’s a reason why internal communications is the base of any communications function – you need to ensure the message is understood internally before spreading that message to a public audience.

Emirates Airline had a taste of not to get things right this week after announcing its financial results for last year. The below quotes are taken from www.arabianbusiness.com.

Dubai-based Emirates Airline has posted a 52 percent increase in profits to $622m in the last financial year.

Meanwhile, Emirates Group – of which the airline is a subsidiary – posted a 34 percent increase in profits to $845m, helped by a 17 percent increase in revenues to $21.1bn.

For Emirates Airline staff, much of their potential compensation is paid in the form of bonuses which they receive if the company hits certain targets. It seems that the company however is not paying out bonuses this year. This disappointment is clearly reflected in the comments section of the Arabian Business piece which I’m posting below.

Posted by: Rajae Sunday, 12 May 2013 9:29 AM[UAE] – Uae

Emirates profit release doesn’t mean a thing to its more than 68,000 people who in d end didn’t get a single dirham share.
Two consecutive year of no bonus seem to be too unfair when all you read in the paper is of company’s soaring revenue and money generated.

Posted by: eyrocks Friday, 10 May 2013 3:44 PM[UAE] – uae

Emirates makes money because of its staff but forgets to reward them unlike FlyDubai and Etihad. Sad

Posted by: Rajae Sunday, 12 May 2013 9:28 AM[UAE] – Uae

I totally agree. Its the people thats the source of the company’s success but always been taken for granted.
Press release always seem to be so lucrative and rewarding but not a single reward thats given back to its staff. Its all blah blah blah

Posted by: May be unload factor Friday, 10 May 2013 12:28 PM[UAE] – Spain

Will the cabin crew finally get the long waited promised bonuses???

Posted by: Euro Friday, 10 May 2013 12:26 PM[UAE] – UAE

It is a very sad day for all Emirates Airline employees. Not a single dirham was shared with the men and woman working for the airline. Huge profits and nothing was given back to the staff. Zero profit share.
I am guessing Emirates is part of paying off Dubai Inc’s debt??

Someone at Emirates has had the sense to post a follow-up piece for Arabian Business stating why bonuses haven’t been paid, apparently due to targets not being met. However, wouldn’t have it been wise to have focused internally on the messaging rather than going out in the media and trumpeting the growth whilst forgetting or not focusing on how to assuage the feelings of those who have done their best to deliver on that profit, namely Emirates’ staff?

You can read the follow-up story here. I can’t wait for the comments to come rolling in.

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A Riyadh favourite – Wadi Hanifah and Diriyah

There’s nowhere I love more than Wadi Hanifah and Diriyah. Only fifteen kilometers from Riyadh’s Olaya road Diriyah is the home of the Al Saud family and was their first capital. Parts of Diriyah are a UNESCO world heritage site and the area is full of mud-brick structures, some of which are in disrepair. Diriyah is the perfect get-away from Riyadh’s hectic pace. Here’s some pictures of my latest trip down, after the recent April/May rains. I do hope you enjoy and if you’d like to know more about the place do read the Wikipedia entry here.