Discrimination, Verbal Assaults and the Internet – is the UAE doing more harm than good to its brand?

Is the UAE risking its well-earned reputation as a country that we all love by arresting and jailing those who fall foul of its legal code when alternatives are available to resolve conflict?

Is the UAE risking its well-earned reputation as a country that we all love by arresting and jailing those who fall foul of its legal code when alternatives are available to resolve conflict?

There’s never a dull moment when it comes to local dramas. For years we’ve had cases of messy divorces, affairs and other issues which have spilled into the local media here in the UAE. However, these soaps have been superseded thanks to a glut of new laws (or a stricter implementation of existing laws) relating to personal rights and freedom of speech.

Only this week, there have been two cases which have made regional headlines. The first has been the arrest of a man at Abu Dhabi Airport for what has been best described as a rant after he missed his connecting flight. I’ll quote from the article in the English-language newspaper Emirates 24/7:

Emirati Police recently arrested a British citizen of Indian origin for allegedly insulting security personnel, the airline’s employee and the UAE, using obscene words, after he missed a connecting flight from Abu Dhabi.

He missed a connecting flight from Abu Dhabi to India caused by delays of his earlier flight from Heathrow to Abu Dhabi.

Lieutenant Colonel Fares Al Bakiri from CID, Abu Dhabi Police, who is heading the investigations, explained that the incident took place a week ago when the traveler arrived at Abu Dhabi International Airport on a delayed flight from Heathrow Airport resulting in missing the connecting flight from Abu Dhabi to India. He started swearing at the airline’s employee, and blocked the passengers’ queue behind him, insisting to board his connecting flight although the gate was closed and the aircraft is about to take off.

The second story this week involves the first case brought under the UAE’s new anti-discrimination law. Aimed at making hate speech a legal offence, the law imposes a jail term up to 10 years and a fine of between 50,000 dirhams to two million dirhams on any person or group causing offense or aiming to create discord in the country. To get back to the case, here’s the story from the English-language daily The National:

A high-ranking Dubai security chief has launched a criminal complaint against a Saudi writer under the new law against hate crime.

Lt Gen Dhahi Khalfan, deputy chief of police and general security, accuses the writer, Dr Mohammed Al Hadif, of spreading hatred of the UAE on social media.

“We are organising a case now to pursue him, according to the new law,” Gen Khalfan said on Twitter. “Criticism is one thing and hatred is another thing. The case has been filed, Al Hadif is wanted, and it’s time to try him in court.”

Gen Khalfan, the former Chief of Dubai Police, has previously accused Dr Al Hadif of being a member of an organisation linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The writer has been a vocal critic of the UAE’s involvement in the Saudi-led coalition to defeat Houthi rebels in Yemen, and of the UAE’s relations with Iran. Last year, Saudi Arabia banned him from using Twitter because of his support for the Brotherhood and for the reinstatement of the former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi.

The law criminalising all forms of discrimination on the grounds of religion, caste, creed, doctrine, race, colour or ethnic origin was enacted on July 20.

Penalties for those convicted range from six months to more than 10 years in prison and fines from Dh50,000 to Dh2 million.​

To repeat, the defendant isn’t in the UAE, but rather Saudi Arabia. And my assumption is that he’s speaking or airing his views from Saudi Arabia which is outside of the UAE’s jurisdiction.

As a global hub, the UAE has done brilliantly at carving out a reputation as a business-friendly country which welcomes all who want to invest and live in the country. However, with other recent cases in mind, is the UAE at risk of damaging its own hard-earned reputation as the place to be by making examples of individuals in difficult circumstances or who are outside of their own jurisdiction?

I can imagine that we all would be peeved after missing our connecting flight, while I can’t help but think that it’s better to engage proactively with those who share different views rather than take them to court, especially if they’re not in my jurisdiction when they commit a crime which the other country made not consider to be a crime.

While the law is the law, I can’t help but feel a dollop of common sense wouldn’t go amiss here, especially if the UAE is to continue its brand building project to shape in our minds the image of a country where we all want to be in, live and support. Are these cases doing more harm than good to the UAE’s reputation, and should we all be more forgiving when it comes to such cases where a touch of empathy would help to resolve the situation.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear them.

Did Arabian Business get hoodwinked by the Arab World’s most intelligent person?

Did Arabian Business fully fact check Dr Manahel's credentials before publishing this interview?

Did Arabian Business fully fact check Dr Manahel’s credentials before publishing this interview?

I just love obscure words, and hoodwinked is one of those phrases that we just don’t use enough. The term’s original meaning was to blindfold; its contemporary connotation is to deceive. I’ve finally got a reason to use this phrase in a question which I have on the cover story of the latest edition from Arabian Business.

For those of you who don’t know, Arabian Business is the most widely-distributed English-language weekly business magazine in the Gulf. The publication regularly breaks exclusives and its editorial team are among the most respected journalists in the business regionally.

This last issue was an interesting one. The cover was headlined by a lady called Dr Manahel Thabet, the founder of a business consultancy firm called Smart Tips. According to the Arabian Business piece, Dr Manahel Thabet has an IQ of more than 168, putting her in the top 0.1 percent of the world. Impressed? There’s more (and I’m now quoting from Arabian Business).

Arguably the smartest living Arab, Thabet has three PhDs. The latter, which she received a few days after our interview, suggests how education systems should cater to gifted and talented students to ensure they reach their greatest potential, a subject she is passionate about given her own experience as a gifted child.

Thabet considers herself a polymath — someone who is passionate in many areas — similar to Leonardo di Vinci, who was as great a scientist as he was an artist and engineer. Far from her latest thesis topic, her first PhD — which she obtained at the astonishing age of 25 — is in financial engineering and goes a long way to explain interest rate behaviour. She became the youngest person ever and only Arab to receive such a PhD magna cum laude (with great distinction).

The second is a 350-page groundbreaking formula that scientists and space researchers believe could help them measure distances in space without using the speed of light. The likes of Nasa and the French space agency have been competing for access to it.

All this has been achieved while running her own financial advisory firm and contributing to numerous organisations and boards.

All of this is remarkable, but the more people claim, the more I want to see and understand their credentials. And, this is where it gets interesting thanks to the internet, Google and a wonderful service called Reddit.

A number of Reddit users have taken it upon themselves to discuss Dr Thabet’s credentials, and they’ve taken a sledgehammer to a number of those qualifications.

At the end of the day, this isn’t about a person but more about a process. How do journalists in the region verify their sources? This isn’t the first time I have been left questioning a piece of journalism due to a lack of credibility (does anyone remember the fake press release on a non-melting ice concept for Dubai which was published in AMEInfo, Al Bayan, Al Khaleej and Gulf Today). But if there’s any doubt at all as to what a source is saying or their credentials, shouldn’t the journalist call it out?

Thoughts anyone?

The definition of ‘Nobness’ – the UAE, social media defamation and differing views from the Gulf

It’s that time of year again. I don’t mean Ramadan of course, the month of charity and kindness, but rather the time of year when we read about a case of defamation. Over the past week there was an outcry in Australia following the arrest of an Australian national in the UAE following comments she put up on Facebook. To quote from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s website:

In February, Jodi Magi, 39, took a photo of a car in her Abu Dhabi apartment block that was parked across two disabled parking spaces, without any disability stickers.

She blacked out the number plate and put the photo on Facebook, drawing attention to the seemingly selfish act, but not providing any identifying details or names.

However, someone in the apartment block complained to police and the case went to an Abu Dhabi court in June.

Ms Magi, who has lived in Abu Dhabi since 2012, said she was forced to sign multiple documents in Arabic without any translation.

Two weeks ago (at the beginning of July) she was found guilty of “writing bad words on social media about a person” and told she would be deported.

Magi was deported this week from the UAE following intense media coverage. Her argument was that she didn’t know what she’d done wrong in her Facebook post (which you can see below). Her words were considered to be insulting by the complainant, who wasn’t mentioned in the post, and the court agreed with the complainant and, based on the country’s defamation laws (which I’ve written about here), found Magi guilty, fined her, and sentenced her to be deported.

This is the post which got Magi deported. Magi claimed that nobness referred to an Australian term for the elite, rather than the English insult (image source: Facebook)

This is the post which got Magi deported. Magi claimed that nobness referred to an Australian term for the elite, rather than the English insult (image source: Facebook)

While I’m not going to share my views on this (there’s plenty of comments both for and against the issue, but the law is the law), I will share views and thoughts from the rest of the Gulf where double parking is all too common and where the issue is being raised on social media. First up is Bahrain, where there is an Instagram account called Bahrainidiots. Bahrain’s residents are encouraged to share their images of cars which are double-parked for publication on the account’s Instagram feed – for some pictures have a look below.

بالعرض… Thx jay for the picture

A post shared by You Park Like An Idiot – Bh (@bahrainidiots) on

Similarly, Saudi social media users often share such images, especially on Twitter using the handle #برج_الكلب. Some recent images are below.

The most interesting comments about the issue of defamation came from Doha. Speaking to the English-language news site Doha News, criminal attorney and Qatar’s former justice minister Dr. Najeeb Al Nuaimi said it was “highly unlikely” that an expat or Qatari would be arrested for posting a similar picture as Qatar and the UAE differ in their definitions of defamation. To quote:

“In the UAE, this (incident) is seen as ‘you’re showing someone in a bad light’ or that you’re questioning the duty of the police. They didn’t do their job well, and have let this happen, and now you’re posting it and offending them,” he said.

Here, however, the local government would regard sharing such a photo as a “a mark of public service,” he added, continuing:

“We have Qataris posting all over Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (about) things that they don’t like, or wrong things that they see…Here, it’s seen as doing something good.”

One of the publications which wrote about the case, the Abu Dhabi-based English-language daily The National quoted senior Abu Dhabi prosecutor Mohammed Al Dhanhani who explained that Magi was guilty under the 2012 Federal Anti-Information Technology Crimes Law No 5.

“She captured the picture without the consent of the (car’s) owner. She then published the pictures on the web and added insulting phrases.”

Each of these three actions is subject to prosecution under the law, which punishes all violators with a fine and/or jail, and deportation for all expatriates without exceptions, he said.

In an irony not lost on this blogger, while Magi’s state of affairs was playing out The National started its own photo gallery on bad parking in the UAE and posted images on its own website. Based on Al Dhanhani’s own interpretation of the law, is The National also guilty of the same offense under which Magi was sanctioned by capturing pictures without the consent of the car’s owner and then publishing these on the web?

For any lawyers out there, am I right or wrong?

Snapchat and its attempts to win over the Middle East – #Mecca_Live and #WestBankLive

There’s two types of people in today’s digital world. Those internet users who are generally older who have never heard of Snapchat and who while away their hours on Facebook, and, when they’re feeling adventurous, get onto Instagram. And then there are those young people who can’t get enough of the video messaging app where photos and video shorts ‘disappear’ after being shared. For the half that doesn’t know, Snapchat would seem to be the fastest growing application in the Gulf. The application has proved incredibly popular with young audiences across the region.

Snapchat has also done itself a lot of good over the past couple of days by holding what it calls a live story event in Mecca, the spiritual home of Islam. According to Snapchat, Live Stories are a curated stream of user submitted Snaps from various locations and events. Users who have their location services on at the same event location will be given the option to contribute Snaps (videos to you and me) to the Live Story. The end result is a Story told from a community perspective with lots of different points view.

What this means in real English is that Snapchat curates lots of content from different users, brings that content together and combines it to tell a story. This week’s Live Story, which is usually 300 seconds long, took place in Mecca during the holy month of Ramadan. The ensuring Live Story of #Mecca_Live can be seen below.

The feedback for the #Mecca_Live event was nothing short of remarkable. By tapping into sentiment around Ramadan and telling the story of what it means to be in Mecca during the holiest month in the Islamic calendar through people who were there resonated not just with Muslims around the world, many of whom are tired of seeing their faith being associated with negativity, but also non-Muslims who were impressed by the faith and the devotion of those who were featured in the Live Story.

A sample of tweets around the #Mecca_Live hashtag

A sample of tweets around the #Mecca_Live hashtag

This isn’t the first Live Story in the Middle East however. The week before, Snapchat had curated a Live Story from the West Bank. Featuring Snaps from Palestinians, the piece aimed to tell the story of how ordinary people live in this beautiful part of the world. Palestinians gave glimpses into the cities of Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Nablus through 10-second tours of historic sites. They also talked about the wonderful world of Palestinian cooking (including some of my favorite dishes such as knafeh, qatayef and falafel. However, one aspect of life in the West Bank was left out. The allegation made by many was that it underplayed the Israeli occupation. The video is below.

The other allegation made about #WestBankLive was that it was a clumsy attempt to undo some of the damage done by a previous Live Story, #TelAvivLive. Shown the same week as #WestBankLive, this Live Story painted a picture of Tel Aviv, that, to quote the Mondoweiss website:

In the Tel Aviv story, young Israelis were represented as fun-loving, beach-going, peace-promoting people – a far cry from their roles as the occupying soldiers their Palestinian counterparts in the West Bank see on a daily basis. The story also included little in the way of representation of marginalized members of Israeli society such as Palestinian citizens or African refugees. Images of the historic Palestinian port city of Jaffa, referred to in the story by its Hebrew name, were depicted in a way that +972 Magazine says “reproduces the urbicide of this once-thriving Palestinian city in favor of a narrative that ‘keeps the peace.’” In addition, a few of the snaps presented foods like felafel and shawarma as typical Israeli meals, without any reference to their Arab origin. Israelis seemed to be using the Snapchat story as a way to show off appropriated Palestinian culture and locales, claiming them as their own without a second thought.

As Snapchat has found with both #WestBankLive and #TelAvivLive there are few stories that can be shared which are not controversial. Each group has their viewpoint, and, by attempting to be as inclusive as possible through its Live Stories, Snapchat will inevitably offend. Has #Mecca_Live helped to negate criticism of Snapchat? Possibly. But you can be sure that this app, which is already extraordinarily popular among the region’s youth, will continue to cause controversy as it tells the Live Stories of Snapchat users who see reality through their particular viewpoints, and smartphones.

Coca-Cola, tackling prejudice & swapping television advertising for digital and CSR this Ramadan

Is Coca-Cola's anti-prejudice message a winner this Ramadan?

Is Coca-Cola’s anti-prejudice message a winner this Ramadan?

A global icon and the brand that defined Christmas has been making waves this Ramadan. Coca-Cola, which spent $3.3 billion on advertising globally in 2013, made a surprise announcement this Ramadan through its Egyptian subsidiary. Instead of spending sizable sums of money on television spots during Ramadan, which is the peak viewing season, the Egyptian operation would only spend money on paid digital spots on Facebook and YouTube. To quote from the company’s press release (please do excuse the hyperbole, the writer was probably on a sugar rush whilst penning this):

This festive season Coca Cola is giving back to the Egyptian community by replacing their always hotly-anticipated television ads with a unique campaign against prejudice rolling out exclusively on digital media. Their TV ad budget is instead being poured into their project of developing 100 villages. In recent days they have also galvanised Egypt’s digital population, pledging that for every post featuring a finger raised against prejudice (symbolising one extra second) they will donate one additional pound to their project.

While the idea of saving advertising money by pulling television ads and using that budget to spend on CSR is different to say the least, especially for a household brand such as Coca-Cola (and, which, in any case isn’t true as Coca-Cola has spent heavily on pan-Arab television advertising), the notion of tackling prejudice is an interesting angle for Coca-Cola to take.

Coca-Cola has launched a number of video shorts for YouTube and Facebook about prejudice, with the key tag line that we should look beyond the seven seconds it takes to form an opinion about others. Have a look at the below (unfortunately, they’re only in Arabic).

Coca-Cola Middle East is taking a similar approach to its Ramadan messaging, by promoting a world without labels through abandoning its own labeling.

To quote from Coca-Cola’s own website:

“A limited-edition run of red Coca-Cola cans features the brand’s white dynamic ribbon, but not its signature scripted logo. The backs of the cans include the anti-prejudice, pro-tolerance message: “Labels are for cans, not people.”

“Coca-Cola Middle East also released a video documenting a unique social experiment that highlights stereotyping in society. The short film shows how Coke invited six strangers to an iftar – the nightly fast-breaking meal during the holy month of Ramadan, which runs through July 17 – in the dark. The guests conversed without forming prejudices about their fellow diners based on physical appearance.”

Coca-Cola’s approach to Ramadan has been both welcomed as well as questioned. Dubai-based public relations professional and blogger Alexander McNabb posted a list of hilarious thoughts which he shared with Coca-Cola’s media agency about the announcement. Go have a read, and let me know what you think about what Coca-Cola is doing this Ramadan.

How the World’s Media was Pranked by Paris Hilton, Ramez Galal and that Plane Crash Stunt

Was Paris in on the prank? Or did she have no idea what was going on?

Was Paris in on the prank? Or did she have no idea what was going on?

If you’ve been catching some television in between fasting, praying, breaking the fast, and trying to work during the holy month of Ramadan, you may have come across a series on MBC One channel called Ramez Wakel Al Jaw (quite literally Ramez eats the air). The idea behind the show is simple – take up a celebrity in a scenic flight above Dubai, pretend that the plane is going down, and film the ensuing chaos. Each show, which is aired on a daily basis, would feature a different celebrity.

The big draw for the show, which is only being aired during Ramadan (which is essentially the prime time for TV viewership in the Middle East), was Paris Hilton, the hotel chain heiress and Hollywood socialite. Paris was the only non-Arab celebrity to be featured on the show, and she was used extensively in the ad campaign leading up to the show’s launch (in fact, she was the only celebrity to be featured in the aforementioned ads).

Now, we come to the Paris episode itself. To quote from the UAE’s English-language The National:

It began last Sunday when Hilton’s episode was broadcast as part of Galal’s latest MBC ­comedy series.

The set-up involved the stars boarding a light plane for a leisurely, aerial tour over the emirate, only for the situation to escalate — or should we say, descend — into terror: the aircraft suddenly nosedived after a simulated technical failure. The video clip, which went viral after it was uploaded on YouTube, shows Hilton getting anxious, then panicking as skydivers masquerading as passengers open the cabin door and leap out.

Only after the plane returned to the ground was the celebrity told the truth. Taking it surprisingly well, a shaky Hilton goes on to praise Galal for “taking it to the next level. I have seen Punk’d [American prank reality show hosted by Ashton Kutcher] but you have taken me on a plane and nearly killed me”.

For a more visual explanation, CNN’s report sums up the story wonderfully.

Paris’ response to the episode being aired was swift. She intended to sue, according to TMZ.com which broke the news.

Paris Hilton is telling business associates … she will sue the people responsible for putting her on a plane that appeared to be in crash mode … just to get a rise out of her.

We’re told Paris is furious over the stunt … in which a TV crew got the pilot to pretend to shut down the engines in her plane, and then nose-dive to the ground. Paris says she was in mortal fear for her life … something the video pretty clearly shows.

Our sources say she’s “totally freaked out” over flying anywhere … something she’s required to constantly do. She’s already called her lawyers to find out who’s responsible, and they told her she has a solid case for emotional distress.

Paris tells them she had absolutely no clue this was a prank … she wasn’t in on it. She also doesn’t believe anyone in her camp was involved.

The episode and the reaction of Paris to sue Ramez Galal made headlines the world over, despite no one outside of the region having heard of the show. The idea of a global celebrity having been pranked in such an abhorrent stunt with her life seemingly at risk was enough to garner hundreds of pages worth of media attention.

But if we step back a moment, let’s talk through what happened and why this was obviously planned from the get-go:

1) The timings – the show was pre-shot; in other words, it wasn’t live. Paris was used extensively to promote the show, and one would have thought that Paris would have looked to sue immediately after her episode was shot several weeks before Ramadan. This wasn’t the case.
2) The payment – no celebrity worth their salt does anything for free, and Paris is no different. If you want her, you have to pay. If TMZ.com is to be believed, Paris was apparently paid over a million dollars to take part in the stunt. She’d have known beforehand what was going to happen. Nevertheless, she pulls off the acting (unlike in her movie roles).
3) The publicity – both Paris and Ramez benefited from the media coverage of the show. Paris comes off as someone we can feel for and empathize with, which isn’t usually the case. And Ramez gets global coverage for the show which boosts the ratings, and for himself. The threat to sue amplifies the media coverage.

The question is, who got scammed? Paris, the viewers or the media? No matter what, everyone seems to have been entertained.

In the irony of ironies, a SkyDive Dubai plane crash-landed in the desert this week. The incident, which closely resembled the prank scenario, was widely reported by the media.

This emergency landing wasn’t a prank…

Whilst there were fortunately no injuries, none of the media made the connection between Ramez Galal and his show, which is based at SkyDive Dubai’s site, and the plane coming down in a similar scenario. It’s just as well for Ramez – one lawsuit is more than enough this Ramadan. But you tell me, is life imitating art, or is art imitating life?

The Hulk, Cairo Living and a Mountain View – The Unique World of Egyptian Advertising

Anyone who has experienced life in Cairo will be able to understand this copy

Anyone who has experienced life in Cairo will be able to understand this copy

To me, Egyptian advertising is like Marmite. I either love it or hate it. To most of us raised in the region who used to watch lots of Arabic TV, we’ll often know where a commercial is conceptualized and produced. The accents obviously play a part, but it’s more about the humor being used and how the actors communicate with each other.

Recently, I came across one advert which had me in stitches. For anyone who has ever lived in Cairo and who has experienced the trials and tribulations of getting anything done in the city which is nicknamed the mother of the world will understand the point behind these adverts. Mind you, I doubt that they got licensing from Marvel to use the Hulk character in the ads.

There’s not just one advert by this company (what they do and the implied benefits are obvious at the end of the adverts), but a series of different copies which all run on the same theme which were developed for last Ramadan. They’ve recently been airing on MBC. Watch, enjoy and let me know if it passes your Marmite test.