How to get on Etihad’s The Residence for free thanks to Kickstarter

The past week has witnessed its fair share of oohs and aahs at the region’s largest tourism show in Dubai. One of the biggest jaw-droppers was the announcement by Abu Dhabi-based airline Etihad of a new travel experience. Named the Residence and akin to a flat in the sky for those traveling on select routes on Etihad’s A380s, the 120 plus square feet of space offers travelers a dining space and living room, their own en-suite shower and bedroom. With perks that include chairs fitted out with the same leather as a Ferrari, a personal butler on call, a personal vanity unit, wardrobe and swiveling TV monitor for viewing from either the seat or the bed. All of this will cost you approximately US$20,000 one way when flying from from Abu Dhabi to London.

And just to prove the point, why don’t you let Etihad’s Guest Ambassador, Dannii Minogue take you on a tour of The Residence.

One budding travel reviewer has turned to Kickstarter to help him raise the money needed to purchase a Residence ticket (I don’t know if you’d purchase a ticket for a flat in the sky). The very young-looking Ben Schlappig is the editor of the One Mile At A Time blog on the Boarding Area website, and his pitch goes like this:

Etihad Airways new A380 features a concept that I believe will revolutionize commercial air travel. Help me review the product!

I’ve been flying frequently since a very young age, and travel and aviation are my greatest passions. Over time that passion for travel and flying grew to finding the cheapest way to travel in luxury. And over the years I’ve reviewed most of the world’s best first class products.

With only one “Residence” per flight, this may very well be the first A380 premium cabin product for which you can’t redeem miles. This may change over time, but with only one “cabin” per flight it’s highly unlikely.

As a result, it may be a long time before we get an independent review of Etihad’s A380 Residences.

What I propose is flying the Residences product within the first week it’s in service, so I can report on all aspects of the experience. Chances are it would otherwise be a long time before we get an unbiased review of Etihad’s new product.

While the thought of paying for someone else to fly in the lap of luxury to write a review may leave some in horror Ben has already raised US$11,000. With 22 days to go, can he raise the additional US$14,000 he needs for his trip? If he does, I’m going to start my own travel blog and try never to pay for a flight myself again.

If you have excess cash which you have no idea what to do with and now want to donate to this cause, go here and splash some cash for Ben.

PS On another note, while I love her to bits (I still remember her in Australian soap Neighbours) does Dannii Minogue scream luxury? She may let loose during the YouTube video to the chagrin of many of those who have left comments but I would have hoped Etihad would have splashed the cash to bring in someone who would be easier to associate with top-tier luxury. What are your thoughts?

Turkey, Twitter and how a ban couldn’t/wouldn’t happen in the Gulf

While Turkey is busy trying to gobble up Twitter, there’s little chance of anyone in the Gulf banning social media any time soon (image source: http://www.globalpost.com)

Last week, we in the Arab world were treated to a spectacle that we’re all too often participants in. Instead, we looked on as the government of a neighboring country pulled the plug on a social media service and denied its citizens and residents the right to use Twitter. The story behind the move by Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to block access to Twitter is fascinating, a page-turner about corruption, dissent and how one man is trying to dominate political will in his own country (have a read of the background here, in a wonderful piece written by the New Yorker’s Jenna Krajeski).

A question/tweet by the Wall Street Journal’s Ellen Knickmeyer about the situation in Turkey from a Middle Eastern perspective got me thinking about the subject. Here’s my take on the Gulf states country-by-country.

Saudi Arabia

Let’s start with the largest country in the region, Saudi Arabia. There are millions online and active on social media in the Kingdom (both Twitter and Facebook have fifteen million Saudi users between them – Facebook has approximately eight million users and Twitter just under seven million ). For many, social media is a release, a forum for open debate where anything and everything can be discussed.

The whole spectrum of Saudi society is online and using social media – some of the most popular and prolific tweeters are religious scholars. while there is criticism of policy online, would the government be willing to risk a public backlash any social media channels were to be closed? Rather, Saudi’s social media policy can be summed up in one sentence – do what you want online but we are watching you. Saudi’s online laws, which have recently been rehauled, allow for citizens to be detained for their online activities (a recent piece by Abeer Allam for Al-Monitor covers recent developments in the Kingdom).

Bahrain

The second Kingdom on the list, Bahrain has suffered more than most over the past three years. Bahrain’s social media has become almost as polarized as the situation in the country, between those who support the government and those who support the opposition. However, despite the war of words online Bahrain has never threatened to pull the plug on social media (there was a communications blackout during the early days of the political crisis in Bahrain).

Instead, the island state has tightened up its online legislation and has cracked down on bloggers and other activists who use social media (Global Voices’ editor Amira AlHussaini wrote a piece about the arrest of blogger Mohammed Hassan in July 2013).

The Kingdom uses social media to communicate both locally and globally on issues such as security, foreign policy and terrorism. Would Bahrain seek to indirectly legitimize the opposition’s claims that the government is cracking down on media through pulling the plug on social media? Not likely.

The United Arab Emirates

The second largest country in the GCC by population, the United Arab Emirates has taken to social media like a duck to water; the country’s leadership are online, the country’s businesses are online and the country’s population are also online tweeting, updating their statuses and uploading pictures of every single meal and building around them mainly on their smartphones. The UAE’s population communicates about literally everything, except to criticize.

There’s so few people in the UAE who aren’t supporting the country’s leadership that the thought of any social media being pulled seem ludicrous. For those that do dissent the UAE introduced in 2012 more stringent online laws which include jail time for those that defame the country. These laws have been put into effect.

Kuwait

Maybe surprisingly for those who don’t know the region, Kuwait has the freest media industry in the region, with columnists regularly criticizing government policy. Kuwait’s parliamentary system and the level of public discourse in the country means that few subjects are off-limits. Kuwait’s social media scene is also buzzing – Twitter reckons that over half of the country’s population, 1.5 million out of 2.7 million, are active users.

Even in Kuwait however, there have been cases of people being jailed for their tweets, either for insulting the Emir or for blasphemy. Still, it’s hard to see how or why any social media channels would be banned in a country that is known to enjoy a ‘debate’ every now and then.

Oman

On the periphery of the Gulf, Oman was affected by the Arab Spring. The country’s ruler Sultan Qaboos introduced sweeping reforms to appease Omanis calling for a better standard of living. The country has contended with online activists and the authorities have warned people not to spread libel and rumours that prejudice national security. Would Oman seek to shut down social media? Again, it’s unlikely.

Qatar

Last but certainly not least, Qatar has championed its own brand of journalism aka Al Jazeera for over a decade now. The country with its vast gas reserves has not had to contend with any political discussions about its governance and future. Qatar has jailed one person, a Qatari national, for publishing a poem on Twitter.

In addition, the country’s government is seeking to introduce a revised cybercrime law which would increase and expand the capacity under which a person communicating online could be jailed for (for a detailed news piece read this article by Matt Duffy on Al Monitor here). However, there’s little chance of anyone in government shutting down any social media channels in the country.

In short, social media has changed the Gulf just as it’s changed the world. The region’s citizens and residents have much more freedom to talk about issues online. The Gulf’s governments and their business interests have also become adept at using social media to promote their own messaging and market themselves. The region’s citizens are aware that even online they’re being monitored (this BBC article describes this notion of being watched) and most of them will tread carefully about what they say and how they say it. For others, they’ll go online anonymously and tweet to their heart’s content.

For governments, social media has become a release value on societal pressures and the message to nationals is clear – talk about whatever you want but don’t criticize. Examples have been made of those who do. But, while the governments have the ability to cut off social media and even throttle or close access to the internet, thankfully the Gulf isn’t Turkey. No one here is going to ban Twitter or any other social media channel any time soon.

A Digital Journalism Masterclass – Qatar’s Doha News and @dohanews

Let’s face it, the Gulf doesn’t win many awards for quality investigative journalism. There’s some outstanding journalists out there, but in a region where most/all of the news outlets are underfunded and owned by bodies or individuals who don’t have a media background we’re left with a lack of quality reporting.

Three people, journalists with experience of global media outlets such as the BBC, the Wall Street Journal, and Al Jazeera, took it upon themselves to take on Qatar’s media scene and create a news portal that would deliver news in real time. The result was Doha News, a news service that began its life on Twitter as @dohanews and then developed into a daily news blog.

The stated aim of Doha News is “to educate, inform, and stimulate positive change in the community.” What the three people behind the project – Shabina Khatri, Omar Chatriwala, and Tory Scott – have essentially done is to create a community site where the public can send in their content, be it images or news stories, and have that content edited and displayed for the rest of the community to see and comment upon.

Doha News hasn’t just become another news website; the portal has frequently beaten other media channels to breaking stories. Similarly, the quality and accuracy of the site’s news has been commended. No other Doha-based media outlet has covered the Villaggio Mall fire tragedy as comprehensively as Doha News. The site’s team went so far as to produce a 57-page e-book on the anniversary of the disaster which won praise for its coverage of what went wrong on the day of the Villaggio Mall fire and the ensuring events including the trial and steps taken by the Authorities and Mall owners to ensure a similar incident never happens again.

Below is a selection of items from the site including a news piece and pictures from users of the site. If you’re looking for news on Qatar or simply want to understand more about digital journalism in the Gulf Doha News is definitely worth a visit or three. Let’s hope others take up the mantle and create similar news portals for the rest of the region.

This piece is fairly typical of Doha News - a local interest story that uses social media to engage and benefit local viewers

This piece is fairly typical of Doha News – a local interest story that uses social media to engage and benefit local viewers

Why do Middle East executives not blog and five reasons for starting a corporate blog today

Is this question even relevant any more? Middle East execs, what are you waiting for? (image source: http://www.homeschoolblogging.com)

There’s no doubt about it, blogging is huge. But don’t take my word for it, let’s look at the numbers. On blogging platform WordPress there are almost seventy million blogs, which are read by 360 million people each month. There’s even more blogs on the Tumblr (over 100 million as of April 2013) and Livejournal platforms (approximately 62 million blog sites as of April 2013). While blogging may not hug the headlines as much as social media, the online writing format continues to grow. By the end of 2011, NM Incite, a Nielsen/McKinsey company, was tracking over 181 million blogs worldwide, compared to only 36 million in 2006.

Similarly, blogging has become one of the most popular tools among corporations in a number of geographies. Research by the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts has pointed to growth across both the Fortune 500 and the Inc. 500 in 2012. Forty-four percent of Inc. 500 companies, the fastest publicly-firms in America, were blogging, while twenty-eight percent of America’s largest publicly-listed firms had a corporate blog. The most interesting statistic was that sixty-three percent of CEOs of companies who did blog contributed personally to content.

These statistics from the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth underline how popular blogging is with corporations in the US (image source: http://www.umassd.edu)

It’s fair to say that the Middle East corporate world, and the Gulf in particular, doesn’t share this same level of enthusiasm for blogging. Few publicly-listed companies have a blog – we’re literally talking a handful – and even those blogs that are online are rarely updated.

While it’s hard to speculate on the reasons why so few CEOs blog here, the one assumption that I’d make is either they don’t feel a need to communicate with their stakeholders or they don’t want to reveal information through a medium such as a blog (this subject does need more research, but the lack of blogging here maybe reflects a wider lack of understanding of digital communications).

For a pastime that was once considered on the fringe of journalism, blogging is a pivotal online media channel for breaking news, sharing content and developing an audience. Blogs are often quoted in the media and it allows a corporation to control the message and yet promote a healthy dialogue with its internal and external stakeholders.

There are many reasons for starting a corporate blog, but we’re going to focus on the five basics which should underline to your chief executive officer the value in having a blog for your company and including blogging as part of our communications strategy.

1) It’s all about transparency

We all want and sometimes need more information, and yet corporations often keep too much of a lid on what external stakeholders see and know. A blog allows you to let others look inside the company and give them a better understanding of any and every issue you care to tackle, from sustainability to product development and customer relations.

The benefit of transparency is increased trust. Your (potential) customer base should better understand why you do what you do. Customers and investors will feel much better informed and they may be more willing to buy your product and invest in your company.

However, don’t take transparency to mean republishing your press releases in a different format. Some of the most successful corporate blogs are those that take a nuanced approach, that tackle the good and the bad. The less biased you are, the more likely you are to be trusted when publishing a blog.

2) Bringing some humanity to the Corporation

Corporations are often seen as soul-less, grey worlds. And the same can often be said for a corporation’s communications approach; the bland press releases, the staid web-site which rarely seems to be updated. As people we all thrive on interaction and dialogue and that’s why blogs are so successful. They’re your corporation’s personal voice, a voice that need not use corporate-speak and jargon but instead adopt a tone that is more informal and conversational.

Your blog will need a face. It could be the CEO or another senior person. But a blog doesn’t need to be written by an executive. Some of the most insightful blogs are written by product managers, researchers and others who are passionate enough to make what they are saying interesting.

The beauty of blogging is that you don’t need to stay on message all the time. You can write about diverse topics which don’t need to be about the company. Customers will see through marketing pitches so step away from the self-promotion. Instead, offer human insights into recent events, industry news and other related information. Let your customers know more about you than just your product line-up and they’ll begin to become more loyal to your brand.

3) Starting a dialogue

Unlike many other forms of communication, blogs are there to receive feedback as well as to be a voice for the company. When you engage readers and respond to dialogue – both positive and negative – you’ll be doing much more than just promoting your company.

Blogs are a great way to test the water, to understand your customers’ perception on certain issues. And even if the comments are negative, at least you’ll know what your customers are thinking and be able to respond and bring them back on board. Get talking on a blog and even those stakeholders who may not agree with your company’s strategy will appreciate your efforts to talk with and about these issues in a forum that allows for and encourages debate.

4) Drive that web traffic!

Want a business reason for blogging that your sales team can measure? How about the web traffic that a blog will drive to your site. Many web engines such as Google rank sites based on content, on relevance and popularity. A blog that is updated regularly, that has content that is popular and that links to other sites you’ll find your own corporate site being ranked much higher by search engines such as Google. Once your own blogging site has become established you’ll find others linking to you, which will further propel your blog to the top of the search rankings and towards the nirvana of a first page listing.

5) Measure your blogging success

The beauty of communicating on your own site is that you can analyze your visitor statistics, to understand where your visitors are coming from, what they’re doing on your blog, what they’re using to read your blog (are they viewing your blog on a PC, a tablet or a mobile?) and how they’re reaching your site. The beauty of web analytics is that the more you have, the better you can make your blog and improve your visitor numbers. From there you can start defining your blog’s goals and measure your goal conversion, review how you’re promoting your blog and understand which topics and keywords are the most successful in driving traffic to your site.

Unlike traditional public relations metrics, online measurement tools are instant and can give you a full picture of what you’re doing right and how you can improve your blogging outreach. Blogging technologies are evolving but don’t feel daunted by the technological challenge. Blogging can be simple enough to begin with, and most blogging platforms have their own in-built analytics to help you out.

What are the dos and dont’s regarding defamation in the UAE

Defamation in the UAE is a criminal rather than a civil matter and the burden of proof is on the defendant. So be aware of the risks when you post online (image source: http://www.turbosquid.com).

After the outcry surrounding the arrest of the videographer who filmed an alleged assault in the street this week I thought it best to recap what defamation in the UAE covers and how to ensure that you don’t get into issues when creating and uploading content to the web.

Defamation in the UAE is different to most European jurisdictions in that defamation is a criminal rather than a civil matter. Raising a defamation case in the UAE is easy to do (actually, it’s much easier to do here than in other Gulf states including Saudi Arabia) and there’s no distinction between public forums and being online. The basics, as noted by Adil Khan in a post for sovedo.com, are below.

  • It is publicly forbidden to take a picture of another person without their permission.
  • Verbal abuses or gestures (even without the presence of a witness) can also lead to a fine and/or sentence.
  • Defamation via libel (written) or slander (spoken) is dealt by a criminal court as opposed to a civil court, where punishments would only include a monetary fine.

The burden of proof is on the defendant to show that the allegations are false. Similarly, truth isn’t an absolute defense if the comment or content has proved to be damaging to the reputation of the person or organization who/which claims to have been defamed.

The issue of defamation gets even more complicated when it comes to social media. Blogger extraordinaire Alexander McNabb covered a case back of May of a University Lecturer who’d been charged of defamation for writing a blog about his experience with a previous employer. All social media channels are considered to be public forums, regardless of where those forums are hosted. Social media channels are considered to be prominent public forums and even those people posting anonymously can be prosecuted.

Two legal counsels from law firm Clyde and Co., Rebecca Kelly and Sharon Procter, have published one piece on AMEinfo that is worth a read both for individuals and their employers when it comes to social media and defamation in the UAE.

Probably, the best piece of advice is play it safe if you’re not sure whether your comments could be construed as defamation or not. And if you’re still unsure, remember the penalty for being convicted of defamation can be up to two years in prison and a fine of as much as Dh20,000 (US$5,444). So post in haste, repent at leisure.

Red Bull and a crisis in Kuwait that hasn’t hit the headlines

Surprisingly, Red Bull has not hit the headlines for what appears to be a number of major events in Kuwait. The company, best known worldwide for popularizing the energy drink concept, has apparently been embroiled in a crisis in Kuwait after a young Kuwaiti passed away after drinking too many cans of Red Bull. I’m going to continually use the word apparently as there’s no information out there in English and the only information in Arabic can be found on chat rooms.

According to Kuwait’s social media scene the Kuwaiti Ministry of Commerce has of the end of March banned all sales of Red Bull to those under 16 years of age. The below are a news piece from Kuwait’s news agency Kuna and an image shared over twitter of a Red Bull fridge with a sign in Arabic saying that Red Bull is not for sale to those under 16 years of age. Here is the same info on a discussion forum.

The article from Kuna on Kuwait’s decision to ban Red Bull sales to those under the age of 16. There’s no publishing date on this however (credit: Downtimes)

And a sign on top of a fridge which states that no sales of Red Bull are allowed to those under 16, which is supposedly from a Kuwaiti grocery store (credit: UAEwomen forum)

Kuwait’s Twitter community has also been focusing on the news, but surprisingly the topic hasn’t been trending outside of the country.

Whether this is all true or not, as it always the case with the internet the story is spreading especially in Arabic. The news can now be found on sites across the Gulf in Arabic. The fear may be that other GCC countries will follow Kuwait’s lead (such an action wouldn’t be unusual). However, it’d be fascinating to know what Red Bull has done to tackle this issue. There have been suggestions that Red Bull has upped its ad spending to tackle the issue, and that may explain why there’s little news of this in Kuwait’s vibrant media scene.

However, Red Bull has avoided the spotlight before. If you do read Arabic have a look at this piece on Red Bull apparently employing women to hand out cans in Riyadh back in December. Some would say brave, others would say silly.

Women walking outside of Riyadh’s Kingdom center apparently handing out Red Bull to passing motorists (credit: Murmur website)

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.