The need for clear communications – Saudi’s drive to balance the books

lazy-saudis

Saudi’s social media scene has been on fire over the past week due to a number of controversial issues regarding government officials. This is a news story from the Times on a comment made by a minister regarding Saudi inefficiency.

This week has been an interesting one for Social Media watchers in the Kingdom. Thousands of Saudi nationals have taken part in online campaigns/used popular hashtags relating to three high-level government officials who have either made controversial statements or who have been accused of using their influence on behalf of family members (you can see media coverage on two of the issues from Saudi Gazette here and Arab News here). The campaigns follow a decision a month ago to cut benefits for Saudi government employees. The decree, which was made in light of low oil prices and a rising Saudi budget deficit, is biting hard; this week Reuters reported that the Saudi central bank had asked retail banks to reschedule property loans for those affected by the cuts.

One of the campaigns began after a government document was leaked online, with personal details including name, position and salary. It’s only logical to assume that many government officials in the Kingdom are angry at seeing their pay cheques shrink; they’ll become even more angry when they see what they feel to be others not doing the same. In this environment, it wouldn’t be hard to also imagine officials being able to take a picture via their smartphone of a document which may reveal an embarrassing situation and then sharing it via social media (or, more likely, dark social).

I had the pleasure of listening to a senior Saudi journalist this week. He made a pertinent point when he said, “We can spend billions on consultants. We could have spent millions on a PR agency to convey the message behind the cuts and why they were necessary.”

In times of hardship, good communications becomes even more important. Saudi’s citizens need to understand the logic behind government decisions. They need to feel that they are engaged and are part of the debate. And they need to see government’s leadership doing just that, namely leading by example (as I’ve said before, actions are much more powerful than words in shaping perception).

We may see more issues coming to light in the Kingdom over the coming months, and more skeletons being revealed in government closets. When it comes to the government’s engagement and communication with its people, the transparency, clarity and consistency (or lack of) will either help get many Saudi citizens on board, or it may alienate them further. I for one hope it’s the former, rather than the latter.

 

Saudi Telecom, Boycotts, Social Media (راح_نفلسكم#) and Stock Price Impact

Forgive my wordy headline, but there’s a lot to get into this story. Before anything else, let me spell out the context. Saudi and Saudis love social media, but they haven’t been enthused by the efforts of the telecommunication providers in the country to block free call apps or services offered by the likes of FaceTime, SnapChat and WhatsApp. To add insult to injury, consumers have claimed that the Kingdom’s three telcos (Mobily, Saudi Telecom and Zain) have rolled back unlimited data services.

So what have the country’s social media-crazy consumers done? Yes, you guessed right. They’ve taken to social media to call for a boycott. Under the hashtags (which basically means we’ll bankrupt you) and  (boycott telco companies), the idea is simple.

Starting from last weekend, Saudi users have begun to switch off their phones. The hashtag and others have gone viral, and users have taken to Twitter to demand action against the telcos, including physical boycotts of stores.

The ultimate mark of consumer sentiment is cartoons, and Saudi’s most prominent cartoonist Abdullah Jaber stepped in to pen his own thoughts on the issue (the below translates as the Telco company on the right, saying to the consumer, “why are you angry?”

Saudi Telecom in particular has been hit, both in terms of its social media following (the carrier has lost almost 150,000 followers on its Twitter account), as well as its share price which dropped by several percent on Sunday morning after trading opened on the Saudi bourse.

stc-followers

Saudi Telecom’s Twitter account @STC_KSA lost over 140,000 followers in the space of two days as boycott calls spread (source: Twitter Count).

stc-stock-price

Saudi Telecom’s stock price was also hit on Sunday, with an initial fall of 8% (source: Google Finance)

There’s a further dimension to this story, with some online accounts in the UAE calling for similar action to be taken against the two telco incumbents (see the hashtag  and ).

Is this type of online activism on a single economic issue going to become more common, particularly with the state of finances across the region? And what can communicators do about an issue that is about a product and a strategy that consumers don’t like?

As always, it’d be good to hear your thoughts.

Arab News, Molouk Ba-Isa, the Axact scandal and how the Arab media lost a world exclusive in 2009

Molouk Ba-Isa broke the Axact story five years before the New York Times. And then her story was pulled by the management of Arab News two weeks after it was published (image source: Saudi Gazette)

Molouk Ba-Isa broke the Axact story five years before the New York Times. And then her story was pulled by the management of Arab News two weeks after it was published (image source: Saudi Gazette)

While there’s plenty of media titles in the Middle East region – by all accounts the Gulf is the one part of the world where print is still making a profit – there’s few occasions I can remember where the region has had a world exclusive.

There’s always an exception to the rule, and unsurprisingly the person who has been in the limelight recently is a Saudi-based journalist called Molouk Ba-Isa. For those who know her, Molouk is a no-nonsense reporter who often tackles items of interest to her readers and who produces original news rather than copying and pasting news releases.

Molouk’s name was mentioned in the New York Times, as the journalist who first broke the Axact fake diploma scandal. To quote from the first piece the New York Times wrote on the story, in which it broke news of the scandal:

Heavy scrutiny by investigators, politicians and the fractious Pakistani media sector has mounted over the past week for Axact, a Karachi-based software company that has made millions selling fake degrees through a sprawling empire of school websites.

Axact, which has its headquarters in Karachi, Pakistan, ostensibly operates as a software company. Axact runs hundreds of websites, many of which purport to be online universities and high schools based in the United States.

Axact has thrived for more than a decade on its ability to hide links between its operation in Karachi and hundreds of fictitious online schools, many of them claiming to be American. But more such links are coming to light in the days since The New York Times published a detailed account of the company’s operations.

The Axact story wasn’t broken by the New York Times, but rather by Molouk Ba-Isa, who was writing for the Arab News back in 2009. Again, to quote from the New York Times:

For years, former employees said, Axact’s diploma certificates were shipped to customers across the globe through a courier service in Dubai, to give the impression of being based in that city’s free trade zone. But that facade nearly collapsed in 2009, when a technology journalist from Saudi Arabia started looking more closely.

The journalist, Molouk Ba-Isa, was following up on a report that Rochville University had awarded a master’s in business administration to an American pug named Chester. Although Rochville’s physical location was a mystery, Ms. Ba-Isa learned from a courier company official in Dubai that the degree originated from Axact’s office in Karachi.

But when The Arab News published her report, naming Axact, she said her editors received a strongly worded legal threat from company lawyers, and the article was removed from the Internet. This week, Ms. Ba-Isa said in an email that she felt vindicated.

In her weekly article for the Saudi Gazette, Molouk wrote about her Axact story which was published both in print and, even more importantly for a company which sells degrees via the internet, online.

On October 7, 2009, I received an email from Abdul Karim Khan & Company with a subject line “Cease and Desist.” The email was sent from akkc2005@yahoo.com, copied to legal@axact.com.

Abdul Karim Khan & Company, claimed to be “Advocates, Attorneys and Legal Consultants,” located at Suite No. 1108, 11th Floor, Kashif Centre, Sharah-e-Faisal, Karachi.

The email stated that the lawyers represented Axact (Pvt.) Ltd and they were putting forward a Cease and Desist Letter authored by Fahim ul Karim.

The letter demanded that the article published on October 6 be removed from arabnews.com or prosecution would proceed. Arab News was also included and threatened in the Cease and Desist Letter.

Immediately, I was asked by senior Arab News staff to provide evidence for all allegations in my report. I turned over my notes and the taped interview with Vicky Phillips, the founder of GetEducated.com, whose dog had been awarded the degree.

I provided telephone numbers for the shippers in Dubai and images of the shipping label. Within a week of the first email, the legal documents arrived from Pakistan to Jeddah by courier.

Once the article had been up on the website for two weeks, senior management at the newspaper made the decision to take the report down to stop any lawsuit.

However, no apology was issued and my report was never retracted. I continued to dig for information about Axact’s illegal activities.

While Molouk should be praised for her pioneering work, why didn’t the management at Arab News and its publisher defend her reporting and keep it online? Did they really fear a court case? Do they bear responsibility for those who have been defrauded by Axact in the five years since that initial piece was published by Molouk? And what does this say about investigative journalist in the Middle East?

A global scoop which never was… Molouk, you did a fantastic job. If only our publishers are as brave as our journalists, maybe this piece would have had a different ending. Ultimately, I’ll leave the last word to Molouk.

My thanks go out to all those who have helped to publicize Axact’s alleged malfeasance. Keep up the good work.

Balancing the information load – Saudi’s Ministry of Health and the Coronavirus

Do images such as this reassure or panic the public? (picture credit: Arab News)

When it comes to many issues, be it driving or otherwise, religion, and long beards, the Kingdom has always made the headlines. However, Saudi Arabia has been in the news recently for what could be an emerging health pandemic. The disease, named the Coronavirus, was first discovered and identified in the summer of 2012. Since then at least 30 people have died in Saudi Arabia from the Coronavirus according to the World Health Organization as reported by Reuters on the 31 May.

The country’s Ministry of Healthy has been criticized over a number of issues related to the Coronavirus. First up was the issue of firing the doctor who discovered the first case in the Kingdom and reported the virus (for the full story click on the link here for the piece on the UK’s The Guardian.

However, recent criticism has focused on a lack of transparency when releasing information about the Coronavirus. An article yesterday published in the English-daily Arab News was particularly scathing (by Saudi standards). I’m linking the article here and will quote in full below.

A specialist in infectious diseases said that withholding information by the Ministry of Health about the spread of the coronavirus following the deaths of the infected patients is significantly damaging and provides no benefit.

The specialist spoke on the condition of anonymity. He said citizens and residents in Saudi Arabia have the right to accessible information about the disease.

“I do not know why the Ministry of Health discreetly hid the information of the first case of Coronavirus in Saudi Arabia, and the infection got to Al-Ahsa region where the disease has appeared and is starting to spread. They bear the responsibility for this,” he said.

The specialist suggested that the reality seems to be withheld from the domestic public opinion, and the public does not know if the ministry has detailed information about the spread of the virus and refuses to disclose it, or whether they have not reached any conclusion. He said the Ministry of Health looks at research centers in Saudi universities as competitors when the relationship with research centers at universities should be a complementary relationship, not competitive.

He added that MoH indeed prefers to discover the scientific research on diseases via universities abroad rather than Saudi universities, although there are a number of Saudi universities that enjoy a huge potential and have reference laboratories recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO).

However, the Ministry of Health refuses to cooperate with them because they perceive them as competitors in spite of their supportive work with the MoH, he said.

He said preventive measures taken by the Ministry of Health lacks transparency, with no announcement about where the spread of infection started and whether it originated in Al-Ahsa or came from abroad. He also noted that ministry did not give any scientific information or details about the reasons for the spread of the virus.

“Unfortunately there are no details and nothing was published except the number of cases and deaths. This is not enough. It does not allow us to investigate the causes of the disease.”

Today, he said, there are more than 30 cases, but there is no clear information about the source of the disease and we do not know the results of the investigations.

What’s prominent here is that the article is a translation of a piece from Al-Eqtisadiah newspaper. Both papers are owned by the Saudi Royal family and the fact that these opinions are now running in the local press doesn’t bode well for the Ministry of Health. There’s no name associated with the ‘specialist’ and no invitation to respond by the Ministry.

There’s a significant lack of information about the Coronavirus, and when there’s a lack of awareness about a public issue such as a suspected epidemic people will seek information from other sources, most especially social media. However, if a public body reveals too much information they will be open to criticism that they are creating an unnecessary panic. There’s an interesting take on this issue by one public health blog, the Avian Flu Diary, that I’m going to quote below (do read the article in full if you have time).

We may simply be seeing a public relations backfire created as a direct, and 100% foreseeable, consequence of an overly secretive Saudi risk communications policy.

If there’s one thing you can count on in a crisis, it’s that rumors and speculation will rush in to fill any information void.

The other possibility is that this outbreak is somehow substantially worse than we are being told. But if that’s true, it seems unlikely that they could keep it hidden for very long.

Which puts us in a watchful waiting mode, looking for any indication – one way or the other – of how this outbreak is playing out.

It’s hard to see how this case has brought to light any positives for any of the parties involved. However, if there’s anything to be learned my hope is that the Ministry hires a public affairs agency that is specialized in such crisis communications, as this issue has the capacity to become much bigger and at a pace that few communications people would be able to handle. Remember SARS anyone?

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

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: shadowdev.com)

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.