#ChallengeBahrain, an island in gridlock and a social media backlash

If you were planning to enjoy a quiet weekend in Bahrain this weekend, you’ll have been disappointed. Most likely, you’ll have also spent your Saturday stuck in traffic. The island kingdom was host to Challenge Bahrain, a professional triathlon with a $500,000 prize purse. Most importantly, for the smallest country in the Gulf (which measures a whopping 765.3 km²), the Challenge Bahrain triathlon covered a total of 113 kilometers.

The size of the triathlon meant that many of the roads around Bahrain were closed for most of Saturday, including the island’s key highways such as King Faisal Highway, and Sheikh Isa Bin Salman Causeway. Unfortunately, most of Bahrain’s residents seemed to be unaware that there was 1) a race, and 2) that the race would mean traffic chaos during the weekend.

To give you an idea of how much the race affected the island, this is a map of the race's path across Bahrain

To give you an idea of how much the race affected the island, this is a map of the race’s path across Bahrain

The ensuing disruption to traffic meant that most people decided to stay at home. Instead, they vented their annoyance online, on social media. To give you an idea of how popular the topic became, have a look at the below analysis from Keyhole, and remember that the total population of Bahrain is just over 1.3 million people.

An analysis of the #ChallengeBahrain hashtag by Keyhole

An analysis of the #ChallengeBahrain hashtag by Keyhole

Tweeting and messaging with the hashtags #ChallengeBahrain and #ترايثلون_البحرين Bahrainis showed their feelings about the race and its planning. They let the race organizers know of their displeasure.

A small selection of the Twitter posts using the hashtag #ChallengeBahrain

A small selection of the Twitter posts using the hashtag #ChallengeBahrain

More tweets from yesterday's #ChallengeBahrain

More tweets from yesterday’s #ChallengeBahrain

For those heading to the airport it was even worse. As many of the roads to Bahrain International Airport were closed people had to walk for kilometers just to make it to the terminal.

Images of the traffic from Al-Deir and Samaheej near to the Bahrain International Airport. People had to walk for miles to reach the terminal building.

Images of the traffic from Al-Deir and Samaheej near to the Bahrain International Airport. People had to walk for miles to reach the terminal building.

Unfortunately, Bahrain’s Gulf Air was one of the sponsors. Forty two flights were delayed due to transportation in and around the Airport; hardly the type of brand association any airline would need.

The traffic was so bad that even Bahrain’s chief traffic cop had to apologize publicly for the mess.

Bahrain's top traffic cop apologizes for the gridlock during #ChallengeBahrain

Bahrain’s top traffic cop apologizes for the gridlock during #ChallengeBahrain

Some Bahrainis did see the funny side. Many created and shared memes, particularly on dark social sites such as Whatsapp, hinting at how successful the event had been in shutting down Bahrain, a feat which even Bahrain’s main political opposition couldn’t achieve.

A meme of AlWefaq's leader and #ChallengeBahrain

A meme of AlWefaq’s leader and #ChallengeBahrain

While the event came to a close on the same day, many of the organizers are looking ahead to 2015 and the second edition of Challenge Bahrain. For most Bahrainis, their hope is that someone will be listening to their social media and that whatever happens next year will not impact the island on the scale as they saw yesterday. If it takes several months to get in shape for a triathlon, I can’t wait to see what the island’s residents have in store for next year’s gridlock as they prepare over the next 12 months for Challenge Bahrain 2015.

Are Snapchat users in the Gulf abandoning the picture app after latest hack?

Are Snapchat users in Bahrain, and the rest of the GUlf, leaving the service after the latest hack to affect the service? (image source: http://www.adweek.com)

Bahrain’s Al-Bilad newspaper printed an interesting piece today following the latest hack on the popular photo-messaging application Snapchat. The app is best known for allowing users to share videos and images which disappear 10 seconds after being received. Explicit images sent via Snapchat have reportedly been leaked from a third-party app in an event being dubbed the “Snappening”. Hackers are threatening to post online a large collection of photos, including nude images, sent by 200,000 Snapchat users (it is possible to save the pictures by taking a screen grab before the images are deleted).

The piece in Al-Bilad claims that dozens of Bahrainis are leaving Snapchat following the hack. There’s little to back up this assertion and no information on how many users the app has in Bahrain or in the Gulf. However, it’s entirely plausible that this is the case. Snapchat is best known for the sharing of images of a personal nature. If these hacked images are leaked, and there’s 13GB of photos that hackers are threatening to share online on the chat forum 4chan, then Snapchat users in the Gulf could be affected. For a region that is known for its conservatism and for the concept of honor, particularly among its women, any public distribution of personal images would be disastrous for women in the Gulf.

You can read the piece here (which is in Arabic), as well as comments by Ali Sabkar, the President of the Social Media Club Bahrain, on how to avoid being the victim of such hacks in future, especially for people who use closed social networks. Few Gulf brands use Snapchat (one exception is Dubai Media Inc), but the app is huge in the US. The application’s designers claimed in June that over one billion images were being shared every day via Snapchat.

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.

Bahrain, Saudi and the UAE use Facebook to Announce Ambassador Pullout

It’s pretty remarkable – I’m not just referring to the withdrawal of the Bahraini, Emirati and Saudi ambassadors from Doha but also the way the news was announced. I, like many others, saw the news first not on traditional news channels but via Twitter. And where was the original announcement? On the Facebook page of the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It’s pretty remarkable to see social media being used to release such information, especially considering the medium is designed with dialogue in mind. If you read Arabic have a look at the comments on the Ministry’s page.

The original announcement, which was later carried in the region’s papers, is below.

The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the pullout of the three ambassadors via its Facebook page before the story broke in the traditional media

The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the pullout of the three ambassadors via its Facebook page before the story broke in the traditional media

What a difference a day makes – the media shift in Bahrain and public perception

It’s often said that 24 hours in the newsroom is a unique experience and Bahrain’s media is no different. The island nation’s media has been reporting on the difficult situation the country is going through for the past couple of years. Wednesday the 15th of January was no different from the past couple of months in that the Kingdom’s English-language media were reporting on government efforts to keep the country safe (much of the focus was on social media and Twitter in particular. The below is a shot of the front page.

The Front Page of Bahrain's Gulf Daily News for the 15 January 2014

The Front Page of Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News for the 15 January 2014

That night, news leaked about national reconciliation talks between Bahrain’s Crown Prince and the largest opposition party Al-Wefaq. As expected, the local media carried the news on their front pages.

The front page of Gulf Daily News from the 16 January. Notice a change in tone?

The front page of Gulf Daily News from the 16 January. Notice a change in tone?

While I won’t discuss the politics of the issue, what I do find interesting is the remarkable shift in position over 24 hours and how groups are described by the media from the one issue to the other. While it may be easy to control the dialogue and the messaging for one of the parties in Bahrain, it’s not so easy to shift public perception. Time will tell what difference this particular 24 hours have made, not only to the media’s take on affairs but also how the public perceives the situation as reported in the media.

The Gulf, social media and its self-deprecating humour

The Gulf is known for many things but a sense of humour hasn’t traditionally been on the list, even less so self-deprecating humour. With the advent of social media, in particular YouTube, both the Gulf’s residents and nationals have started to develop content like there’s no tomorrow. The best is currently coming from Saudi Arabia. One example is La Yekthar, one of the most popular comedy shows on the net. The team regularly tackles and takes on stereotypes of Saudis, and one of their latest clips was a fantastic set-up of how Saudis are often perceived by foreigners. The video, which is below, also sends a not-so-subtle message to Saudis that this type of image, of arrogance and violence, isn’t the right thing to do.

Bahrain has also followed suit with a number of send-ups of the typical Bahraini stereotypes. The clips, which are common on the video-sharing site Keek, focus on a variety of stereotypes which are mainly based on geography (for example, Al-Riffa and Muharraq). I’m going to have to search for these but I’m going to upload as soon as I can.

Even Qatar is getting in on the act. The only local Qatari comedian I know, Hamad Al-Amari, routinely does stand-up routines poking fun at Qatari stereotypes before switching effortlessly into an Irish accent (he spent part of his childhood in Ireland). Have a look at one of his sets below.

And then there’s the UAE. While there are a number of local comedians here including the likes of Ali Al Sayed the country has arrested those, even nationals, who have poked fun at the country’s stereotypes. Emirati Salim Dahman and a group of young males who made a spoof YouTube video named the ‘The Deadly Satwa Gs’ were arrested after uploading the clip. No reason seems to have been given for their arrest, but the assumption would be that they’ve been detained for insulting national sensitivities.

To quote from 7Days, which featured the story yesterday, ‘The Deadly Satwa Gs’ video is a spoof of young people who try to act tough. At the martial arts school, the recruits learn how to throw a shoe and call for back-up on their mobile phones. When they graduate from the school, they are all given Barcelona football jerseys, supposedly matching a style worn by young men in Dubai.

The video, which is still available online, is hardly groundbreaking satire and is fairly tame when compared to the content coming out of the Magic Kingdom. However, comedy isn’t always a laughing matter depending on where you are in the Gulf.

PS If you want to know why I haven’t mentioned Kuwait ask any Gulf Arab about Kuwaitis and humour.

The Middle East and its addiction to Facebook – 2013 stats and figures

Yes, we Arabs have adopted Facebook as our own (image source: muslimscrisisgroup.wordpress.com)

Most of us in the region already know how effective and powerful Facebook is. The social media site played a prominent role in the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt, and its popularity has endured in the face of challenges from other services such as Twitter and YouTube (I’m not even going to mention Google+ in the same sentence).

Facebook released some figures this week about the site’s usage in the Middle East. According to Facebook’s head of MENA Jonathan Labin over twenty eight million people in the Middle East and North Africa are using Facebook every day. Fifty six million use the site every month and of those thirty three use a phone or tablet device to check their profile. Fifteen million people access the site on a daily basis from their mobiles.

I’m going to give you a little more insight into a couple of different regions: Saudi Arabia; Egypt; the GCC; North Africa, and the Levant. The below figures, which were compiled last month, give a good deal of insight into gender split, age, marriage status, number of friends and page likes, access methods, and interface usage. If you’re a marketer in this region and you’re not using or leveraging Facebook (especially on mobile) then start rethinking your advertising and communications approach.