Shock and Awe: What is happening to the Gulf’s Media?

The Gulf is known for many things, but a controversial media isn’t one of them. The region’s media are known for not causing a stir, and for generally towing the line. There are exceptions – some local, Arabic-language radio stations in the Gulf host phone-in shows. One of them didn’t go so well. Here’s the story from The National newspaper.

It was a call for help from a man who couldn’t afford to provide for his family that was cruelly batted down by a prominent radio host.

But in the 24-hours that followed, Ali Al Mazrouei witnessed a justice of sorts when the radio jockey was suspended and his plight was heard in person by the leaders of the country.

The 56-year-old, a father of nine, spoke of his struggle to get by on a relatively low salary and a large family.

When he phoned Ajman Radio’s morning talk show Al Rabia Wal Nas on Thursday, he tried to highlight what rising living costs meant for families like his.

“The expensive prices are a big problem; everything is too expensive, including fuel, and the income is low,” he said.

“We want to provide for our children but we can’t buy anything; when one cannot make his children happy what is the point of living?”

When he spoke of inflation and the cost of basic goods, the show’s co-host Yaqoub Al Awadhi interrupted him to say there “there are retired people whose salaries are Dh10,000 and even used to be Dh7,000″ before the government raised payments.

The anchor went on to suggest that someone who could not live on that amount must have poor skills in managing finances and does not appreciate what he has.

Mr Al Mazrouei responded to say he does not spend money on anything other than his basic needs…

“We want to do good, when we see someone like us, we pray for him and we try to help when we find someone poor like us,” he said.

The radio host replied: “Don’t give anyone anything, just hold your tongue.”

“I don’t accept that you defame my country and say the people are all suffering.

“The salary you receive is from where? Where do you feed your children from? This all doesn’t deserve gratitude?”.

Mr Al Mazrouei responded that “I am an original national of this country, I am a Mazrouei,” as the host started to mumble, “where did you appear in front of me now from?” an expression in Arabic indicating an unpleasant encounter with someone.

The ill-tempered exchange continued for some time.

When news of the argument reached Sheikh Ammar bin Humaid Al Nuaimi, Crown Prince of Ajman, he ordered the suspension of host Yaqoub Al Awadhi.

On Tuesday, Mr Al Mazrouei was received by the Crown Prince and the Ruler of Ajman, Sheikh Humaid bin Rashid Al Nuaimi, while Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, ordered that his situation be looked at immediately and his family helped.

Speaking to The National, the father-of-nine said: “This was the first time that I decided to raise this issue, because life was starting to close its doors in our faces. Instead of just worrying in vain every day I decided to take a proactive step.”

He said he does not want the host to lose his job.

“He jumped from topic to topic [when attacking me], it was so strange, but I say, may Allah guide him.

The second incident comes from Saudi, where a presenter on Bidaya TV told one of his guests live on air that his father had died (the video is below). The reaction was universal condemnation online, with a campaign that criticized the station for manipulating emotions for ratings. BBC Arabic has a full report on the story (it’s in Arabic, of course). A number of the station’s employees were suspended.

There’s been a great deal of change in the Gulf’s media over the past year. Is this an example of the change in sentiment which readers may feel on political issues seeping into other parts of the media? I’m not sure. But it cannot be coincidence for two events to happen in such a short space of time in a region which rarely sees such incidents.

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

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.

Thinking of drinking and driving? @TimHortonsGCC criticized by Dubai Police for social media blunder

There’s a fine line between engaging and offending online. The popular Canadian coffee shop chain Tim Hortons got into trouble this week with a post which went on on its @TimHortonsGCC Twitter account and its Facebook page.

The post below went online on the 14th of this month. Almost immediately after posting, the picture was attacked by the brand’s followers as being inappropriate and encouraging dangerous driving.

Do you drink and drive? The image from Tim Hortons GCC was criticized both by fans and by the Dubai Police (image source: http://www.7daysindubai.com_

Even worse for the brand, drinking and eating whilst driving is deemed as an offense by Dubai Police. The social media team’s image was in contravention of the Emirate’s laws. You pretty much know you’ve boo-booed when the police tell you off.

Speaking to local English-language newspaper 7Days, Dubai Police’s Colonel Saif Muhair Al Mazroui explained following such advice could risk lives on the roads.

He said: “Any motorist who doesn’t pay attention to the road is endangering the lives of others. Eating or drinking inside the car while driving is prohibited as it might cause accidents when the motorist gets busy and doesn’t focus on the road.”

Tim Hortons GCC did pull down the advert after it was posted and the CEO issued an apology shortly afterwards. Santhosh Unni explained that the image “was meant to reflect a common consumer behaviour pattern. We do not promote reckless driving and request our customers to always be careful on the road.”

However, brands need to think twice particularly when the issue of safety is involved. The Tim Hortons GCC Twitter feed and Facebook pages haven’t been active since the posting, which may suggest the brand is having a second look at how it manages its social media. The next time you think of drinking and driving, remember Tim Hortons GCC.

Has Coca Cola hit or missed the CSR mark with its Happiness Phone Booth labourer project?

Coca Cola is all about happiness. The soft drinks giant has been looking to associate itself with the concept of happiness for years, and these efforts regularly involve cause-related marketing activations. The latest effort by Coca Cola in the United Arab Emirates, named Happiness Phone Booth, gave laborers in the country an opportunity to make a call home. The special Hello booths didn’t accept coins but rather Coca-Cola bottle caps. Each bottle of Coca-Cola could be “turned into” a 3-minute free international phone call. Watch the clip below to understand the project in its entirety.

The controversy about this idea, which is clear in the comments underneath the video, is about the source of the bottle tops themselves. Are the labourers given Coca Cola bottles? If so, then why not make this clear on the video. If not, either the labourers have to spend two Dirhams out of their daily 18 Dirham salary on a bottle or find other means (which I’ll leave to your imagination).

So Coca Cola, shouldn’t you have targeted a group of the population who can afford your products for this cause-based marketing campaign?

What are your thoughts? Has Coca Cola done good? Or can it do better?

Paris Hilton and the holy city of Makkah – where’s the synergy?

This is one of the few images that I could find of Paris which would be suitable for this blog. This isn’t her attire for the store’s opening however.

Socialite and party-lover Paris Hilton. And the holiest city to all Muslims worldwide, Makkah. These two don’t often find themselves in the same magazine or TV programme, let alone in the same sentence.

However, all of that has changed with the launch of Paris Hilton’s fifth store in Saudi Arabia. And yes, you guessed right. The store will be in the holy city of Makkah.

Ms Hilton tweeted about the opening with a picture of the store. She also added that this was her fifth store in Saudi Arabia out of a total of 42 stores worldwide. Seems we just can’t get enough of Paris Hilton over here.

Unsurprisingly there’s been a fair amount of reaction within Saudi itself. The news was first covered in Saudi by the national newspapers and has quickly been picked up by international outlets including CNN. The CNN piece, which you can read here, neatly sums up the differing reactions to the store’s opening.

The commercialization of Makkah isn’t recent. For years the city has been transformed by a host of high-end shops, stores and malls. It’s very different in another city I love dearly. Most of the old city of Jerusalem (Al-Quds in Arabic) has resisted change, and is all the better for it in terms of its spirituality and warmth.

Returning back to Paris and Makkah, what does a woman who has been embroiled in a sex tape and enjoys her party lifestyle have to do with Makkah, the holiest city in the world to over a billion people. Dare I say, this is slightly different from a high-end brand such as Gucci in the sense that Paris Hilton the person (and her lifestyle) embodies the brand. Will the news engender a debate about what is happening to a city that means so much to so many people. Makkah should be cherished and conserved. I for one hope it does. In the meantime, if you are in Makkah and you’re in desperate need of a bag do remember Paris Hilton (and say astaghfirullah while you’re doing it).

Makkah is most associated with Islam, spirituality, belief and forgiveness

PS as a PR stunt I’d have to give Paris Hilton and her team top marks for the online reaction as well as the media coverage.