Zain Ramadan’s ad, the MBC ban and how politics & business mix in the Middle East

This week Zain put out its Ramadan ad. The Kuwait-based telecommunications company has a reputation for mixing politics into its messaging during the holiest month of the year for Muslims. The company’s advertisement last year, which took on the issue of extremism through a portrayal of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks, became a viral hit in the Arab World.

This year, Zain’s timing is impeccable. The topic of the video is Jerusalem. You can watch the video below (it’s subtitled and includes a couple of nifty cameos by global leaders such as Angela Merkel as well as Donald Trump). There’s also a good description of the video and its context provided by The National’s Naser Al Wasmi. Already there’s been two million views of the video in less than two days.

Zain’s stance on political advertising is unusual. While there’s been a movement in the West for companies to take a stand on political issues that were once deemed to be off-limits (for example, immigration in America), companies in the Middle East rarely speak about wider societal issues.

While Zain’s latest Ramadan video may prove popular with many (Zain has operations in eight countries in the region, including Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon), there’s been reports in the Kuwaiti press that the MBC Group, the largest satellite television station, has banned the airing of the ad on their stations during Ramadan. MBC, which is Saudi-owned, banned the airing of Turkish soap operas in March of this year, a decision which surprised many given the popularity of Turkish dramas across the Middle East but which must be viewed in light of recent Saudi-Turkish relations.

Zain’s Ramadan ad is a rare example of a Middle East business taking the brave decision to use its media voice to take a stance on a political issue. But as has been shown by MBC and other voices online, it’s neither easy nor simple to take on a political issue in a region which is already politically divided across multiple fault lines.

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?

Getting the timing wrong when communicating – MBC’s NYT mishap

The timing of the decision not to print the New York Times in the UAE couldn't have been worse for MBC's Al Ibrahim

The timing of the decision not to print the New York Times in the UAE couldn’t have been worse for MBC’s Al Ibrahim in light of his comments on local press freedoms

Despite what you’ve been led to believe, there are lots of mischief makers in the Gulf – there’s even a handful in the United Arab Emirates. These naysayers were online last month and poking fun at the chief of the largest satellite broadcast group in the region, the Middle East Broadcasting Group, after he announced that Dubai offers “complete press freedom”.

Sheikh Waleed Al Ibrahim, chairman of MBC Group, told journalists at the Arab Media Forum that the Emirate offered complete press freedom in a region where the media is heavily regulated by government. To quote from Arabian Business.

“We launched the Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC) Group as a pan-Arab media in 1991 in London – to be able to exercise freedom of the press – as most Arab countries were not open to the idea of press freedom.”

“It was an uphill task initially. However, we remained committed to develop quality contents for the Middle East audiences. We tried to enter Egypt and the government did not let us enter to protect the local television channels. However, when an invitation came from Dubai, we started to engage with Dubai government. Initially, I was reluctant to relocate as we might have to compromise on the content – fearing that we might become subject to censorship and interference. Since then, we were never asked by the government how we run our business and why we do what we do. There has been no government interference on our programme.”

So far, so good. But, as pointed out by comments underneath the Arabian Business article the New York Times was pulled from the publishing presses in the UAE by its local, government-owned partner due to an article printed in the newspaper on labour rights at New York University Abu Dhabi.

While Al Ibrahim’s comments may be spot on, the timing of the New York University Abu Dhabi controversy and the halting of the printing of the New York Times said much more than Al Ibrahim’s comments. Actions do speak louder than words, and despite Al Ibrahim’s best intentions his words were undone by a decision which underlines how much press freedom we have in the region.

A modern Arab voice – Ahmad Al Shugairi

Ahmad AlShugairi is one Arab voice who talks a lot of sense. We need more like him (image credit: http://www.andriodpit.com

There’s few independent thinkers on the airwaves in this region. The Middle East is a region where most media are government-owned. One of the exceptions and an amazing personality is Ahmad Al Shugairi. A Saudi national from Jeddah, Ahmad hosts a month-long program during Ramadan called Khawater, which literally translates as thoughts. Ahmad has been hosting Khawater for nine years and it’s become a firm favourite during Ramadan on MBC.

Ahmad is also not afraid of rocking the boat. One of his episodes this season has focused on the issue of Syrian refugees and indirectly on their lack of access to the Gulf region. Another has talked about food waste, particularly during Ramadan. And a third has looked at the concept of innovation when it comes to pot holes (yes, pot holes). The best one was an issue discussing religious tolerance, between Sunni and Shia Muslims and Christians and Muslims in the Middle East.

Ahmad is a man who is positive, and yet who recognizes that we Arabs can and should be behaving and thinking in a more communal, altruistic manner. He’s a voice for sense and humanity in a region where we often don’t speak in moderate tones and with little common sense. I’ll try and find videos subtitled into English, but in the meantime, please do watch the below (the first is on religious tolerance and the second is on the issue of Syrian refugees). Ahmad, we need you throughout the whole year!

Fans and Opponents Praise and Target MBC on Twitter

Yin and Yang, Sweet and Sour, and now MBC on social media. It seems that the Middle East’s largest free-to-air satellite station had its hands full last week. The station’s most popular talent show, Arabs Got Talent, broadcast the season finale live. The show, which has attracted millions of viewers, has trended worldwide with the hashtag #arabsgottalent over the past couple of months.

Meanwhile, another hashtag was making the rounds last week. #قناة_الفتنة translates as the channel of chaos from the Arabic to English. This less accommodating hashtag was doing the rounds in Saudi. After doing a little digging (what time will allow), it seems that the hashtag is aimed at MBC’s Ramadan schedule, and is designed to make the point that rather than portraying the spiritual side of the holiest month in the Islamic calendar MBC is more concerned with advertising revenues. Have a look at the below graphic. While you may not understand the Arabic, the picture itself speaks a thousand words (on the left is MBC, on the right is the devil).

And incidentally, who won Arabs Got Talent? A group of thirteen young men named Khawater al-Zalam who perform stunts and dance sequences with ultraviolet props and costumes set against a black background. They’re from Saudi Arabia. Check out Khawater al-Zalam’s routine during the show here.

Let’s hope that MBC’s social media team enjoy their sweet and sour as much as the rest of us.