The rise of the Khaleeji Woman as online content creators (part two)

As it’s International Women’s Day, I couldn’t wait any longer and, I’ll be brutally honest, I wanted to see lots of cake porn! Here’s the second of a two-part guest blog on how women across the Gulf are using social media and their skills not only to create entertaining and informative content, but to also earn a living. In this second post, Paul Kelly, creative director and co-founder at Digital Ape, argues that brands need to rethink how they both develop and execute content creation strategies with online female content creators in the Gulf. Enjoy the read, and let Paul know what you think!

During the last post, we discussed a survey of MENA based women, and their attitudes to content, particularly food content online. This week we will focus on the content creators who these surveyed women follow and imitate. We will look at how they are creating engaging content and why that matters for brands and publishing houses alike.

How are they doing it?

People are attracted to people. If I can find someone online, who understands what happens in my day, speaks my dialect and knows what I need better than say a publisher in Dubai, then I will follow their content, and my friends will too.

Women across the GCC are doing this in their millions, Khaleeji women want to see themselves reflected in their entertainment, and they want advice and recommendations tailored to them. Gone are the days when they must consume content created by an American in New York, and served to them on TV or in print. Women from the UAE to Saudi and beyond and seeking out other women who look like them, speak like them and understand their lives.

This I believe is one of the reasons why old fashioned publishing houses, should be quaking in their boots. As much as we try, Western or Levantine men in Dubai will never truly understand what Khaleeji women want in entertainment content, and now that they have a choice, these women will choose to consume content made by their peers and when that happens at scale, these content creators become publishers in their own right.

A content creator who builds an audience and keeps them engaged is no different to a publisher, and creators with a female Khaleeji audience, have an audience underserved by content, and exponential growth rates equal revenue.

The train-wreck.

So how has it come to influencers being ridiculed for their work? Worse still, how has it come to people calling themselves influencers, buying audiences and getting a free meal ticket?

Aside from the typical Dubai-syndrome of echo chamber marketing; it’s a mix of naïve marketing managers chasing trends, agencies ill-equipped for creative relationships (trying to replace banner ad revenue) and people who see social media as a shortcut to making a quick dirham.

Instead of actively investing the time needed in these powerful communities, brands, in place of real strategies, throw wads of cash at so-called influencers and hope for big results, often leading to disappointment.

At Digital Ape, we’ve got this down to an art. Just like money is a hygiene factor when it comes to employment, so too is it when it comes to dealing with real people creating content. It’s about giving content creators what they need; Props, filming equipment, sessions with filmmakers, assistance in real-time sessions with editing, contract help, this way everyone gets the best of the relationship. Creators develop better content with help from the brand thereby growing audiences, which in turn helps the brand. Women develop a revenue stream from content that fits and that the audience understands. This isn’t horse trading it’s about developing a win-win situation for creators, brands and audiences.

Find the fit for your brand by having an empathetic network of people to draw on, then seek out their audiences. Work WITH them. Don’t use influencers, work with your content creators. It’s an investment that pays handsomely.

 The future.

It’s no surprise that local publishing houses are scrambling to get on board with the creator craze – they after all, were the content creators and influencers of an older generation. Less able to respond to a new reality of screens and pixels, and even less able to understand how to convert revenue from the eyeballs they’ve been left behind as content becomes borderless and habits are quickly changing.

After all, is what someone like PewDiePie doing any different to what VICE was doing in 2010? Arguably with 54mn subscribers (at time of writing) on YouTube he has as much impact as a medium sized cable network. Is Kim Kardashian any different to Hello! Circa 1998? Her ability to shift units of anything she sells is phenomenal.

Some will argue until that until we have proper regulation in the GCC we’ll never achieve a level of sophistication that will mean any content creator is taken seriously.

Forget that.

What I am, and us at Digital Ape say, is that the content creators are the new publishers. Instead of being locked up in an edit suite at MBC, they are at home in their own bedrooms with their phones, doing the exact same thing, for an audience which increases with every post.

What we are seeing is a new model of content democracy where the 1% who make the content for the 99% are now starting to take back their revenue. Where once it was the Newscorps or CNN’s or ITP’s relying on their talent to sell time, space or inches, it’s now the Felix’s, Rayyan’s and countless mothers, wives and daughters who have a passion to create that will shape our entertainment for the next 20 years.

Digital Ape’s research with MENA women underlines the role digital plays in offline purchase intent

Me, my wife and our baby – a personal story of how the Gulf is letting down its women by denying their children the right to nationality

 

The children of Gulf women married to foreigners are not automatically granted nationality, unlike their male counterparts (image source http://www.flight965.com)

 
I promised I’d write on my experiences as a father and I’m having to start things off on a serious note. As some of you may know, my wife is from this region but I am not. We welcomed into our lives a little princess earlier this year.

The sad story is that in the Gulf region children born to Gulf women, in other words women with a nationality from the six GCC states, who are married to foreign men do not receive their mother’s nationality. This is in contrast to Gulf men who are married to foreign women. Their children do receive their father’s nationality.

It’s important to us that our little one cherishes both her cultures and that she’s recognized as both. She’s fortunate to have a European nationality through me, but, try as we might with visits to interior ministry offices and other government bodies, we realized that there is no formal process for our daughter to become a Gulf national like her mother. This is the same all over the Gulf, despite sporadic exemptions to the contrary.

I’ve heard countless reasons for this, such as the need for Gulf women to marry Gulf men, and the legal requirement that a Gulf national should have only one passport. To me, any discussion is bogus. If I was a Gulf male and my wife was a European foreigner our daughter would have qualified automatically for both nationalities.

I hear lots of news about progress being made it terms of women’s rights in the Gulf, which I applaud. However, until Gulf women are able to give their children everything that their male counterparts can, I cannot contend that women here are anywhere near to being equal to the men.

I hope for change, if not for my wife’s generation, then at least for my daughters. I hope you will join me in calling for a change to how Gulf women and their children are treated in the Gulf.

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.

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.

Social media and diplomacy – @IsraelintheGCC, Israel’s virtual embassy in the Gulf

The launch of the @IsraelintheGCC twitter account is a cheap but potentially effective media channel for the Israeli government

The launch of the @IsraelintheGCC twitter account is a cheap but potentially effective media channel for the Israeli government

No matter your political persuasion, you have to admit that the Israelis are an ingenious bunch. Their latest idea is a simple concept, a virtual embassy for a part of the world where there’s little/no Israeli State presence, the Gulf. Israel, which doesn’t enjoy official diplomatic relations with any of the Gulf states, has launched a ‘virtual embassy in the Gulf’ through Twitter. The account, which is named @IsraelintheGCC, aims to “open lines of dialogue” with people living in the Gulf according to a report by the UAE-based English-language daily Gulf News. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, the person behind the idea is Yoram Morad, Director of the Department of Digital Diplomacy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel.

Not unsurprisingly, Israel has always faced challenges when trying to communicate its point of view to its Arab neighbours. However, that hasn’t stopped the State from engaging various mediums to argue for its policies. Israel launched an Arabic-language television channel in 1994 following the announcement of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The establishment of the @IsraelintheGCC twitter account follows news of a potential re-engagement between the Israelis and Palestinians as well as mounting pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear enrichment programme.

It could be argued that Israel has been much more active than the Arab states in terms of communicating its key messages – there were plans to launch a Hebrew-language channel in Egypt as of last year according to the Christian Science Monitor, but I haven’t heard much in the way of an actual launch.

The messaging employed by @IsraelintheGCC, which is being run by the Twitter account of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, would appear to be aimed at propagating a more diplomatic tone than that of Israel’s internal politics. The account, which has tweeted 21 times to date, has only quoted the country’s Prime Minister twice (its fair to say that Bibi Netanyahu wouldn’t win many popularity contests in the Gulf), but it has talked about social media in the Arab world, sustainability issues, and wished followers a Ramadan Kareem. The one time Netanyahu has been quoted was in relation to European sanctions on the Lebanese organization Hizbollah which isn’t well liked in the Gulf due to its pro-Iranian stance. There are tweets in Arabic too. Have a look at some of the posts below.

Over the past couple of years social media has allowed companies, politicians and celebrities to directly bypass the media and reach out directly to anyone that wants to listen. Now the same can be said of social media for States who, for diplomatic reasons, cannot establish a physical presence. I’ll be following the account, and am looking forward to seeing how long this project lasts, how much dialogue it generates and how successful it becomes for the Israeli government.

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.

How much variety and discrimination is there in the Gulf?

The GCC is as diverse and complicated as any other part of the globe (credit: rasheedsworld.com)


Looking on in from the outside, most expatriates see the Arabian Peninsula as one monotonous geography. The women wear black (unless they’re Kuwaiti) and the mean wear white. The language is the same, and everyone is a Muslim. And that’s the Gulf.

Well, hardly. Each country is unique, and offers a wealth of diversity in terms of culture, history and opinions. The range of accents in Bahrain is so prominent that a local will be able to tell where a compatriot may be from how the greeting alone.

Saudi is the most diverse country in the region. Its twenty million nationals come from all four corners of the world, and don’t be surprised to meet a Saudi whose roots trace back to Indonesia, China, or Western Africa. The Kingdom’s Western Region is the richest melting pot you’ll come across, thanks to hundreds of years of pilgrimage to the two holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. Often foreigners think that Dubai or Doha are the two cities that offer the greatest contrast of cultures and groups, but they don’t come close to what Jeddah has to offer.

And Christians in Kuwait and Bahrain? And a Jewish community in Manama? Yes, they’re locals (but there’s not many of them).

And of course, with variety comes discrimination. There’s a good deal of nepotism across the Gulf mainly due to the tribal, bedouin nature. It’s not uncommon to find a certain group dominating in one company – it’s not so much where a person is from as often as what their tribal name is. Many Saudis don’t use their tribal names any more. And there’s also discrimination based on region (Jeddah versus Riyadh, Dubai versus Abu Dhabi etc), on the history behind the family name (in other words how far back can the family’s genealogy be traced), and on religion (which mathab or religious affiliation a person adheres to).

While this isn’t unique to the Gulf (tell me a place where there isn’t any discrimination) what I do find interesting is the institutionalized discrimination in certain parts of the GCC. Some states, most notably Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman count GCC nationals as locals when it comes to hiring and nationalization quotas. The UAE and Qatar do not – when they say local they mean local. For a European the difference in policy between the two groups is hard to fathom (especially when considering the relatively small populations of both Qatar and the UAE when compared to Saudi Arabia).

So, the next time you’re sitting in the coffee ship and sipping on your coffee do remember to ask yourself where the gentleman in white is from. You may be surprised at how much you can learn about a region that is full of culture and contrast.