Taking Sides – Questions on and about the Arab Youth Survey

This year’s survey raised a host of questions about not just Arab youth, but whether PR agencies should become part of political disputes in the region

There’s so much which is good about communications in the Middle East – there’s the fast-paced environment, the ability to work across cultures, and an increasing awareness among management that comms matters. However, one area of weakness has always been a paucity of data, which means we’re often left wondering what our audiences are doing and thinking.

Now running for 11 years, the Arab Youth Survey was an initiative by Dubai-headquartered ASDA’A BCW to better understand the largest demographic across the Middle East. The idea was simple – ask people under 30 about their hopes, fears and aspirations. The results of the research could be used to shape government policy, create insights for the private sector and more…

The Methodology

For me, there were two big issues from the survey. The first was who was actually in the survey. For the first time, Qatar was not included. There was no explanation that I’ve seen as to why this happened – given that there’s few issues in traveling to and accessing the country, I can only assume that this was a political decision given everything that has happened between Qatar and the four Arab countries which are in dispute with the country. ASDA’A BCW is headquartered in Dubai, and has substantial business in countries which are in dispute with Qatar. The question I have is this – did ASDA’A BCW not include Qatar for business reasons, or was ASDA’A BCW not allowed to undertake the survey in Qatar by the government (there’s a host of permissions needed to undertake research in many countries across the MENA region). I’ll come back to this issue later on.

They’re not the only questions I have on the issue of how the survey was conducted. My jaw dropped when looking at Yemen; supposedly 50 people were surveyed in Ta’izz and 50 people in Al Hodaydah. How this was possible given both are war zones is beyond me, especially as Syria was excluded also (my assumption is Syria wasn’t included due to the physical risk of undertaking any survey there outside of Damascus).

The other questions I have, I’ve raised before. There’s no description of how the questions were asked (were they structured, semi-structured etc… and who was asking them as well). It goes without saying that this research, presented as is, wouldn’t make it through a single academic peer review. The more transparency there is when it comes to research, the more trust there’ll be in the fairness of the research and the actual findings.

The Insights

This year’s research revealed a number of big insights. One was media consumption.

It may be unsurprising that most young Arabs get their news from social media. What’s not clear is what the actual sources are for their news. I’m going to state this very simply for all those, including media, who simply reshared this insight – social media is a platform, a channel. Facebook doesn’t magically create news. What I’d like to know, and what wasn’t answered, was which are the most popular sources for news on these social platforms. Are they looking to traditional media with digital platforms, digital-only media, or other media outlets (even fake ones). This wasn’t asked, and this was a huge miss as far as I’m concerned.

The other big insight is the issue of religion. Based on the research, young Arabs believe that “religion plays too big of a role in the Middle East.” For me, the statement is too simple (binary choices often are, hence the need for focus groups and open-ended questioning). Why do they feel that this is the case, and what do they mean by reform? Seeing as nearly all the religious institutions are under the control of governments, is this an implied criticism of governments? It’s simply not clear how best to interpret this data apart from they want change.

There’s a host of other insights, such as the youth wanting regional conflicts to end, the demand of the Gulf’s youth that governments continue to subsidize their lifestyles, and how these people are driving e-commerce (that shouldn’t be surprising, given they’re the majority of the population. I was very pleased to see a section on mental health, a topic which has long been a taboo, as well as the impact of drugs, and perceptions towards the quality of education (this is an area which needs drastic reform).

The Issue of Balance

I want to come back to the issue of excluding Qatar, as this is what concerns me the most. For me, communicators are problem-solvers. They are also people who should bring different groups together. By being seen to take sides, we stop being seen as fair and trusted. I keep hearing from regional leaders on the client and agency side about the need to speak truth to power, and the importance of transparency. It’s often harder to see these concepts being put into practice.

What I’m saying is possible to do. I work in the business world, and our aim is to serve our consumers, no matter who they are. We don’t allow politics to get in the way. Once your objectivity is questioned, it’s hard to believe what you say. And, we are the builders of reputations. I hope to see ASDA’A BCW giving a voice to every Arab country next year in the 2020 edition of the Arab Youth Survey. That’s my definition of leadership in the communications space, and that’s what we need more of in the region.

You can read more about the survey here.

Update: I’ve been told that permissions were not given to conduct the research in Doha, based on a response at the press conference. If this is true, it may reflect a drop in trust/a belief that an agency in Dubai can’t be fair towards Doha. Honestly, I don’t know which sentiment worries me more.

The Gulf’s push to improve its image – why actions speak louder than words

The Gulf's foreign ministers have worked hard to change perceptions of the region abroad. But is there a simpler solution?

The Gulf’s foreign ministers have worked hard to change perceptions of the region abroad. But is there a simpler solution?

I love a good read, especially fiction. But when living in the Gulf, fact can often feel more surreal than fiction. Last week the UAE’s English language daily Gulf News reported on efforts by the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council to improve its image abroad, most notably in Europe and the US. To quote from the newspaper:

Foreign media officials in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have stressed the need to formulate a common media strategy that will reflect the positive image of the six member countries abroad.

The officials, who were holding a meeting in the Qatari capital Doha, reviewed plans and suggestions for future actions in their communication drive with the international community.

The GCC, established in 1981, comprises Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“The participants discussed several issues related to the progress of their work, including a common strategy to rectify the distorted image that some Western media have about the countries in the region,” Ahmad Al Buainain, the head of the foreign media department at Qatar News Agency (QNA) said.

“The meeting also discussed several papers and new ideas regarding the way forward for the GCC foreign media in European and Asian countries in order to convey the realities on the ground, he said, quoted by QNA.

Plans include holding seminars and meetings with research centres or organizing events at international functions in Europe and in which the GCC countries are participating, he added.

“This new drive is a continuation of the activities conducted by the foreign media officials at past events,” he said.

Ahmed Mussa Al Dhabyan, the head of media cooperation at the GCC Secretariat General, said that the GCC foreign media officials sought to build on their successful experience and formulate a new strategy that matched the latest developments in the communication field.

“The world has gone beyond the global village concept and has now become a single house,” he said. “The GCC has a significant political and economic weight and it has a special standing internationally, and therefore it needs to have a foreign media presence that matches its stature,” he said.

Earlier this month, reports surfaced from Washington D.C. that Saudi was hiring a variety of lobbying groups to bolster its public image in the US. Clearly, the Gulf cares about its reputation abroad, especially when the region’s governments see what they feel to be negative coverage.

On his Facebook account, political commentator (and Sharjah royal family member) Sultan Al-Qassemi gave his take on the article in the Gulf news with a list of suggestions to improve the Gulf’s image abroad.

1- Release activists.
2- Suspend capital punishment.
3- Allow political participation.
4- Eliminate Kafeel (sponsorship) system
5- Expand women’s rights.
6- Enact environmental protection.
7- Broaden citizen’s rights.
8- Bolster freedom of expression (yes within “limits”)

I’d make it even simpler. As any good and ethical public relations practitioner will tell you, your actions speak louder than your words. If the region is serious about tackling any negative perceptions or reputation issues abroad, then behaviour which is contradictory to accepted human norms in regions outside of the Gulf (read the West) must be tackled, and free(r) access should be given to the media. With social media and the internet, it is so much harder to hide anything or to spin information or events. Take for example the leaking of documents from Saudi’s Foreign Ministry recently.

The best way to been seen in a positive light is not more seminars or meetings in European capitals with research centers. Instead, one must behave in a positive light, followed by encouraging the media, both local and international, to report without bias.

While I’ve been in this region long enough to know better, I am still an optimist at heart. And I still believe we are capable of change for the better, as this region is magical in so many ways. However, a word of note. If my face turns shades of blue or purple, do please remind me to breathe.