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.

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.

Podcasts, Podcasts and more Podcasts. Just remove the Comments!

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Podcasting is a popular move for publishers in the UAE (image source: theodysseyonline.com)

If, like me, you’re a news junkie who feels they spend far too much time in a car, you’re in luck. The UAE’s media outlets have gone on a Podcast frenzy.

The Gulf News business desk began their podcasting about five months back. Named Dirhams and Dollars, the series is an eclectic mix of anything and everything business related, from social media and e-commerce, to the impact that politics has on economics and economies. Headed up by the trio of business editor Scott Shuey, and staff reporter Ed Clowes and Sarah Diaa, the casts are hosted on Soundcloud and usually run for about 15 to 30 minutes. The series is distributed by Twitter  as well (disclaimer – I do love the team picture).

As part of their relaunch, The National has launched a new series of current affairs podcasts, named Beyond the Headlines, where they aim to deep dive into issues which the editorial team feel deserve more attention. The podcasts are hosted on Audioboom and are normally curated by the Assistant Editor-in-Chief Mustafa Alrawi for about 30 minutes.

Others are set to follow. Motivate’s Emirates Woman will soon be launching a podcast series focusing on women’s issues across the region.

While some publishers are putting out more content, in new formats (I’d love to see if the move to podcasting will have any impact on radio in the region), others are doing away with some sections of their website. Al Jazeera is removing its comments section, and here’s why:

The mission of Al Jazeera is to give a voice to the voiceless, and healthy discussion is an active part of this. When we first opened up comments on our website, we hoped that it would serve as a forum for thoughtful and intelligent debate that would allow our global audience to engage with each other.

However, the comments section was hijacked by users hiding behind pseudonyms spewing vitriol, bigotry, racism and sectarianism. The possibility of having any form of debate was virtually non-existent.

Also, over time, we found social media to be the preferred platform for our audience to debate the issues that matter the most to them. We encourage our audience to continue to interact with us this way.

This decision also comes at a time when we as a publisher need to evaluate what our priorities are. We feel that rather than approaching the problem with a collection of algorithms and an army of moderators, our engineering and editorial resources are better utilised building new storytelling formats that resonate with our audience.

Al Jazeera are looking at how to host comments, so this may only be temporary. However, it does highlight the issue of anonymity online, especially in a region which is beset by a number of political disputes between different countries.

The National, City 7 TV and the Quest to Make Media Profitable via Digital

Both The National and City 7 TV will be letting go of many editorial staff as they look to restructure (image source: Arabian Business)

The past couple of weeks has been tough for many colleagues in the UAE media industry. First, information was leaked about job losses at the Abu Dhabi-based, English language daily The National. The reported job cuts follows five months after the paper’s purchase by International Media Investments (IMI), a subsidiary of private investment firm Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation (ADMIC) from state-owned Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADM). At least a quarter of the editorial staff will be leaving The National by the end of June 2017, as the paper’s owners support a “digital transformation” at the paper.

“As part of this transition, over the past few months, IMI has finalised its new vision for The National, supported by a robust editorial strategy to ensure that The National fulfils its potential as a premier English language source of news about and for the Middle East,” a spokesperson told the AFP.

Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation also owns a majority stake in Sky News Arabia, and a project team has been set up to aid the “digital transformation” at The National.

The second news story over the past week were job cuts at Dubai-based English language television channel, City 7 TV. The channel has been sold by BinHendi Enterprises to WeTel-TV, a TV platform for global educational news and current affairs. A number of the editorial team have left as the channel focuses on education.

For many media outlets, the focus is increasingly on profit. In a region which is going through austerity, and where media ownership is primarily in the hands of government (for newspapers and television at the very least), there seems to be a rethink among many outlets as to how to reduce costs. As with every other region, digital is waved as the answer. However, even global titles such as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Daily Mail have struggled to turn a profit online. Digital revenue streams simply aren’t going to replace lost print advertising any time soon.

The other question that The National’s media owners need to ask is how will the loss of so many journalists impact editorial quality? When it comes to media consumption, online is no different from offline; readers want good content. How that content is delivered is obviously different, but the demand for good media will remain. And will there be a logical approach to a “digital transformation”, that combines both The National’s quality copy with the multimedia abilities of Sky News Arabia? An Abu-Dhabi based rival to AJ+ would be an exciting proposition, and I hope that The National has a strong digital enabler at the helm.

Whatever happens with both publications, my thoughts are very much with those people who are leaving. I hope that you’ll find new employment soon.

Influencers & the Importance of Credibility – an Example from SeaWorld Abu Dhabi

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When choosing influencers, brands and publishers need to ask themselves if the person has the credibility and expertise to influence others.

As anyone working in comms will have noticed, 2016 was the year of the influencer. That trend will not only continue into 2017, but it’ll pick up pace. Everywhere you will look, you’ll see brands and organizations working with influencers to address public issues with their stakeholders.

There’s many issues around working with influencers. One, which I’m going to highlight here, is the importance of credibility. Often brands (or publishers) will seek out an influencer  who has a wide following and is popular. That’s unfortunately not the best approach to follow. Instead, brands need to think about credibility, by asking themselves if the influencer they’d like to work with is 1) an expert in this field, and 2) has talked about the issue before, and 3) are considered to have integrity.

I’ve talked about this topic before, most notably when Etisalat brought on-board a load of social media influencers from rival Du. It’s a topic I’ll probably have to keep coming back to again and again, as brands (and publishers) keep on making the same basic mistake.

A fellow communications professional shared with me an opinion piece from the Abu Dhabi-based English-language newspaper yesterday. It was on why Abu Dhabi and SeaWorld will be a good fit, and why both will benefit the wider environment. The piece was written by Khalid AlAmeri, a well-known and well-respected influencer.

The piece is well-written in terms of the argument, and while I could argue to the contrary I’m going to focus on the choice of the influencer. Firstly, Khalid writes prolifically on entrepreneurship and issues around Emiratisation. He’s well-known and admired for this work. However, he’s not an expert on the environment or wildlife (if he is, his expertise should be highlighted here). He’s highlighted some criticisms of SeaWorld, which is the sign of an experienced writer who knows how to engage in a debate. But again, why should I believe someone who firstly isn’t an expert in the field, and who hasn’t written previously on the subject.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not an easy task to find influencers on issues that aren’t mainstream (fashion, food and travel). However, there are organizations in the UAE which do oversee the environment, such as the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (which I assume Khalid references in the piece), or the Emirates Diving Association. There are also associations and people who take part in marine life conservation, such as the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project. These bodies would have made for a much more powerful and compelling argument, primarily due to their expertise. Knowing this, I’d be much less willing to question their lines of argument. As it stands, Khalid’s opinion piece is weakened due to his lack of credibility in this area (as opposed to his expertise on entrepreneurship). To me, that lack of expertise weakens an argument rather than promotes it.

Departing but not goodbye – Fida Chaaban and Frank Kane step down from The Entrepreneur and The National

Frank Kane (left), and Fida Chaaban have left their marks on the UAE's media scene.

Frank Kane (left), and Fida Chaaban have left their marks on the UAE’s media scene.

The UAE’s media scene can oft be described as a merry-go-round; journalists change roles almost as frequently as their colleagues in the public relations industry. Every so often, a journalist comes along whom I develop the utmost respect for, both in terms of their professionalism as well as their personality. They’re a pleasure to deal with.

Just like waiting for a bus, not one but two of my favorite media are leaving their roles this summer. The first is a lady who has redefined what it is to be an editor-in-chief of a publication. Fida Chaaban came to the UAE around about two and a half years ago to head up the newly-launched title Entrepreneur Middle East. During that time she’s built up a strong editorial team who aren’t afraid to publish news on its merit (and say no to ethically-inappropriate requests). Fida has gone beyond that and she’s lived the brand – she could be found at any and every event talking about entrepreneurship including the good, the bad, and the public relations. Fida was a pioneer in terms of engagement; in a region where many editors-in-chief are unapproachable, she’d always be online (when did she sleep?), and responding to anyone and everyone.

Fida announced the change and her stepping down in her own fashion by posting an article about it online (it’s well worth a read). She’ll be staying in Dubai, so I’m not saying goodbye but rather I hope to see her back in the media space soon.

The second person is Frank Kane. Few people in the regional PR industry worth their salt don’t know Frank, a man who has been reporting in London for decades and who moved to the UAE around a decade ago. If you want to learn about proper investigative journalism, Frank is the man to listen to. Frank has been with The National for almost seven years, and during that time his column has been a must read for anyone wanting to understand the nuances of business and culture in the country. Frank will be stepping down from The National at the end of this summer, but he’ll be staying in the UAE.

I could share many anecdotes about Frank, but I’ll do with just one. Back in 2008 I was working on a deal between the New York Stock Exchange and Qatar on a multi-million dollar investment. I was talking with the head of a major public relations firm from London and his experienced team, reviewing the media list. Such was the reverence (and apprehension) for Frank that when we got to his name the gentleman in question said, “I’ll deal with Frank”. When you’re equally respected and feared by public relations executives, that’s when you know you have made it as a true journalist.

I’ll miss dealing with both Fida and Frank, and I do hope that both will be back where they need to be (and where we need them to be), behind a desk working on copy that you can’t put down. We need more journalists like them.

PS do follow Fida and Frank on Twitter, at @fida and @frankkanedubai respectively.

Does the Bloomberg deal with ADGM impact its impartiality or not?

Does this deal with ADGM (pictured) mean something for Bloomberg's journalistic impartiality in the region?

Does this deal with ADGM (pictured) mean something for Bloomberg’s journalistic impartiality in the region?

The issue of impartiality is one which is seldom discussed in the Middle East – this probably isn’t a surprise when considering that much of the region’s press is owned by some form of government authority. However, when it comes to international media the issue of impartiality is a different story. Journalists from abroad, news wires in particular, often have to navigate the challenging waters of what to report on and how to report. They know that the consequences of their work can be dire, and I have known several brave journalists who have been asked to leave the country they were based in. For me, they’re often the most trusted source of information.

The deal between Bloomberg and Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM), the aspiring, brand new international financial centre located in the heart of the UAE’s capital city, was announced last week. The deal, which had been in the works for some time, will include the following details as reported by The National:

The partnership will involve major media initiatives from a new office on ADGM’s Al Maryah Island base, including a dedicated digital platform, new programming and an annual conference of global business leaders in the capital.

Tracy Alloway, Bloomberg’s executive editor of markets, based in New York, and a former Financial Times US correspondent, will lead the ADGM editorial operation.

The TV centrepiece of the new initiative will be a daily global markets programme, from new studios in the Dubai International Financial Centre, which will include editorial content from Ms Alloway broadcast live from ADGM.

A new “anchor” broadcaster will soon be named to present the show, which will seek to bridge the gap between Asian and European markets in Bloomberg’s global network.

There will also be a dedicated Middle East edition of the Bloomberg website, with original input from its 80-strong editorial team, headquartered in Dubai.

I heard about the deal some time back, and what was said to me was that ADGM would be financially supporting Bloomberg’s news organization in Abu Dhabi. It’s a great deal for ADGM, which was recently set up and which has aspirations to become a global hub for financial trading. Alongside the likes of Reuters and Dow Jones, Bloomberg is a global name when it comes to business reporting.

However, is impartiality impacted when money is involved? How will Bloomberg report bad news from ADGM? And how would ADGM respond? All of us who have worked in the media industry in the region know stories of how publishers will behave differently for advertisers, often not reporting negative pieces and instead pushing out good news.

Bloomberg is a different proposition to a local publication; its reporters do write everything, warts and all. Similarly, there’s been a major push to make ADGM a global player on the financial stage, with experienced executives brought in from Singapore and London.

For the sake of argument, let’s address the elephant in the room. As a matter of principle, should Bloomberg have said yes to the deal? Even if no reporting lines are broken, does the deal imply that there could be a measure of bias? Time will tell and each and every organization has its ups and downs. I’m looking forward to seeing Bloomberg’s new setup in ADGM and what it means for journalism and impartiality in the Middle East.