Region’s first online video gathering kicks off in Dubai

The hugely popular Saudi Reporters will be on the main stage at VIDXB on Friday afternoon. (Instagram)
Updated 07 December 2017
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Region’s first online video gathering kicks off in Dubai

DUBAI: Dubai is set to host the MENA region’s first gathering for digital content and online video. The two-day VIDXB event, which starts on Friday, Dec. 8, 2017, will see YouTube and social media stars from the Arab world and beyond mingling with leading digital media companies including Facebook, YouTube, Buzzfeed and Vice, along with multinational brand managers and — perhaps most importantly — fans.

“We would like to position Dubai, and the Middle East as a whole, as an innovator at the front of the conversation about emerging media,” Omar Butti, executive director, innovation programs, at Dubai Film and TV Commission — the event’s organizers — told Arab News.

“I think one of the beautiful things about digital media is that no one’s quite figured it out yet,” he said. “With TV and film, the language is so established that it’s quite hard to break out of that mold. There’s a lot of emulating as opposed to innovating (in the region) — looking at what other people are doing and getting ourselves up to that level. There’s value in doing that, certainly. But we have a unique opportunity to help create the language around digital content or immersive reality experiences, because that isn’t established.”

There is enormous interest in digital content in the region, Butti stressed. And huge potential, both creatively and financially.

“There are currently 50-plus channels in the Arab world that have over 1 million subscribers on YouTube,” he said. “We have a very young population, incredible mobile phone penetration, and I think the region ranks second in the world in terms of views per day, around 310 million.”

When traditional, old-media companies look at the region — if they look at it at all — it tends to be for novelty value he said.

“It hasn’t really been an approach of looking at it from a long-term perspective and wanting to get involved with the creative community here,” Butti said. “But that’s not the case with digital companies. They see real numbers and real support and real, huge, potential business behind digital content creators. So I think that’s a big shift.”

The Gulf region, in particular, has not had a particularly strong presence on traditional media platforms. TV and film schedules are generally dominated by content from other Arab countries. But Butti said there are plenty of stars emerging from the GCC online.

“This year, (VIDXB’s) focus is on the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait,” he told Arab News. “We’re trying to offer something specifically for the Gulf and for the region in year one. But the long-term plan is to expand that. And even in year one, we’ve got people coming from Morocco, Egypt, the US and the UK, so it will be a global conversation about content.”

Alongside international stars including American vlogger Casey Neistat and UK pop star Conor Maynard, VIDXB will also welcome some of the biggest Arabic-language content creators, including Noor Stars, Saudi Reporters, Esswara, and Dyler. And Butti expects huge numbers of fans will turn up to see them in the flesh. Despite the fact that, generally speaking, regional online content creators are not household names, the adoration they generate from their fans is comparable to traditional media stars.

“You think no one’s watching,” Butti said. “But (for youth), these are your top-tier celebrities. These are the people that you look up to, follow, and watch. Something I think is maybe not taken into consideration is that these people are often creating content on a daily basis, so their audience genuinely feels like they know them; that they’re connected in a way that is much more direct than with any movie star or TV star, because of the level of access they have to their daily lives. Even though it’s curated content, they still feel like they’re there with them every single day. So the adoration and the engagement are on another level. It can feel a little under-the-radar, until 5,000 people show up to see this person and you’re, like, ‘Where did they come from?’”

Butti said the closest analogy he could draw to VIDXB would be VidCon in the US. “It’s the idea of marrying an industry conference with a fan event,” he explained. “People who are in the fan community today may be future content creators, and we want to encourage them. They might come to this event just to see Dyler, or whoever, but they’ll actually get to hear them talk about the creative process and how they got started, or why they do what they do, and maybe hearing directly from their heroes could be the little push they needed. That’s what we want – we want to find ways to encourage the youth to actively create and do something beyond just being passive viewers.”

From the industry side, he said, the hope is that VIDXB will show brands, particularly “the impact, the importance and the power of these creators.”

Butti said, “We should be taking them seriously on all fronts — supporting them creatively, working with them to make sure that their content is as good as it can be, but also treating them in the same way as we would traditional mainstream celebrities, because they do have that value.”

Beyond establishing a digital-media industry in the Arab world, the emergence of regional content creators could also play a significant cultural role, Butti believes, by breaking down the stereotypical portrayal of Arabs in traditional global media.

“I think one of the most important things we can do in the Arab world, whether it’s here in Dubai or anywhere, is find ways to get our stories out there and express the fact that there’s all sorts of diversity and different understandings of the world here,” he said.

“We are basically in a position where if we start creating amazing content, there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t get that content out there,” Butti continued. “And one of the most important things that we can do as a society, I think, is start exporting our culture.”


Pavilion at Venice Biennale architecture exhibition shows role of design in fabric of Saudi Arabian cities

Updated 25 May 2018
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Pavilion at Venice Biennale architecture exhibition shows role of design in fabric of Saudi Arabian cities

  • Saudi Arabia unveiled a sweeping exhibition exploring the country’s progress over the past five decades
  • Saudi pavilion illustrated the evolution underway as the country embraces a new era of change

VENICE: In its debut appearance at Italy’s most prestigious architecture fair on Thursday, Saudi Arabia unveiled a sweeping exhibition exploring the country’s progress over the past five decades.
Holding its own among the 65 national pavilions at the 16th Venice Biennale’s International Architecture Exhibition, the Saudi pavilion illustrated the evolution underway as the country embraces a new era of change, powered by Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for the future.
It’s the first time the Kingdom has had a presence at the event, which is considered one of the foremost forums for international architecture, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the globe to the historic city of Venice in northeastern Italy.
At the heart of the display in the Venetian Arsenal — the historic shipyards that house some of the most prominent pavilions at the biannual fair, a set of screens on opposite walls flash up clips of Saudi cities showing people wandering along the Jeddah Corniche or drinking coffee at a Bujairy Park cafe in Riyadh.
The reels illustrate the way urban sprawl has unfolded across the Kingdom, where rapid urbanization resulting in settlement-driven growth has skipped over spaces in Saudi cities, leaving vast lots vacant between buildings. With more than 40 percent of urban land unused, communities are dispersed, creating a sense of fragmentation between neighborhoods connected only by cars.
“The vacant lot is a very prevalent typology in Saudi cities: anyone passing through them will notice the empty tracts of land everywhere,” said architect Turki Gazzaz, who co-created the pavilion space – which is named “Spaces in Between” — with his brother Abdulrahman Gazzaz.
The duo, who founded Jeddah-based architectural studio Bricklab, beat 70 other entries to secure the commission to create the Kingdom’s first biennale pavilion, which shows the role design can play in re-knitting the social and structural fabric of Saudi cities.
While outlets for creative expression have previously been limited in the Kingdom, attitudes are increasingly conducive toward design-led solutions. “People are becoming more conscious about these critical issues that exist within our urban fabric … this is beginning to spill out into our society and impact it in a positive way,” Abdulrahman said.
Recent reforms rolled out under Vision 2030 have created a channel for creativity to fuel the country’s growth as it looks beyond the oil sector — a turning point referenced by the pavilion’s use of resin, which is a byproduct of the petrochemical industry.
This has been mixed with sand — a material that both symbolizes Saudi Arabia and links it to the rest of the world — for the giant curved screens that frame the exhibition.
Inside, projections show digital maps of the Kingdom’s main cities, beginning with aerial perspectives that convey their fragmented growth before moving down to street-level snapshots of everyday life in the city.
These pictures have been drawn from social media and most are taken from cars, the dual axis of urban life for city-dwelling Saudis. Below, old mobile phones, a walkie-talkie and broken motherboards are showcased beneath a glass panel of fragmented electronics to “create a conversation about consumer culture” and comment on the “virtual public space” that people increasingly congregate in at the expense of public places, said Abdulrahman.
Speaking to Arab News at the launch of the Saudi pavilion in Venice on Thursday, Dhay Al Dhawyan, project manager at the Ministry of Municipality and Rural Affairs, described the need to “humanize” Saudi cities, something Vision 2030, and the more immediate targets for 2020, are moving toward.
“We want to bring back city centers, walkability, accessibility, connectivity and rework the visual aspects of our cities to make them more lively and functional.”
The overall theme at this year’s biennale is “Freespace,” selected by the Irish curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara to encourage architects to explore how “a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity” can contribute to the built environment.
Tapping into this ethos, the Saudi pavilion curators have compiled a display that blurs the boundaries between development and desert, city border and boundless expanse.
In demographic terms, Saudi cities have always been very diverse but in many cases they lack the infrastructure to encourage interaction, said Jawaher Al-Sudairy, one of the exhibition curators and director of Nahda Center for Research as well as senior program manager at Harvard Kennedy School.
“There are public spaces but they’re under-utilized, so that’s where the conversation should be.”
Communication is the overriding aim for the creators behind the Saudi pavilion, which invites visitors to explore the evolution taking place in Saudi Arabia’s skyline and engage with the social shift underway as the Kingdom steps onto the world stage.
“We’re tackling a global issue here; this is not unique to Saudi Arabia,” said Dr. Sumayah Al-Solaiman, the other half of the female curatorial team at the exhibition.
In keeping with the lofty spirit of the biennale, literature handed out to interested parties at the Saudi pavilion errs on the aloof and arty, but the experience created by the exhibition is firmly grounded in the relatable.
The teams wants visitors to identify with the issues raised, which have a global resonance in an era defined by rapid urban growth.
“We’re more similar with other nations than we are different … and this is a great way to have a conversation that is not necessarily bound by national boundaries,” said Al-Solaiman, who is dean of the College of Design at Imam Abdulrahman bin Faisal University.
“The Venice Biennale is an excellent platform to start a conversation around architecture and how were designing and building, and we want to have this discussion with other architects around the world.”
“Our participation in the International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia is an unprecedented moment for Saudi Arabia’s creative community. It’s an opportunity to bring pioneering Saudi thought to an international platform through our creative vernacular,” said Ahmed Mater, executive director of the Misk Art Institute, which organized the Saudi pavilion.
“Coupled with the allocation of an incredible pavilion space, we are very excited about our presentation this year at the Biennale Architettura but also, looking forward to future years and presentations and what they will draw upon from our own community.”
For Al-Sudairy, one of the most interesting projects on the horizon is the Riyadh Metro, which she believes will transform more than mobility in the capital. “I can’t wait to see how it changes the people move around … it’s going to transform the city physically and socially.”
It is one of many large-scale infrastructure projects underway across the Kingdom that aims to bring a sense of cohesion to the country’s urban environments and unite diverse communities within them.
The Saudi pavilion opens to the public on Saturday (May 26).