Facebook me, habibi: Middle East marks 15 years of networking

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Egyptian protesters shout slogans against then-President Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Jan. 30, 2011. (AFP)
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Updated 07 February 2019

Facebook me, habibi: Middle East marks 15 years of networking

  • How the social networking platform went from personal to political during the Arab Spring
  • Facebook has 2.32 billion monthly active users, with 181 million in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and 16 million in Saudi Arabia

DUBAI: People throughout the Middle East joined the world in musing about Facebook, and about all the ways it has changed their lives both personally and politically, as it turned 15 this week.

But the social networking site really took off in the region a few years after its launch on Feb. 4, 2004, by a group of American university students. 

In September 2006, Facebook launched worldwide to everyone above the age of 13 with a valid email address, and it was not until March 10, 2009, that it began running in Arabic.

On Jan. 25, 2011, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, calling on President Hosni Mubarak to step down after almost 30 years in power. 

Facebook was credited with bringing all these people from across the country to one location at a specific time.

“Facebook was pivotal during the 11 days of protest, hence the internet had to be shut down by the authorities,” said A. Al-Saidy, who protested in Tahrir Square at the time.

“Many activists shared videos on Facebook, calling for people to come down and join. When the day came, no one thought a Facebook page could mobilize all those people.”

Al-Saidy was a follower of the page “We Are All Khaled Said,” an homage to a 29-year-old who was tortured to death by police, which is credited with being one of the catalysts that touched off the protests. 

It garnered more than 100,000 followers in just three days, becoming the most followed page on Facebook in the Arab world at the time. 

Egypt was not the only country where Facebook played a role in the Arab Spring. Pages were created for protests in Tunisia, Syria and other Arab countries, leading to the coining of the phrase “social media revolution.” It is for this reason that countries such as China, Iran and North Korea have completely blocked access to Facebook.

The site has also been used in the Middle East for less disruptive political purposes. During Lebanon’s municipal and parliamentary elections in 2016 and 2018, independent civil society groups used Facebook to promote and advertise their campaigns. 

Regardless of its purpose, its popularity is still undeniable. Facebook has 2.32 billion monthly active users, with 181 million in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and 16 million in Saudi Arabia.

“We celebrate and encourage these meaningful connections like bonding over a common interest and helping local businesses thrive. Our goal is to drive positive social and economic impact across the country (Saudi Arabia),” a Facebook spokesperson told Arab News.

The platform specifically catered to audiences in Saudi Arabia and the Muslim world in 2018, the spokesperson said, adding: “We connected Saudi Arabia to the rest of the world during Hajj last year, where millions of people across the world were able to view a live Facebook broadcast of the Taraweeh prayers through the use of 360-degree video technology, in partnership with Arab News.”While other platforms, such as WhatsApp and Instagram, may have gained in popularity, Facebook now owns those too.

“The MENA region is one of Instagram’s fastest-growing and most vibrant communities, and we’re committed to providing the right tools for local users to connect and share experiences with one another,” the spokesperson said. 

That is similar to Facebook’s original purpose. “Our job at Facebook is to help people make the greatest positive impact, while mitigating areas where technology and social media can contribute to divisiveness and isolation. Giving people a voice is a principle our community has been committed to since we began.”

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry inaugurates Arab News Pakistan bureau

Updated 16 February 2019

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry inaugurates Arab News Pakistan bureau

  • New office will be hub for Asian operation of paper and builds on relationship with community and its digital generation
  • Arab News launched its online Pakistan edition www.arabnews.pk in February last year as part of its global digital expansion plans

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan Minister of Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry has officially inaugurated Arab News Pakistan bureau in the country’s capital.

Chaudhry was the chief guest at the occasion and several prominent Pakistani media personalities and Arab News staff also attended the launch ceremony.

Standing side by side with Arab News Editor-in-Chief Faisal J. Abbas, who is in Pakistan as part of the media delegation accompanying the royal visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Arab News Asia Bureau Chief Baker Atyani, Chaudhry cut a ceremonial ribbon to open the office.

“I am very happy for two reasons: The perception was building that the newspapers were not coming (to Pakistan), so once an international publication like Arab News (has come here) it certainly gives us a huge boost.”

Chaudhry described how the relationship between the nations was becoming stronger, particularly with the growth of Pakistan’s voice in the Middle East.

‘Secondly, I think this is an era where Pakistan is playing a very important role in the Middle East and to have such a major Middle Eastern publication coming to Pakistan itself shows the kind of importance Pakistan has of the Middle East and vice versa, we are very happy to have you here.’

Editor-in-Chief Faisal J. Abbas thanked the Pakistani information minister for his presence at the inauguration and for the efforts of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to help facilitate the newspaper’s operations in Islamabad. 

“The inauguration of our Islamabad bureau a year after the launch of our local digital edition is an indicator of our commitment to Pakistan and our determination to help create a better understanding of Saudi Arabia and the region,” said Abbas. 

“Ever since its establishment in 1975, Arab News has had a special relationship with the massive and incredibly loyal Pakistani community in Saudi Arabia. Today we inaugurate this bureau in Islamabad to ensure a continued connection with the community and establish a relationship with a new more digital and highly connected generation,” he added. 

Asia Bureau Chief Baker Atyani said that the new office would be a hub not only for the Arab News Pakistan edition but also for the entire Asian operation of the paper. “We currently have reporters across Pakistan as well as nine other Asian countries and with the help, hard work and dedication of our team at the Islamabad bureau we hope not only to better manage our operation but to grow further in Asia as well.” 

Arab News launched its online Pakistan edition www.arabnews.pk in February last year as part of its global digital expansion plans. The project is the first of many new international editions planned by the Riyadh-based newspaper. 

Arab News is part of the regional publishing giant Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG).