The future of Arabic content is paid, says Majarra executive chairman

 Abdulsalam Haykal, executive chairman of Majarra, explains why paid content is the right business model for Arabic digital content. (Supplied)
Abdulsalam Haykal, executive chairman of Majarra, explains why paid content is the right business model for Arabic digital content. (Supplied)
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Updated 01 April 2021

The future of Arabic content is paid, says Majarra executive chairman

 Abdulsalam Haykal, executive chairman of Majarra, explains why paid content is the right business model for Arabic digital content. (Supplied)
  • Abdulsalam Haykal, executive chairman of Majarra, explains why paid content is the right business model for Arabic digital content

DUBAI: It is no surprise that English is the language of the internet, with 60 percent of the top 10 million websites using it.

Arabic, on the other hand, ranks 12th, with only 1.1 percent of the top 10 million websites using the language despite the fact that it is spoken by 3.5 percent of the world’s population.

In comparison, Russian ranks second, with 8.5 percent of the top 10 million websites using the language, even though the world’s Russian-speaking population (3.3 percent) is almost the same as the Arabic-speaking population.

That is the problem Majarra, formerly Haykal Media, is looking to solve.

“We realized that the content gap in the region is not only too big to ignore but also something that people have not been able to solve effectively,” Abdulsalam Haykal, executive chairman of Majarra, told Arab News.

He is often asked if Arabs actually read, and his answer is: “Do they have the content they want to read placed in front of them and distributed to them in a way that is easily accessible?”

In his experience, not only do Arabs read, but they are also willing to pay for quality content.

Good-quality Arabic content on the internet is limited. The existing content mainly consists of entertainment, religion and news, which means that users are forced to turn to English-language content for other topics, said Haykal.

“The Arabic web resembles corner shops. There’s no problem with corner shops; they fulfill a need for the neighborhood they’re in. However, they do not have enough room to innovate or returns to reinvest,” he added.

“There is no ambition to serve more than the basic needs.”

By this definition, the Arabic online content industry does not think of itself as an industry. Haykal said: “Any industry that is dominated by corner shops is not an industry. An industry needs major players. And this is something that has been lacking in the Arabic content space so far.”

At any given time, people are using the internet either through a messaging app, social media channel or search engine.

And while English is more commonly spoke in countries like the UAE, Arabic continues to be the primary language in most countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. For instance, eight out of the top 10 trending Google queries for 2020 in Saudi Arabia were in Arabic.

Furthermore, Haykal added, 85 percent of internet users in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, 50 percent in the UAE and 70 percent across the MENA region use Google Search in Arabic.

He asserted that contrary to common perception, not everyone in the region speaks English. “Everyone can probably transact in English, but a different level of the language is needed to consume knowledge, understand content and share it.”

The goal is to “give high-quality instructive and analytical content that is highly reliable in the region’s language, and that is Arabic.”

The rebrand of Haykal Media to Majarra includes a single subscription sign-on for the company’s publications, which include Harvard Business Review, MIT Technology Review, Stanford Social Innovation Review and Popular Science.

Most online publishers today publish content to increase site views and time spent so that they can attract advertisers.

This model assumes that there is some advertising money, said Haykal, but since the advent of social media, “Big Tech has taken most of the advertising money here, and everyone can feel that impact in the industry.

“Publishers are still trying to publish online content based on the business model of advertising, but there’s no real advertising money, and they’re competing on a very small pie. And when the stakes are low, people become vicious.”

This, in turn, creates a loop whereby publishers steal content and repackage it to improve their ranking on Google and grab a higher share of advertising revenue. “It feeds a spiral of lower-quality content, and so you’ll find that a lot of the Arabic web is basically pirated or recycled content.”

What then is the ideal business model?

“The solution for us is a combination of creating content at scale — the most reliable content in partnership with the most reliable publishers anywhere in the world — and then becoming a hub for the best quality content in our region and attracting the best creators here as well,” said Haykal.

Majarra also plans to publish original content at a very high standard.

The second component to making this model successful is user engagement. “It’s often said that content is king, but distribution is the emperor,” Haykal said.

“It is important to put content in front of people based on what they’re looking for and make it easy to access, consume and share, but we need to be able to understand their needs and bring them the content they want through the channels they use.”

Once a company offers excellent content, distribution, convenience and a seamless experience, it can put a price on the value it is offering.

“This is the model that we are proposing: a subscription-based ecosystem for Arabic content.”

The vision to “build a sustainable, defensible and growing membership-based platform through Majarra” is not only transformative for the industry, said Haykal. “It could actually create an industry.”


NEOM CEO talks AI health care, flying taxis with WIRED Middle East

Nasr — who will be appearing on a magazine cover for the first time — shared new details about the use of AI-powered health-care systems and flying taxis. (Supplied/WIRED)
Nasr — who will be appearing on a magazine cover for the first time — shared new details about the use of AI-powered health-care systems and flying taxis. (Supplied/WIRED)
Updated 18 April 2021

NEOM CEO talks AI health care, flying taxis with WIRED Middle East

Nasr — who will be appearing on a magazine cover for the first time — shared new details about the use of AI-powered health-care systems and flying taxis. (Supplied/WIRED)
  • Saudi Arabia’s Chief Executive of NEOM Nadhmi Al-Nasr has shared new details about the ambitious mega city project
  • The cover issue, which will be released this week, features interviews with key executives from NEOM

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia’s Chief Executive of NEOM Nadhmi Al-Nasr has shared new details about the ambitious mega city project changing the landscape of tackling environmental challenges in urban planning.

“I dream of 200 or 300 years from today, when there is a NEOM model being developed worldwide that has helped reduce emissions, reduce the environmental challenge,” Nasr told WIRED Middle East in a rare media interview.

Nasr — who will be appearing on a magazine cover for the first time — shared new details about the use of AI-powered health-care systems and flying taxis, a press release shared with Arab News said.

The cover issue, which will be released this week, features interviews with key executives from NEOM who paint a picture of how urban planners are attempting to create a city that is expected to span centuries with the use of new technologies.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman first announced the project NEOM at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh 2017. The crown prince said that the 170-km coastal strip in the northwest of the country would be free of cars and streets, with zero carbon emissions.

The smart city will be powered entirely by clean energy, a major step in Saudi Arabia’s shift away from an oil-based economy.

The first phase of the $500 million project is scheduled for completion by 2025.


Veteran producer, cameraman in Iraq dies of COVID-19

Veteran producer, cameraman in Iraq dies of COVID-19
This 2003 photo shows Khodeir Majid at the AP office at the Palestine hotel. (AP)
Updated 17 April 2021

Veteran producer, cameraman in Iraq dies of COVID-19

Veteran producer, cameraman in Iraq dies of COVID-19
  • He went on to cover the breakdown in security and the sectarian bloodbath that prevailed for years, as well as the US occupation, the rise of the Al-Qaeda terror network, and finally, the war against the Daesh group

BEIRUT: Khodeir Majid, who covered Iraq’s numerous conflicts as a video producer and cameraman for The Associated Press for over 17 years, has died, relatives said Friday. He was 64.
The cause of death was complications due to the coronavirus. Majid had been hospitalized for about three weeks, but his condition rapidly deteriorated in the last few days and he died Friday morning.
Majid joined the AP in Baghdad in March 2004, a year after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. He went on to cover the breakdown in security and the sectarian bloodbath that prevailed for years, as well as the US occupation, the rise of the Al-Qaeda terror network, and finally, the war against the Daesh group.
Killings, kidnappings and bombings were an everyday occurrence, sometimes with multiple bombings on the same day.
Through it all, Majid, known as Abu Amjad to family and friends, was a beloved colleague and a calming presence in the Baghdad bureau. He was a dedicated journalist and a good friend to many, working quietly and behind the scenes to make sure accreditation and paperwork were secured, badges were collected, interviews were nailed and stories were covered. “Abu Amjad was a rare source of joy during difficult times working in Baghdad for the past 17 years. He will be remembered as a kind and dedicated professional,” said Ahmed Sami, the AP’s senior producer in Baghdad.

BACKGROUND

Majid was buried in Iraq’s Shiite city of Najaf Friday. He is survived by his wife and five children.

Samya Kullab, the AP’s correspondent in Baghdad, recalled Majid’s dedication and commitment toward getting evasive ministers and officials to grant the AP interviews. “He chased the Transport Ministry for months recently. ‘He keeps saying next week but don’t worry, I will not stop calling’ — such was his dedication to getting the story.”
“I never forget,” he would say.
Kullab and other Baghdad colleagues also recalled his kindness.
“His wife would make these date biscuits he shared with me on one occasion. I mentioned casually that I liked them,” Kullab said. “The next day I had date biscuits to last a month.”
Majid was buried in Iraq’s Shiite city of Najaf Friday. He is survived by his wife and five children.


Acclaimed Turkish actor sued for ‘insulting president’ with Twitter posts

Acclaimed Turkish actor sued for ‘insulting president’ with Twitter posts
Genco Erkal. (Photo/Twitter)
Updated 18 April 2021

Acclaimed Turkish actor sued for ‘insulting president’ with Twitter posts

Acclaimed Turkish actor sued for ‘insulting president’ with Twitter posts
  • Genco Erkal, one of the most popular stage actors and theatre directors in Turkey, has claimed in speeches that playwrights were censoring their plays to receive financial support from local municipalities

ISTANBUL: Leading Turkish actor Genco Erkal, 83, announced on Saturday that he is facing an investigation for exercising his freedom of expression.

Erkal, an outspoken government critic, is being investigated for “insulting the Turkish president” and will give his testimony on Monday.

His social media postings on Twitter since 2016 are being examined, Erkal said, without giving further details.

“Insulting the president” has become a widespread excuse for launching investigations against prominent popular figures, with several top actors and musicians being investigated despite their age.

Charged with “insulting the president publicly” over critical remarks made during a TV program, veteran actors Mujdat Gezen and Metin Akpinar attended three hearings this year but were acquitted.

On the program, 79-year-old Akpinar blamed the social polarization in the country on the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and said that “maybe leaders could be hung from their feet or poisoned in cellars” if Turkey’s democratization process couldn’t be achieved peacefully.

During the same broadcast, 77-year-old veteran actor Gezen said, “[Erdogan] tells the people ‘know your place.’ Look Recep Tayyip Erdogan, you cannot test our patriotism. Know your place.”

Genco Erkal, one of the most popular stage actors and theatre directors in Turkey, has claimed in speeches that playwrights were censoring their plays to receive financial support from local municipalities and said that his award-winning theater, Dostlar (Friends) Theatre, had not received any support for years because of the support he gave to the anti-government Gezi protests in 2013.

Dostlar Theatre, founded in 1969, is known for staging plays that are critical of the government’s political line and that try to raise social awareness on specific topics.

In his Twitter posts, Erkal criticized the wrongdoings of the government and highlighted social problems.

Even at his age, Erkal still organizes countrywide tours each year to reach a wider audience in every province of the country and has staged a critical play — “On Living” — about the late Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet.

Erkal recites one of Hikmet’s poems when on tour: “Living is no joke, you must live with great seriousness like a squirrel, for example, I mean expecting nothing except and beyond living, I mean living must be your whole occupation.”

An administrative court in Ankara ruled in 2014 that the refusal of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to offer funding to Erkal’s theater was “against the principles of justice and equality.”

Turkey ranked 154th out of 180 countries in the 2020 Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index.

Between 2014 and 2019, Turkish authorities launched 128,872 investigations into insults against Erdogan, and Turkish courts sentenced 9,556 of those charged with insulting the president, including politicians, journalists, actors, elder people and even children.


Facebook launches #MonthofGood campaign for Ramadan

Facebook launches #MonthofGood campaign for Ramadan
Updated 17 April 2021

Facebook launches #MonthofGood campaign for Ramadan

Facebook launches #MonthofGood campaign for Ramadan
  • Instagram initially developed its Ideas of Good campaign, now in its third year, as a result of a key insigh

This Ramadan, Facebook is marking the holy month with a global campaign across its family of apps. The #MonthofGood campaign, which brings together Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp, aims to celebrate charity, collaboration and community.

Despite the social distancing resulting from the pandemic, Ramadan remains a time for charity and celebration. Globally, in 2020 people raised twice as much as in 2019 through Ramadan-related fundraisers across Facebook and Instagram. “We saw our users rally behind multiple causes, raising over $5 billion for nonprofits and personal causes through fundraisers on Facebook and Instagram,” Ramez Shehadi, Managing Director at Facebook MENA, told Arab News.

Instagram initially developed its Ideas of Good campaign, now in its third year, as a result of a key insight, said Shehadi, which was that “Ramadan is the kindest time of the year on the platform.”

“In 2019, we saw people post about not only charitable activities, but also finding time to reflect as well as bond with their families,” he said. There were more than 16 million uses of the word Ramadan and references to Ramadan hit 4 million in the 30 days leading up to the holy month. There was a 40 percent growth in the use of the word “kindness” on Instagram across the world in the 30 days leading up to the holy month.

“Last year was drastically different – we saw Muslims around the world spend their first Ramadan in lockdown and it was a unique experience to observe a season known for its strong sense of togetherness and collaboration, in isolation,” he said. However, the Muslim community found new ways of gathering, donating and celebrating virtually, which inspired the initial Instagram campaign.

In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and Turkey, more than 6.5 million people joined the Ramadan-related groups created in 2020. For instance, “LyedFeLyed اليد في اليد ” is a group created last year that aims to connect families in need with donors and associations. “As of May last year, it had already helped 700 families, within days of opening the group,” said Shehadi. Other groups that arose during the pandemic are “Stop and Help”, founded by Heather Harries, her husband and two sons from the UAE, which aims to lift community spirits during the pandemic by offering support to families in need of basic essentials and “UAE Fusion Socialites,” which is founded by Sharjah-based Pakistani mother, Ayesha Sohail, who uses her social media skills to help low-income families.

This year, Facebook has extended the campaign across all its platforms as the #MonthofGood because it’s a “no-brainer,” according to Shehadi. “As a collective for four apps, we have the opportunity to amplify this effect, providing more platforms and more tools for organisations and individuals to explore, express and inspire good.”

Facebook will be running various activations across the globe in locations including India, US, UK, Nigeria and MENA focusing on the pillars of kindness, community and charity.

These include:

“Ideas of Good,” a list of 30 kind deeds and do-good moments to act on virtually.

“Guide to Ramadan” by Canadian creator Sarah Sabry, in collaboration with her Muslim followers.

A pay-it-forward chain globally, which will be kicked off by creators such as Haifa Beseisso, Nabih Alkayali, Raha Moharrak, Logina Salah, and Adel Aladwani in the MENA region.

Live Suhoor Talks, a global series hosted by Muslim creators across the UK, Asia and MENA, featuring weekly conversations about topics ranging from food and fasting to mental health and wellbeing.

Facebook Watch and IGTV series with creators such as Khalid Al-Ameri and Manal Al-Alem and networks MBC, TVision, and Zee Entertainment.

A MENA-specific collaboration with Jordan-based Arabic podcast network Sowt spotlighting inspiring community leaders from the regional diaspora to talk about how they use Facebook Apps for virtual acts of kindness during Ramadan.

Spotlighting zakat-eligible nonprofits such as Rahma Worldwide, UNHCR, Heroic Hearts, Molham Volunteering Team and Zakat Foundation of America with active Ramadan fundraisers and campaigns to provide food baskets, supplies and medical aid to orphans, widows and refugees.

Additionally, Facebook will spotlight small and medium businesses (SMBs) that have inspired good this Ramadan. “These are businesses that have gone above and beyond to help people around them and their communities, with their acts of charity and kindness,” said Shehadi.

The increased time spent on Facebook’s apps during the holy month also presents a significant opportunity for advertisers. “Ramadan is one of the biggest and longest global festive moments. Given the current circumstances we are in, people need positivity during the holy month and therefore feel-good themes always work at Ramadan if you do it right.”

“It’s also powerful if you can connect people to a real-life opportunity to do good,” he said. For instance, in 2018, Facebook partnered with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the creative agency Leo Burnett Beirut to boost blood donations during Ramadan in a campaign called “Giving is in your blood,” which reached more than 28 million people across the Middle East and increased blood donations by 36 percent on average.

“We see a lot of brands engage with consumers in a personalised and relevant way during Ramadan too,” he added. For instance, Nestlé MENA developed a bilingual, informative bot for Messenger, in partnership with Facebook’s Creative Shop, that raised awareness of the content and services provided by its brands during Ramadan and helped Nestlé to gain insights about its consumers’ eating habits and preferences.


Why technology meant to bring humanity closer is driving it apart

In this photo illustration, a Twitter logo is displayed on a mobile phone with a President Trump's picture shown in the background on May 27, 2020, in Arlington, Virginia. (AFP/File Photo)
In this photo illustration, a Twitter logo is displayed on a mobile phone with a President Trump's picture shown in the background on May 27, 2020, in Arlington, Virginia. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 17 April 2021

Why technology meant to bring humanity closer is driving it apart

In this photo illustration, a Twitter logo is displayed on a mobile phone with a President Trump's picture shown in the background on May 27, 2020, in Arlington, Virginia. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Modern Arab writers ponder why digital tools are not making societies more tolerant, cosmopolitan and sociable
  • The same technology that accelerated globalization seems to have left many feeling more isolated and intolerant of others

DUBAI: If asked, most people would likely admit that they would have struggled to survive the mental toll of isolation brought about by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic without access to social media, online shopping, and video conferencing to make up for the loss of human contact.

And yet, these very same technologies, which have accelerated globalization and brought distant cultures together for the first time at the tap of a keypad, have in fact left many feeling more lonely, alienated, and inward-looking than ever before.

Far from making societies more tolerant, cosmopolitan, and sociable, the addiction to mobile devices, “likes” as a form of validation, and the instant gratification of streaming and home delivery has left many people aggressively intolerant, proudly parochial, and unhealthily introverted.

Activists of United Hindu Front (UHF) hold placards and a picture of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg during a demonstration in New Delhi on February 4, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)

“Globalization has brought us all together in one world forum, where we are all assembled,” said Amin Maalouf, one of the world’s foremost modern Arab writers and author of Adrift: How Our World Lost its Way among other books.

“But being assembled didn’t make us closer to each other. It made us look for what differentiates us from the person next to us.”

Participating in this year’s Dubai-hosted Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, the Paris-based Lebanese-born French author described the situation as “the great paradox” of our time.

Paris-based Lebanese-born French author Amin Maalouf, one of the world’s foremost modern Arab writers. (AFP/File Photo)

“We are more and more like each other, we have the same vision of the world, and the same instruments in our hands, and we know the same things. We have the same aspirations. Yet, at the same time, we want to think that we are very different,” he said.

Anyone who has ever shared an unpopular opinion on social media will tell you how tribal and dogmatic internet users can be from the safety of online anonymity. Political disagreements can take the form of personal, vitriolic attacks, while facts are often brushed aside in place of tropes and conspiracies.

These disagreements may not be such a big problem if they remained online. But as was demonstrated by the US Capitol riots on Jan. 6, unsubstantiated claims about election fraud were enough to incite real-world mob violence.

With so many sources of biased information and agenda-driven news on the world wide web, all of them competing for hits, clicks, and shares to shape the mainstream narrative, it is hard to know who or what to trust.

As a result, members of the public often fall back on familiar narratives and imagined communities in place of rigorous fact-checking and openness to differing viewpoints.

South Korea, after boasting for years advanced technology from high-speed Internet to Samsung smartphones, is now taking pains to try to pull its tech-crazed youth away from digital addiction. (AFP/File Photo)

“I think it is very normal, because we have been brought together very quickly by the acceleration of science and technology and we have not yet assimilated,” Maalouf added.

“But one can be confident in the long run. The main trend is a trend toward unifying the world, unifying humankind, which will eventually, one day, become a nation of very different people, but having a sense of common destiny.

“But, in the short run, the affirmation of specific identities is more and more aggressive, and it will take time to accept the reality created by new technology.”

The Middle East and North Africa are among the world’s top regions for internet penetration. According to Internet World Stats, which tracks global internet usage, social media engagement, and online market research, almost 67 percent of the region was plugged in by 2019 compared to the world average of 58.8 percent.

Saudi Arabia, similar to other Gulf states, scored especially high by this metric. The Kingdom’s internet penetration among its 35.3 million-strong population stood at more than 90 percent, exposing Arabs to a world of ideas and identities, but also its divisions.

The paradox explored by Maalouf was widely acknowledged by the literary community that participated in the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

Virtual platforms like Netflix and Zoom have emerged as lifelines for a pandemic-hit world forced indoors, but in sanctioned Syria where both websites are blocked, people feel increasingly disconnected. (AFP/File Photo)

Saudi novelist Badriah Al-Bishr, the first woman to win the Arab Press Award for best newspaper column in 2011, told Arab News that although the adoption of new technologies was a major achievement for humankind, it had led to an information overload.

“Information is not knowledge. We formulate knowledge from data, the same way we bake bread from flour. Technology is a positive for humanity — the issue is how it is used,” she said.

To sift through this ocean of data, tech firms have created sophisticated algorithms based on interactions to target users with relevant content. However, the algorithms used by social media giants, such as Facebook, can “lock” users into a narrow, blinkered worldview of “what it thinks they want to see. This is the danger of algorithms,” Ahlam Bolooki, director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, told Arab News.

In August, five months before the US Capitol riots, data scientists working for Facebook warned the company’s top executives that the platform was playing host to a worrying number of groups promoting hate speech.

Facebook usage has held steady in the US despite a string of controversies about the leading social network, even as younger users tap into rival platforms such as TikTok, a survey showed on April 7, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)

Internal documents seen by The Wall Street Journal in January said, “70 percent of the top 100 most active US civic groups are considered non-recommendable for issues such as hate, misinformation, bullying, and harassment.”

Executives were told one of the groups with the highest level of engagement “aggregates the most inflammatory news stories of the day and feeds them to a vile crowd that immediately and repeatedly calls for violence.”

The researchers added: “We need to do something to stop these conversations from happening and growing as quickly as they do.”

Facebook has since pledged to overhaul its algorithms.

Al-Bishr noted that the pace of change was also causing a generational rift.

A Twitter logo is displayed on a mobile phone with President Trump's Twitter page shown in the background, the account of whom was suspended following a string of unsubstantiated claims on the platform. (AFP/File Photo)

“The millennium generation, which was born during this period of technological advancement, believes this is what life is — they don’t know what they are missing. But we, the older generation, can see the gaps,” she added.

Naouel Chaoui, an Algerian-Italian who runs a popular book club that was forced online during the COVID-19 pandemic, pointed out that technology, despite its practicality, was no substitute for human contact.

“Because of technology, we are losing the need for contact, real contact, human contact; a tap on the shoulder, a hug. Body language is a huge part of our communication, which, when missing, loses its authentic expression,” she told Arab News.

“I feel that the new generations are missing this crucial part of getting together. They meet through games, over screens, or through their phones.”

Perhaps one solution, once the pandemic has passed, would be for people to unplug a little more often, challenge their preconceptions, and expand their horizons.

Elif Shafak, a prominent British-Turkish author, speaking during her session. (Supplied)

Elif Shafak, a prominent British-Turkish author, whose work has been translated into 54 languages, said experiencing a diversity of viewpoints was vital to the learning process.

“We humans don’t learn through repetition. We don’t learn as much from sameness as we learn from differences,” Shafak, the author of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World and The Forty Rules of Love, told the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

“When people from different backgrounds with different stories come together, they challenge each other, and they help each other’s cognitive flexibility, shifting perspectives.

“I am a big believer in the importance of cosmopolitan encounters, in the importance of bringing people with different stories together and letting them talk to each other.”

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Twitter: @jumanaaltamimi