Filming of Hollywood movie ‘Kandahar’ in AlUla is a sign of things to come

The magical landscape of the ancient city and surrounding area in northwestern Saudi Arabia is increasingly attracting the attention of local and international filmmakers, thanks to its rich history and scenic splendor. (Supplied)
The magical landscape of the ancient city and surrounding area in northwestern Saudi Arabia is increasingly attracting the attention of local and international filmmakers, thanks to its rich history and scenic splendor. (Supplied)
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Updated 19 January 2022

Filming of Hollywood movie ‘Kandahar’ in AlUla is a sign of things to come

The magical landscape of the ancient city and surrounding area in northwestern Saudi Arabia is increasingly attracting the attention of local and international filmmakers, thanks to its rich history and scenic splendor. (Supplied)
  • ‘If I get to show the world AlUla for the first time on this scale, I’m all in. It’s a dream come true; I love it,’ said ‘Kandahar’ director Ric Roman Waugh
  • ‘Saudi Arabia is coming together as a film community to show the wider world’ the country can host major productions, according to the head of Film AlUla

RIYADH: The director and executive producer of “Kandahar,” the first big-budget Hollywood movie to film extensively in AlUla in Saudi Arabia, are full of praise for the natural beauty of the area, and the efforts of Saudi authorities to establish it as a global filming location.
The magical landscape of the ancient city and surrounding area in northwestern Saudi Arabia is increasingly attracting the attention of local and international filmmakers, thanks to its rich history and scenic splendor.
To support this process, the Royal Commission for AlUla in 2020 established Film AlUla to attract and assist film and television productions from around the world. It is led by film commissioner Stephen Strachan, a veteran of the UK industry and a respected film producer in the Middle East and North Africa.
Strachan said he believes the Kingdom is setting the bar high for the region as it takes its first steps in film and TV production, and confirmed that there are plans to establish a studio in AlUla.
“Kandahar” stars Scottish actor Gerard Butler as a CIA operative stuck in hostile territory in Afghanistan. Filming in AlUla and 14 locations in Jeddah began in late November.
“Saudi Arabia is coming together as a film community to show the wider world that there are people on the ground who can look after a large film like ‘Kandahar,’” Stachan told Arab News. About 10 percent of the crew and extras working on the film were hired locally, he added.
The Saudi Film Commission and the Ministry of Culture offered the producers of “Kandahar” exceptional incentives to film in AlUla, Strachan said.
“We also scouted in Tabuk, Hail, Jeddah and Taif with the Ministry of Culture for three weeks to find the best locations, as Ric Roman Waugh, the director of Kandahar, was really keen to shoot in Saudi Arabia,” he added.
Waugh, whose previous films include 2019’s “Angel Has Fallen,” which also starred Butler, said that he knew he wanted to film in AlUla as soon as he saw photos of the area for the first time.
“When I came here I realized that the photos do no justice to this place and it is a breathtakingly beautiful place,” he told Arab News. “As a selfish filmmaker, if I get to show the world AlUla for the first time on this scale, I’m all in. It’s a dream come true; I love it.
“Coming here, in a place that doesn’t have the infrastructure, can have some challenges but it would never have happened without the partnership with the Saudis themselves, and how much they wanted to embrace what we are about.”
Waugh thanked the Royal Commission for AlUla and the Ministry of Culture for their help, dedication and patience while making this film.
“We brought over 25 nationalities to do this film,” he said. “We have Christians, Muslims, Hindus and agnostics who came here to be part of a melting pot, as we wanted to do it together and we would overcome any challenge thrown our way.”
Indian actor Ali Fazal, who plays a character called Kahil Nazir in “Kandahar,” said he and his wife were impressed by the sheer beauty of AlUla.
“I was fascinated by AlUla and when my wife came here she was baffled by the rocks and the landscapes,” he said. “We went to Hegra and other places and it was very cool. We will also go to Jeddah and Makkah to do Umrah.”
Scott LaStaiti, the executive producer of “Kandahar,” congratulated the Saudi authorities for the rapid development of AlUla.
“The Royal Commission for AlUla has a master plan for developing AlUla, and in some specific locations we shot in, like the Sultan Valley, … you think about the history of AlUla and who was standing here 3,000 years ago,” he said. “The beauty here has a lot to offer in terms of looks.”
“The incentives that Saudi Arabia and The Royal Commission of AlUla are offering are very attractive. I think that the commission, and Saudis in general, are very smart in the way they are rolling it out and I think it’s a way that’s going to attract a lot of films to be produced here.”
Prior to “Kandahar,” two other movies spent time filming on location in AlUla. “Cello,” is a horror movie written by Turki Al Sheikh, the chairman of Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority, and based on one of his novels. The English and Arabic language film, which stars veteran British actor Jeremy Irons, is about an aspiring musician who learns that the cost of his cello might be higher than he thought. It is due for release this year.
“Cherry,” directed by Anthony and Joe Russo and starring Spider-Man actor Tom Holland, tells the story of a disenfranchised young man from Ohio who goes from being a college dropout to an army medic in Iraq. He meets the love of his life, only to risk losing her through a series of bad decisions and challenging circumstances. It was released early last year.


VMLY&R consolidates three brands under one offering

Photo/Supplied
Photo/Supplied
Updated 57 min 6 sec ago

VMLY&R consolidates three brands under one offering

Photo/Supplied
  • VMLY&R, VMLY&R Commerce, and GTB to merge under Nick Walsh’s leadership

DUBAI: Advertising group WPP is consolidating three brands — VMLY&R, VMLY&R Commerce, and GTB — under the VMLY&R umbrella to form one, connected brand.

Nick Walsh, CEO of VMLY&R Commerce will now become the CEO of VMLY&R MENA, working closely with chief creative officer Miguel Bemfica, who joined from McCann Worldgroup in January this year.

“The three agencies bring different expertise and capabilities to the table: Creativity, commerce, experience, data, technology and more; but more importantly, they all focus on culture,” Andrew Dimitriou, EMEA CEO of VMLY&R, told Arab News.

Andrew Dimitriou, EMEA CEO of VMLY&R

He called the merger “a natural next step” that “will allow better and simpler collaboration between our brilliant client teams and capability practices and open a new world of possibilities for our clients and anyone in the business.”

In 2018, WPP merged creative agency Y&R and digital agency VML to create VMLY&R, and in 2021, Geometry was merged into the group to form VMLY&R Commerce.

Since then, “integrating the agencies’ teams and capabilities has been an ongoing global effort,” Dimitriou said.

“A deeper level of integration has happened in markets across Europe, and offices such as New York and London, as we move closer as a network to accelerate growth and future-proof our clients’ businesses,” he added.

In the region, Dubai is the “principal office” serving the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and North Africa, and “we will expand our presence on-ground in line with upcoming client’s needs and opportunities,” Dimitriou said.

Since 2020, e-commerce has seen explosive growth as brands have had to adapt to a new hybrid reality. In the UAE, 55 percent of purchases happen online through websites, social media, games, communities etc. and e-commerce spending grew at double the rate of point of sale in Q1 this year compared to the same quarter last year, he said.

Now, “the way we think about commerce is being transformed, and we’re witnessing the rise of creative commerce,” Dimitriou added.

“Creative commerce is laser-focused on generating a response, which results in conversion. And at its best, creativity turbocharges commerce, lifting a simple activation to an emotionally charged moment that drives both brand and demand.

“So, it is about inspiring conversion in the moment, regardless of channel, everywhere life intersects with commerce. It is an interaction; an experience that builds brand and demand.”

Brands not only need to stay connected with their audiences, but also remain relevant in an ever-evolving digital culture.

The hottest topic in today’s digital culture is the metaverse. By 2026, 25 percent of people will spend at least one hour a day in the metaverse for work, shopping, education, social, or entertainment, according to Gartner.

“I expect more focus — and scrutiny — on this platform as clients explore how they could leverage this new space and monitor opportunities for brand interaction and creative commerce solutions,” Dimitriou said.

He added: “At VMLY&R, we will keep our eyes on the real prize: To create connected brands through positive experiences and emotional connections powered by creativity and technology to deliver growth.”


Emerging company XGUARD to educate local Saudi businesses on new tech

Emerging company XGUARD to educate local Saudi businesses on new tech
Updated 05 July 2022

Emerging company XGUARD to educate local Saudi businesses on new tech

Emerging company XGUARD to educate local Saudi businesses on new tech

RIYADH: Non-fungible tokens and blockchain technologies took the world by storm, dominating everything from the art space to advertising. Web3, a new blockchain-based version of the internet, and the metaverse are still fairly new concepts, but it seems like they are here to stay with more and more people — and businesses — experimenting with them.

XGUARD, for example, is an emerging company with offices in Riyadh, Dubai and Vienna, helping organizations and individuals navigate Web3 and the virtual space “one block at a time.”

In Riyadh, the company has been actively hosting informational sessions and workshops to help equip Saudis with the skills and tools needed to venture into Web3, open their own wallet, invest in or sell NFTs, grow their businesses and engage in virtual experiences. 

XGUARD first started as a sports promotion company in Dubai. After its founder Omar Aridi began venturing into these emerging technologies, his interest in them grew.

The industry in Saudi is still at a nascent stage, Aridi told Arab News.

He said: “I was planning on working in a very decentralized way. Saudi wasn’t just my focus, but then after reading the market and seeing how things are going, I think Saudi has the most appetite when it comes to [this space].” 

Just last month, the Saudi Tourism Ministry and Saudi Tourism Authority created NFT souvenirs that were presented to the heads of delegations participating in the 116th session of the UN World Tourism Organization executive council, held in Jeddah.

“Vision 2030 and the whole direction of digital transformation and blockchain technologies and artificial intelligence — this makes it the perfect platform for us,” Aridi said. “The only bottleneck that we had were the cryptocurrency regulations, which I know are on the way. I think it’s better to be the first movers from now and the first adopters. When things get regulated, we know we will be the go-to consulting company here.”

Since cryptocurrencies are the most commonly used mode of payment in the metaverse, their lack of regulation has resulted in businesses being wary of entering this space. 

“The lack of trust comes from the lack of regulation, not from the technology,” Aridi said. “You need to pay with cryptocurrency, and that is the element that has not yet been regulated.”

In the Gulf region, the UAE has been spearheading the regulation of NFTs and cryptocurrencies by issuing the first cryptocurrency law and establishing the Dubai Virtual Assets Regulatory Authority.

For businesses, enterprise NFT technologies themselves are key. “It brings a very well authenticated ownership documented on the blockchain. Nobody can erase it, and nobody can penetrate it,” Aridi said. 

In certain industries, having verified proof of ownership and secured data records can cut down on processing time, reduce fraud and error risks, provide immutable authenticity of products, manage critical data and ease the supply chain process.

Although the NFT, bitcoin and Ethereum markets are currently down as a result of cryptocurrencies crashing, Aridi is optimistic. “​​This is very good because the market has to [course] correct,” he said. “Hopefully, only the few proper solid value propositions will be sustained and XGUARD will be one of those because we are thinking of NFTs as a technology, not as a hype.” 

XGUARD provides companies with Web3 consulting, marketing, art and blockchain development, all under one roof. “In terms of competition, I don’t see anyone offering the value proposition that we provide, which is advisory, A-to-Z solutions. Nobody in Saudi Arabia is doing that yet,” said Aridi. 

For now, the company is adopting a predominantly educational approach. It has collaborated with local spaces and businesses, such as AlMashtal Creative Space in Riyadh and The Music Space in Jeddah, to build communities across the country. 

“We have a lot of artists, in Saudi Arabia specifically, that really want to be heard, that really want to improve their business,” Aridi said. “For entrepreneurs, if they have an idea, we sit with them, we scope it, we shape it, we come up with a strategy together and we help them launch it. The idea is to basically create success stories.”


TikTok ad policy is ‘clear abuse’ of EU law: activists

TikTok ad policy is ‘clear abuse’ of EU law: activists
Updated 05 July 2022

TikTok ad policy is ‘clear abuse’ of EU law: activists

TikTok ad policy is ‘clear abuse’ of EU law: activists
  • Activists accuse TikTok of breaching EU laws by co-opting users into sharing their data for targeted advertising

PARIS: Rights activists on Tuesday accused social media giant TikTok of breaching EU laws by co-opting users into sharing their data for targeted advertising.
TikTok said it would change its policy next week to allow data to be gathered from over-18s in Europe whether or not they had consented, claiming the move was allowed under Europe’s data protection law (GDPR).
But digital rights group Access Now wrote to the company asking for clarity on the legal basis, calling it a “clear abuse” of several European laws including GDPR.
“TikTok wants to strip away the rights of people who use the platform to bump its ad revenue,” said Estelle Masse of Access Now.
Masse said other social media platforms also had problems with their consent mechanisms but TikTok was “taking a step further” by “effectively suggesting that we should not have a say in deciding how our information is used.”
Social media firms gather vast troves of data on individuals’ online habits and use it to sell highly targeted advertising.
But the GDPR forces firms to give detailed justifications for gathering data, something social media platforms have struggled to do.
TikTok has said its policy change relies on a principle in the GDPR called “legitimate interest,” which allows companies to process data without giving a specific justification.
However, regulators have already begun to limit the use of legitimate interest.
They ruled in February that websites relying on the principle to opt-in users to targeted advertising were acting illegally.
AFP has asked TikTok for a response to the criticism.
TikTok, whose parent company ByteDance is Chinese, is also under pressure from lawmakers in the United States over its use of data after reports suggested it allowed its staff in China to access data on US-based users.
The social media company confirmed the reports last week in a letter to US Congress but said it would never allow Communist Party officials to access data on US users.


UK announces new measures to curb ‘state-linked’ disinformation on social media

UK announces new measures to curb ‘state-linked’ disinformation on social media
Updated 05 July 2022

UK announces new measures to curb ‘state-linked’ disinformation on social media

UK announces new measures to curb ‘state-linked’ disinformation on social media
  • Social media firms must tackle material from fake accounts set up by individuals or groups acting on behalf of a foreign state

LONDON: The UK government revealed on Monday that social media firms will face hefty fines if they fail to curb “state-linked” disinformation, particularly from the Kremlin, as part of its forthcoming Online Safety Bill.

According to the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, social media companies will be legally obligated to “proactively” prevent and remove attempts by Russia and other countries to interfere with the UK’s political system. 

This means that social media firms must tackle material from fake accounts set up by individuals or groups acting on behalf of a foreign state that is designed to influence democratic processes.

If they fail to tackle such content, Ofcom, the UK’s communication regulator, will have the power to fine social media firms up to 10 percent of their global annual turnover. 

“The invasion of Ukraine has yet again shown how readily Russia can and will weaponize social media to spread disinformation and lies about its barbaric actions often targeting the very victims of its aggression,” Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said. 

“We cannot allow foreign states or their puppets [to use] the internet to conduct hostile online warfare unimpeded,” she added. “That’s why we are strengthening our new internet safety protections to make sure social media firms identify and root out state-backed disinformation.”

The new laws come as part of the UK government’s overhaul of the national security laws that will make foreign interference a criminal offense with a maximum jail sentence of 14 years.

As per the new Online Safety Bill, foreign interference will become one of 10 online criminal offenses, alongside child abuse, revenge porn, terrorism, fraud, promotion of people smuggling and sexual exploitation. 

Security Minister Damian Hinds highlighted: “Online information operations are now a core part of state threats activity. The aim can be variously to spread untruths, confuse, undermine confidence in democracy, or sow division in society.”

The Online Safety Bill is expected to become law by the end of the year.

Last week, Ofcom found that young people do not report harmful content as much as they encounter it on social media platforms. 

According to the research, 67 percent of people aged between 13 and 24 had seen potentially harmful content online, but only 17 percent reported it.


Anghami expands into live events with acquisition of Spotlight

Anghami expands into live events with acquisition of Spotlight
Updated 04 July 2022

Anghami expands into live events with acquisition of Spotlight

Anghami expands into live events with acquisition of Spotlight
  • Platform aims to bridge the gap between online and offline channels

DUBAI: Music streaming platform Anghami has announced the acquisition of Spotlight Events, a company serving the Middle East.

Spotlight Events will become Anghami’s live event and concert arm. Its scope will include offline activities to expand Anghami's footprint in the music and entertainment ecosystem while also bridging the online and offline worlds.

The events arm will provide a stage for artists to perform and reach their audiences offline through live events and concerts, while the Anghami platform will provide access to exclusive concerts through its live video streaming capabilities and create immersive experiences through augmented reality and virtual reality.

The company envisions the acquisition as providing more opportunities for brands to collaborate with artists, and an enhanced experience for listeners including access to private concerts, VIP lounges, meet and greets, and backstage access.

“Our vision is to expand from music streaming to a fully integrated entertainment platform that meets our goal of building our own unique category that no other provider can compete with,” said Eddy Maroun, co-founder and CEO of Anghami.

Last year, Anghami partnered with hospitality company Addmind to launch the entertainment venue Anghami Lab in Dubai followed by Riyadh and other major cities.

“Spotlight and Anghami Lab are among a number of initiatives we plan to develop as new business extensions to accelerate our growth and improve our margins while widening the gap with our competitors,” added Maroun.

Spotlight Events has recently confirmed its program of upcoming concerts and events in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Paris, Cairo, and Riyadh, including Beat the Heat, a seven-concert festival organized in collaboration with Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing.

It also has six concerts planned in Abu Dhabi for the rest of the year and a live concert by Arab superstar Wael Kfoury in Paris.

Spotlight will be responsible for executing all Anghami events, including Amr Diab Live.

“Anghami is the largest music platform in the MENA region with an incredible number of users and a unique network of partnerships that, once connected to Spotlight, will open doors to amazing opportunities,” said Maher Khawkhaji, founder and CEO of Spotlight. “Our offline expertise, complemented by Anghami’s reach, data, and technical capabilities, is the perfect recipe for success.”