JEDDAH: Non-fungible tokens, better known as NFTs, have become all the rage. Last month, the Diriyah Biennale and fine arts company Sotheby’s hosted the Middle East’s first digital art forum, in Riyadh.
Around the same time, a group of likeminded Arabs came together to create The First Arabs, a digital community set up to explore Arab culture through NFTs — but with a twist.
In addition to creating and celebrating 10,000 Arab-centric, hand-drawn characters as NFTs, The First Arabs aims to help support high-impact non-governmental organizations as a fundamental part of its mission.
The group’s members have vowed to tackle underfunded issues in their communities and build partnerships with global and local NGOs to advise them on their crypto fundraising initiatives, as well as use a large share of their NFT sales and future royalties in perpetuity to support important Arab causes.
Think of them as philanthropic “phygital” — physical and digital — nomads looking to create “an authentic Arab community at the cutting edge of blockchain technology,” working to do good in the Arab world.
They are now stealthily launching in the metaverse and Arabverse. Similar to the culture of NFTs and crypto bros, they choose to remain pseudonymous in order for the focus to be on the community rather than individuals.
One Saudi member of the The First Arabs team told Arab News: “The First Arabs is about the community and not the team. We aim to create a truly inclusive community from across the Arab world, a community that transcends national differences.
“We do not want to influence direction based on our own nationalities or perspectives, and the goal is for the community to manage and vote on key decisions, such as which NGOs to support, and other topics as we grow.”
Physical money is fungible, meaning it can be traded or exchanged for equal amounts: $1 equals $1. NFTs involves trading two things that are not equal.
“NFTs are essentially kind of derived somewhat, you could say, from cryptocurrencies; cryptocurrencies popped up after the financial recession in 2008. Since then, it’s gone through trials, tribulations, tests, and ups and downs, and continues to push forward, and the industry is now very heavily invested in that direction.
“It used to be just small circles, early adopters, and then it moved to retail investors and now, the biggest companies, the biggest funds in the world are investing in cryptocurrencies and are talking about it — countries are adopting it,” The First Arabs member said.
The initiative is unique in the sense that it is Arab-focused and Arab-run, and it aims to help Arab communities evolve and thrive using design and NFTs.
“Each character design features authentic, cultural wardrobe and items from across the Arab world — carefully drawn and designed to reflect our rich cultures. The collection features the 22 Arab countries stenciled on the borders of each NFT in traditional kufic script, the oldest calligraphic form of the Arabic language, to keep our message of pan-Arab community central to the art.
“And, in addition to being the gateway to The First Arabs, TFA holders will own the full commercial rights to their NFT.”
The First Arabs describe the metaverse as “the collective consciousness online.” People, essentially, can be whoever they want to be. At a time when finding fame as a social media influencer may seem desirable to some, others are rethinking how they are identified on the internet, perhaps wanting to share less. By using NFTs, users will be able to curate who they are — and what they are — in the metaverse.
Despite being a world shrouded in anonymity, owning an NFT, even if the person chooses to be anonymous, can still be a status symbol. Owners of Bored Ape NFTs, for example, are in the elite category of that world. Last year, a Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT sold for $2.8 million, equal to 116.9 Ethereum.
A cryptocurrency wallet is required to purchase and store an NFT and the Ethereum blockchain is the host of the BAYC, so buyers need to download that in order to activate their crypto wallet. The First Arabs will probably be working on creating an Arab-centric version of that.
“A lot of the discussions now ask, are the majority of nonprofits crypto native or crypto? They’re not. What will it take for them to be? Is that a deal breaker? Because at the end of the day, what is the goal? The goal is to help the people in need that need these funds.
We're just getting started #TheFirstArabs
— The First Arabs العرب الأولون (@thefirstarabs) April 12, 2022
“So, are we going to say that, no, they only get the funds if they come through crypto? Because eventually, what they need to do ultimately is convert that crypto to the form of payment that they’re going to use.
“The next step is identifying NGOs and nonprofits that focus on Arab initiatives and social work. But the main question remains: Do those places we would like to donate to have digital wallets, and can they accept digital payments? The next question is vital: Will they?” The First Arabs member added.
During the last few decades, Saudi Arabia has morphed from having residents who barely used dial-up to a tech-savvy population, most with smartphones.
Traditionally, many Arabs were part of nomadic groups that collectively belonged to the same tribe or community in the region, and The First Arabs is perhaps the next iteration of that — in the metaverse frontier.