The double whammy of low oil prices and the coronavirus-induced economic slowdown in the Gulf Arab states has forced governments to deal with a changing labor market.
Podcast production in the Gulf region has grown from self-entertainment to a form of creative outreach. Looking back at the first podcasts produced in Oman, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates reveals the characteristics of audio blogging in each of these countries and its development since its inception in the early 2000s. Despite the challenges still facing podcast production, the enthusiasm of khaleejis to spread podcasting culture is encouraging collaboration and the passionate embrace of podcasting across the Arab region.
Kuwait’s Early Experiment in Science Podcasting
When asked to recall the first Arabic podcast produced in the Gulf region they ever listened to, many khaleeji podcasters mention “Sciware.” This show was established in 2009 by Mohamed Qasem, a retired Kuwaiti professor. “Back then there were few Arabic podcasts, and my show was the only one with a science theme. It is one of the few podcasts that has remained active since then,” according to Mohamed. English podcasts were surging in the West and Mohamed was familiar with podcasting culture but was hesitant to establish an Arabic show. “Then I found one Arabic podcast that released only two episodes. At that moment I decided to make a podcast in Arabic. It was extremely hard back then to attract listeners.”
The podcast had modest beginnings: “I bought my first microphone and started to advertise my show through internet forums that were popular in the Gulf region before social media. I produce the show and run the website all by myself. My show is mostly a monologue. Sometimes I host guests with expertise on certain scientific topics.” Mohamed retired a few months ago to devote all of his time to podcast production. “Many khaleeji podcasters contact me asking for advice about production and recording equipment,” he stated.
“Sciware” remains very popular. “Most of the show’s audience is from Saudi Arabia and the United States – probably due to the high number of Saudis studying in the United States. Although I target ages starting from 16 years old, I have found that most of my listeners are undergraduate and graduate students. I receive emails from students telling me that they shifted their majors to scientific fields because of ‘Sciware,’” he said.
After funding his show from his personal saving for almost 10 years, Mohamed decided to ask the audience to support his show through online donations. “These contributions allowed me to work with a production company in Saudi Arabia to develop the sound quality of my show. Also, I plan to expand my project and hire a team to run it with me.” Nevertheless, Mohamed argues that supporting online projects is still an alien idea to Gulf and Arab societies. “When I asked for support for one of the online platforms on Twitter, I received many comments saying that it is more beneficial to build a mosque or feed the poor instead. These are all great causes of course, but I believe society must understand the importance of supporting scientific experiments, or an online platform embracing science.”
Yaaqoob al-Hussaini is the host of the “Lucky Generation Gamers” podcast, the first gaming podcast in Kuwait. “My friends and I have been lucky to witness the development of the video game industry since we were kids. That is why we called ourselves the lucky generation.” In 2009, Abdullah Bushehri and Hamad al-Humaidah, the show’s creators, decided to record their discussions on gaming in their diwaniya, or salon, and upload them on any free audio hosting website. But these websites limited the size of the audio files and the number of listens. “We searched for a better alternative and discovered podcasts. A year later we launched our show as a podcast,” said Yaaqoob.
The team still records from their diwaniya and funds the show themselves. “These challenges limit our production quality. We tried to reach out to local video game and tech companies to fund our show, but it was hard to convince them of the podcast’s market potential. Our society is highly influenced by social media and if you do not have an influencer to advertise your idea, you will face a hard time,” Yaaqoob said while laughing.
The “Lucky Generation Gamers” team describe themselves on their website as professionals. “We are very knowledgeable about the video gaming industry and we have been producing podcasts for nine years. We even created new podcast themes like one on video game soundtracks. We always try to expand our production.”
A Demand for English Podcasts in the UAE
Saeed al-Shamsi is an Emirati podcaster who started the “Root Quest” podcast – a talk show that hosts media professionals and video game developers. He said: “I used to listen to Saudi gaming podcasts like ‘Saudi Gamer’ and ‘NG4A.’ In 2014 I decided to start a podcast specialized in gaming as back then there were no podcasts on this theme in the UAE,” said Saeed. “We have a large team, almost 15 members, from different parts of the UAE and different countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. We also have a website and a YouTube channel, but ‘Root Quest’ is still more popular for its podcast than anything else.” Saeed also made a second podcast called “Off Quest” in which he discusses topics other than gaming. “Root Quest” is considered the oldest Emirati podcast still running.
In the UAE, most online networking applications, like Skype or WhatsApp, are blocked, which has made it hard for people to communicate online. Many Emiratis use a virtual private network, or VPN, as a means to access blocked websites and applications. This creates a serious challenge for podcasters. “We record from anywhere, but we have to use a VPN to be able to communicate with each other since our team is dispersed across the UAE and the rest of the Gulf countries,” according to Saeed. Because of these technical difficulties, some podcasters and guests have been unable to come on his show, or episodes were lost due to the weak connection of the VPN. “Recently Sharjah Youth Center provided ‘Root Quest’ with a room to record the show, which made it easier for the team to gather in one place.”
Saeed added: “After podcasting for five years, I was depressed because of the low numbers of listens and I thought about ending the show. But in 2018 I noticed that more people were listening to ‘Root Quest’ and recognized my voice, especially in Saudi Arabia. So, I decided to continue.”
Many podcasts in the UAE are English. “You There Speak” is an English podcast started by Abdullah al-Suwaidi in 2010. “I have listened to Western English podcasts since 2007 and when social media started to take over the Arab region around 2009 many people used this new medium for self-expression. Therefore, I asked my friends, ‘Why don’t we record our discussions and release them in a podcast?’ And that’s how we started the show,” said Abdullah. “For our first episode we gathered in a small Emirati restaurant and we started recording. It was in English because we were targeting the Western audience. We wanted them to understand the Emirati culture and people – their concerns and dreams. The show was more of a cultural record.” After releasing around 30 episodes Abdullah had to end the show because he was busy with his studies and work.
In Dubai, in particular, there are more expatriates than Emirati nationals. “Dubai is largely an economic city and has many expats living in it and most of them are English speakers. This would naturally be reflected in the podcast production coming out of the UAE,” according to Turki al-Balushi, an Omani journalist who started the podcast “al-Sekka” (the Road).
Hebah Fisher is an Egyptian American raised in the Gulf. She, along with others, started the podcast “Kerning Cultures” in Dubai in 2015 of radio documentaries from across the Middle East and North Africa. Soon Hebah and her team will be turning “Kerning Cultures” into a network of original Arabic and English shows. “Our inaugural show was narrative, which is rare in the region, and an episode can take up to three months of production with multiple interviews, host narration, sound design, and music. It is really like a film in your ear,” she added. That the show is predominantly in English is to be expected given the way the UAE operates. “Dubai is where a lot of the podcast production in the Arab region is coming from. There are many foreigners in the country and everything is in English – conferences and media productions, too – while in Saudi Arabia the production is predominantly in Arabic. There is a lack of original content in general and certainly in Arabic, so there is such a hunger for good Arabic content. This is an area of focus for us in ‘Kerning Cultures’ and our next few shows will be in Arabic.” She added: “The biggest listening location for ‘Kerning Cultures’ is the United States. For us that is the diaspora mostly tuning in. The UAE comes next where the core of our production is.”
Hebah is a full-time podcaster and travels between the United States and the UAE. Her team, which consists of Alex Atack, Dana Ballout, and Bella Ibrahim, is scattered around the world. “We were a volunteer-run team until last year when we went to Matter, a media accelerator in San Francisco where we had an initial outside investment. We have monetized the podcast company by selling ads in our episodes and we also license our episodes to podcasts and radio stations internationally. We also have a membership program where listeners can financially support us. Another revenue driver for our business is in producing white label content for other companies or outlets.” Hebah added: “A lot of podcasts in the United States grow because they also broadcast on radio stations. In the Arab countries we do not really have this kind of relationship. That would really help push the needle in terms of growing the scale of the audience. I think it is just a matter of time and more quality shows emerging.”
According to Hebah, when she first started there were probably 10 to 15 active podcasts in the UAE. “Some media outlets are moving into this space like The National, Gulf News, and Khaleej Times. Some radio stations have podcast versions of their shows, like ‘Pulse 95.’”
Turning Out a Small Market in Oman
Salim Basheer, an Omani radio broadcaster, started “Qafeer.” Salim said, “I discovered podcasting after I listened to the Saudi show ‘Fnjan’ [A Cup] in 2015. I asked my friend Sami Awlad Thani to host a podcast with me and we started ‘Qafeer’ in 2017,” when, according to him, there were only two other podcasts produced in Oman– a show on science and the other on gaming. He added: “‘Qafeer’ is a classic Arabic word meaning a basket made of palm fronds that Omanis used to use largely to transfer fruits.” In his talk show he hosts a new guest each episode, who shares his or her inspirational life experiences.
Turki al-Balushi established the first Omani e-newspaper and worked in radio in Oman. He started the podcast “al-Sekka” in 2018. “Many people drive for a long time to commute to and from work and they need something to listen to and pass time on the road. That is why I named the podcast ‘al-Sekka’ [the Road].” Turki added: “I wanted to establish a conversational podcast that hosts Omani experts to develop in-depth discussions on common topics like women’s issues, the economy, politics – the topics that are not usually discussed in the mainstream media. I wanted the show to become an alternative to radio channels that discuss the daily news only briefly.” He added: “We have audiences from all of the Gulf countries. This is an indication that people in the Gulf are interested to know more about the rest of the neighboring Gulf states.”
According to Salim Basheer, “One of the main reasons people choose podcasting as a medium is that it has no criteria for content creation – anybody can upload whatever content they want regardless of quality. But I believe that we as content creators must elevate the podcast quality whether in terms of sound production or the content itself. The other challenge is to reach a wider audience. It is hard even for the podcasters in Saudi Arabia and so you can imagine how hard it is for us in Oman where social media consumption is lower.”
Saudi Arabia still produces more podcasts than the rest of the Gulf countries. “For the Saudi podcasters the high consumption encourages many to join this medium and produce more content,” said Salim. “The Saudi podcast ‘Mohtwize’ [Wise Content] initiated the idea of promoting each other’s podcasts on our shows. After this cooperation we noticed an increase in the number of our listeners from Saudi Arabia.” According to Turki al-Balushi, “There are many considerations governing the production of podcasts in any country, including the population and the social diversity. The total population in Oman and the rest of the Gulf countries is less than that of Saudi Arabia and this difference would necessarily be reflected in the number of the podcasts produced, the variety of topics, and even the possibilities of sponsoring or investing in the shows.”
The Evolving Ecosystem
“Kerning Cultures” is trying to develop an ecosystem for podcasting together with the online platform Podcast Arabic and “Mstdfr” (Nerdsters), both form Saudi Arabia. All helped in hosting the Middle East Podcast Forum, the first formal gathering of podcasters in Dubai in 2018. The forum distributes a monthly newsletter according to Hebah Fisher. “Around 200 people from different Arab countries registered. This robust response was a surprise because we started planning the forum only three weeks before the actual date, which demonstrates the hunger and demand for something like this.”
Another developing podcast ecosystem is happening among gaming podcasters. According to Saeed al-Shamsi, “Almost all the gaming podcasters cooperate with each other to develop together. Sometimes we host each other on our shows to create a more exciting episode and expand each other’s audience.” Also, the Saudi website “True Gaming” organizes the annual event Middle East Games Con. Another collaboration is the Electronic Gaming Awards. The idea of this award came from the “Extrava Gaming” team of Kuwaiti podcasters and YouTubers. The award recognizes technological excellence in the gaming industry and several khaleeji and Arab podcasters participate in the committee that selects the best video games, according to Yaaqub al-Hussaini.
Salim Basheer said, “Many people advised us to establish a YouTube channel, but we want to focus all our effort on the podcast as we believe that this is where the media future will be. We want to educate people about podcasting and encourage them to join in.”
“We strongly believe that podcasting is the strong growth market for media, and audio is the future of media,” said Hebah Fisher. “Podcasts are huge in markets like the United States where 75 million Americans listen to an average seven hours of podcasts weekly. In China, the market is 23 times that where there is a $7 billion industry predominantly from podcast subscriptions. In the United States there are podcast platforms like Luminary, which raised around $93 million to create the Netflix of audio, or Gimlet Media, which raised $28 million to build the HBO of audio and was bought by Spotify for $230 million. So, there are a lot of signals that this is the future of media, and this will move to the Gulf naturally.”
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