Beneath Saudi officials’ tough talk on the Regional Headquarters Program lies a strong desire for constructive engagement with top global firms and attracting greater inflows of foreign investment.
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Saudi Arabia is prolific in online content creation and social media consumption. Saudis are most famous for their production of YouTube videos, starting in the early 2000s, which have generated millions of views. There has been no letup in the growth in Saudi online engagement, as the kingdom had the largest annual increase in social media usage in the world in 2017. It is no surprise, then, that Saudis are following the global trend in podcast creation. While podcasting in Saudi Arabia is still not as popular as video production, its growing popularity is undeniable.
The Beginning of Saudi Podcasting
According to Abdulrahman al-Omran, the co-founder of the online platform Podcast Arabic, podcast production started in the kingdom in 2008. “I’ve been listening to Saudi podcasts ever since. Most of these programs have stopped but some are still being produced, such as the ‘Saudi Gamer’ podcast and ‘Kshkool.’ Those are among the oldest shows in Saudi Arabia.” Both shows focus on the video game industry. According to Nawaf al-Naghmoosh, a content writer and a host of “Saudi Gamer,” the show was started 10 years ago by Mashhour al-Dubayan and Jameel Abdul Ahad. The two were passionate about gaming and used to write about it on Internet forums. “Back then few people were interested in such content,” Nawaf added. They decided to create an Arabic website, a YouTube channel, and a podcast specialized in video games and everything related to the industry. “We have a team working from different Saudi cities. We host video game developers to showcase the game development side to our audience,” he added.
Khalid al-Araifi is the co-founder of the “Shuffle Cast” podcast. The show discusses lifestyle themes, “especially television shows, movies, technology, and video games,” according to Khalid. “I’ve been listening to English podcasts since 2005 when I was studying in the United States. A number of them were specialized in teaching the English language. I used to listen to them while riding the bus or the metro to develop my English.” Khalid started his show in 2014. “I think the return of many Saudis from studying abroad in the past few years has created a growing population of Saudi youth familiar with the podcast culture, who consider it a source of education and entertainment at the same time.”
Over time, Saudi podcasts gradually increased in number. “In my opinion, Saudi podcasts actually began to take hold between 2015 and 2016. Many Saudi shows were established at that time,” said Abdulrahman al-Omran. The increase in the number of shows encouraged many Saudis to jump on the bandwagon. Abdullah Al-Rashed and Abdul Aziz al-Muaygil and two others started the podcast “Alkora M3na” (Football with Us) in 2015. “There were several Saudi podcasts, but we did not find one that specialized in football, which is a very popular sport in the kingdom. So we decided to produce our own show,” said Abdullah. “Both of us are big fans of this sport hence it was easy for us to create content on local and international football tournaments. We also discuss the economic and marketing aspects of the sport,” he added.
Joud al-Dajani, the founder and chief executive officer of the podcast and network HMWP Horooj Almosaraa (the Wrestling Talks Podcast), started the podcast in late 2015 after returning from studying in the United States. He was a fan of wrestling, which is also a popular sport in Saudi Arabia, and attended a live WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) match in Jeddah in October 2015. “During the live show, I saw the excitement and interest of many people in wrestling; but I noticed the absence of programs that discuss this sport and its news, so I decided to create a podcast to talk about it.”
Abdulrahman Abumalih the founder of the Thmanyah (Eight) production company in Riyadh began podcasting in 2015 by recording his conversations with his friends through Skype on random topics. “We were chatting,” he said. Later he decided to produce more serious and regular content, and created the podcast “Fnjan” (A Cup). It is a weekly conversation between Abdulrahman, as the host, and one Saudi guest talking about their life experiences. “Fnjan” has many listeners from other Arab states: “After completing the 100th episode I decided to host people from the rest of the Arab countries to present different experiences to the Gulf audience considering the commonality of concerns and dreams between all Arabs.”
Ammar al-Sabban, a Saudi puppeteer and the creative content manager for the “Iftah Ya Semsem” television show (the Arabic Middle Eastern version of “Sesame Street”), established the podcast “Mstdfr” in 2015 with his friend Rami Taibah. Rami suggested naming the show after the famous U.S. podcast “The Nerdist.” He noted, “’Mstdfr’” is the translation of ‘Nerdesters’ in the local colloquial.” Based in Jeddah, they host the talk show speaking both in local dialect and English. “Our audience is Arabs and we wanted to speak in Arabic only, but at the same time we wanted our show to be spontaneous and Rami and I were raised speaking both languages, thus we decided to be ourselves and host the show speaking both languages,” said Ammar.
Shahad al-Tukhiam and Noura al-Shubaili are school friends with a common interest in psychology. Both studied business and decided to start the podcast “Ghaimah” (A Cloud) late 2017 in Riyadh to discuss issues related to psychology. Currently, Shahad is an emotional processing coach, someone who helps people understand themselves and overcome their emotional obstacles, and Noura is studying mindfulness. “Our show aims to produce simple content on psychology that anyone can understand,” said Shahad.
In 2018, the number of podcasts produced in Saudi Arabia dramatically increased and reached hundreds of shows – the most in the Gulf region. “We receive messages from around 10-15 new Saudi podcasters per week asking either for production advice or to announce their shows on our platform and Twitter page,” said Abdulrahman al-Omran. Although there are no official numbers, he believes this increase has been reflected in the spread of podcasting culture in the kingdom, judging by his observations of his surrounding community in Riyadh. “Two years ago, I always had to explain to people what a podcast is. But last year, many people, especially youths, were listening to podcasts and even had favorite lists.” Ammar al-Sabban noticed that the listening numbers of his show tripled in 2018. “This is the stage of discovering the podcast world for many people,” he said.
Moving Beyond the Medium
The popularity of YouTube in Saudi Arabia helped some of the podcasters to overcome the audio content limitations and reach a larger audience. Abdul Aziz al-Muaygil said: “The idea of following an audio show on football may not be encouraging for some people. Hence, we decided to create a YouTube channel to present a more comprehensive content to support our podcast.” During the 2018 World Cup, the “Alkora M3na” team uploaded YouTube videos of their visit to Russia and the football matches they attended – which would be less compelling using the audio format.
According to Sultan al-Harbi, the chief operating officer of HMWP: “Most of our podcast audience is older than 18 years of age and highly knowledgeable about wrestling. On the other hand, our YouTube audience is mostly teenagers. Thus our YouTube channel offers short documentaries to acquaint the young audience with the history and legacy of wrestling.”
Such a variety in content formats increases the Saudi podcast outreach. In April 2018, the General Sport Authority in Saudi Arabia signed a 10-year partnership to host the Greatest Royal Rumble wrestling events in the kingdom. The Greatest Royal Rumble announced Joud al-Dajani and Sultan al-Harbi would be the first Arab commentators on the WWE matches. “They knew us through one of our viral episodes on the YouTube channel in which Sultan and I were commenting on a wrestling video game. WWE was looking for Saudi voices to comment on the live matches to be held in the kingdom,” said Joud. This opportunity enabled them to bring the audience closer to the wrestlers by interviewing a number of famous wrestlers such as Triple H, the professional wrestler and WWE’s executive vice president.
Some podcasters have attributed the increase in podcast production in Saudi Arabia to the absence of entertainment infrastructure in the kingdom. Many youths search for entertainment alternatives by producing audio content with their friends about their hobbies and interests. Hence, the recent growth in the entertainment domain in the kingdom was reflected in Saudi podcast production. Fowzi Mahsoon started the podcast “House Zofi” in 2015 in Jeddah. His show’s team participated with a booth at Comic Con events, which have been organized by the Saudi General Entertainment Authority for the past two years. “It was a chance for us to talk with the event visitors. Most of them wanted to learn more about the origins of Marvel comic characters, mythical stories, and pop culture. After our first participation, the scope of the podcast ‘House Zofi’ was clearly identified,” said Fowzi. His show discusses pop culture and fantasy themes and the movies, stories, and video games influenced by them. “Our aim is to develop a reference on pop culture through our podcast. We host a guest on every episode and another to participate in our discussions.”
“House Zofi” and “Fnjan” produce vodcasts, in which they shoot videos of themselves while recording the podcast. Today, Thmanyah identifies itself as a project of new investigative journalism that produces written, visual, and audio content. Mstdfr became the first Arabic podcast network and since many other podcasts have established podcast networks like Saudi Gamers, HMWP, and Mics – a Saudi podcast production company.
Saudi podcast production is growing to the extent that a number of public organizations have started producing their own shows like the “Ithra” (Enrichment) podcast by the Aramco-backed King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture and the “Food and Drugs” podcast by the Saudi Food and Drug Authority. Yet, it is unclear if such growth might lead to greater regulation of the medium in Saudi Arabia. Some podcasters believe that such expansion in production will help elevate amateur productions into more professional and sustainable podcasts. Noura al-Shubaily argues that official institutions in Saudi Arabia should support podcasts that produce content related to their work. “This will accelerate the spread of podcast culture,” she said. Saud al-Badeea, a student at King Fahad University of Petroleum and Minerals started the podcast “al-Jabl” in 2016, a talk show-style podcast hosting university students and professors. “I bought a microphone and started to produce the show. Later, I asked the university to fund my podcast and it did. The university also offered me a recording room to produce my podcast.”
On the other hand, the spread of podcasting in the kingdom might transform it into a commercial and regulated medium and deprive podcasts of their independence and spontaneity much as what happened with Saudi YouTube production. According to Ammar al-Sabban: “We do not approach podcasting as an investment but as a passion we like to practice. The independence of our podcast is a priority for us. Although we are not full-time content creators and our show depends largely on self-funding, we have been able to continue producing weekly episodes. I can call us professionals.”
is an MPhil/PhD student in the anthropology department at University College London and a non-resident fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.
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