Tuesday 12 June 2018
Edwin Samuel, the Government's Regional Arabic Media Spokesperson in Dubai, explains how Ramadan can help the Government communicate with millennials in the Arabic world
The holy month of Ramadan is almost over and this weekend millions will be celebrating Eid Al Fitr. During Ramadan, I’m always struck by the sight (as I am in the UK) of the number of young people focussed on their smartphones looking at Facebook or Instagram or more likely, Snapchat.
What is clear is that millennials in the Arab world are absorbed by a common conversation online, as much if not more than in the West, for lack of alternative outlets for honest exchange. The phenomenon of sitting “together but apart” in the way that millennials seek solitude, freedom and connection without judgement all at once presents us with a stark choice: we either join in or get left behind.
The latest Arab Youth Survey told us what we already largely knew: that television, the traditional medium of choice for Arabs since the advent of twenty four hour pan-Arab news channels after the first Gulf war, has been overtaken by social media for under 25s. Governments in the Arab world are quickly realising that they are not immune from the critique of millennials or the way they debate and satirise things through GIFs and memes. Some seek to control the conversation; others seek to join it and listen.
HMG has enjoyed first-mover advantage when talking to governments about finding a way into millennial discourse. We joined the digital conversation early, having realised some time ago that we need to start talking about things that matter to millennials. The HMG Arabic Media Hub, based in Dubai, was established in 2011 to deliver digital communications in Arabic, in order to help the Government’s Arabic Media Spokesperson engage younger audiences. How the tables have turned! Arabic digital media is now the core operation and the Arabic Media Spokesperson is the add-on to serve up HMG’s viewpoint to the oldies and poorer Arabs who still get primarily their news from TV.
In my three years as UK Government Arabic Media spokesperson, we have understandably largely spent our time speaking to elites made up mostly of middle-aged men about foreign policy. And with this, it has become apparent that we need now not only to explain our foreign policy but also the case for the oldies to communicate better with millennials.
The 70 percent of Arabs under 30 years old tend to engage in political conversation in a different way online from their western counterparts. The preferred media for Arab millennials are WhatsApp or Telegram groups where political talk is intermeshed with social conversation – whether complaining about poor rubbish collections, the increased price of petrol or lamenting injury of football heroes. The bottom line is: any serious political conversation for young Arabs is largely closed, online and interwoven with social issues and consumerism with the odd bit of poetry and falconry thrown in.
Ramadan presents a golden opportunity for intergenerational exchange
Ramadan presents a golden opportunity for intergenerational exchange. It is perhaps the longest moment in a religious calendar (longer than Christmas and Chinese New Year), a time when young people look up from their screens and engage in intergenerational conversations during gatherings in an ever-isolating world where young people live their lives online.
Arab entertainment networks and advertisers have understood this for sometime – Dubai-based Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), the regional entertainment goliath, spends 80 percent of its annual budget on Ramadan programming and weaving in counter-radicalisation and tolerance messaging into its plethora of soap opera narratives and even the six talent competition shows. Governments are latecomers.
It’s time for us also to listen to millennials in the Arab world. This Ramadan we are have been running a campaign called “#Ramadan_Dialogue_Generations” and as part of this we will have been asking young followers online to answer three question about their aspirations.
Perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned from giving broadcast interviews is that it is when I engage in vox pops with young Arabs that we get most traction with parental audience curious for a look-in to the generation which offer the Arab world greatest hope with its optimism in bleak times.