Thank You, Jeddah! Thank you, Saudi Arabia! Until we meet again

Time: 29 June 2021

Ryan M. Gliha

When I first arrived in Jeddah in 2002, Saudi Arabia was not the country we live and work in today. It was a different time, and our two countries were facing different challenges together.
Jeddah was my first assignment as a diplomat. Naturally, I felt very far from home in the beginning. I struggled with learning about Saudi history, customs, and the Arabic language. It did not take long, however, for the city and people of Jeddah to welcome me into their hearts and homes with warmth and kindness.
I grew to love this city. The desert, the mountains, and the sea; the architecture and art; grabbing mutabbag for breakfast, making a late-night stop at Al-Baik, or sampling different families’ sambousek recipes during Ramadan. It was with sadness that I departed in 2004, wondering if I would ever return.
When I was selected to return to Jeddah in 2018 as the consul general, I was deeply honored. I joined a talented team, dedicated to strengthening and expanding the important relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia. As I complete my three-year tenure as US consul general in Jeddah, I am honored to have helped lead and extend the partnership between our two countries and our two peoples. Our partnership began more than 75 years ago with a meeting between King Abdul Aziz and President Franklin Roosevelt. It has grown now to encompass countless Americans and Saudis, extending far beyond the official relationship between our two governments. Tens of thousands of Americans call Saudi Arabia home; dozens of American companies have partnered with Saudi businesses to generate prosperity in both countries; more than 30,000 Saudis study in the US each year and American professors teach at top Saudi universities.
As part of my work, I have had the good fortune to travel all over western Saudi Arabia, from Madinah to Tabuk and from Abha to Yanbu. I am continuously amazed by the beautiful diversity of the Saudi people, of their local traditions, language, and food, which highlight the unique Saudi culture. I am deeply appreciative of the Saudi people’s hospitality and welcoming spirit. Those visits left many beautiful memories that I will carry with me forever.

I have also seen the remarkable changes at work in the Kingdom and the impact that Vision 2030 has had on the economy and society.

Ryan M. Gliha

On my travels, I have also seen the remarkable changes at work in the Kingdom and the impact that Vision 2030 has had on the economy and society. My colleagues and I at the consulate and throughout the US Mission to the Kingdom are committed to working with Saudi Arabia to advance the goals laid out in the vision. Leading US companies and institutions are uniquely positioned to serve as partners in developing sectors like infrastructure, transportation, film and television, education, tourism, digital services, and many more. American universities offer top-quality education and training to Saudi students, who can then return to help build and diversify the economy.
Over the past three years, my team and I have launched a series of initiatives designed to foster these connections to the benefit of both countries. I am confident that these important efforts with Saudi partners will continue to bear fruit and strengthen the relationship long after my departure.
As my family and I prepare for this second departure from Saudi Arabia, I have been honored to work with a talented team at the consulate, and I am deeply appreciative of the warm hospitality and welcoming engagement that my Saudi hosts have shown everywhere I have traveled. Working together, we have demonstrated that with shared goals, with communication, and with the exchange of ideas and people, we can build lasting bridges between our two countries.
I know I will leave a piece of myself here on the shores of the Red Sea. But I will take with me a heart full of friendships and memories and the sincere hope that we will meet again soon.
Thank you, Jeddah! Thank you, Saudi Arabia! Until we meet again.

• Ryan M. Gliha is the outgoing US consul general in Jeddah and the US representative to the OIC.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Art Jameel announces opening date for Hayy Jameel cultural complex in Jeddah

23/06/2021

The long-awaited Hayy Jameel has announced it will finally open the doors this winter. Supplied

  • The 17,000-square-meter cultural complex will open in Jeddah this winter, 2021

DUBAI: In another win for the Saudi art scene, the long-awaited Hayy Jameel has announced it will finally open the doors to its sprawling 17,000-square-meter cultural complex in Jeddah in winter 2021. Hayy Jameel, which derives its name from the Arabic word for “neighborhood,” intends to be exactly such — a space for collaboration and creative exchange. The new cultural complex adds to the growing list of new cultural enterprises launched in the Kingdom over the last several years as Saudi Arabia continues its mission to push for a “creative economy.”

“Hayy Jameel is set to be a home-from-home for Jeddah’s creative community — a dynamic, multidisciplinary complex created specifically to support the art scene and nurture next-generation talent,” Antonia Carver, director of Art Jameel, told Arab News.

Hayy Jameel three-storey render. Supplied

“This is a hugely exciting, new era for Saudi culture, in general. Now, complementing and supporting the dynamic and large-scale developments led by the Ministry of Culture and government-affiliated entities, we have the first major not-for-profit, private sector contribution and one with a wholly civic purpose,” she added.

Located in a three-story edifice in the residential area of Al-Mohammadiyyah in north Jeddah, Hayy Jameel will include the launch of Hayy Cinema, a 200-seat cinema that marks Saudi Arabia’s first independent cinema; Hayy Arts, a 700-square-meter exhibition center; Hayy Studio, an artists’ studio; Feta Hayy, a multi-purpose space for performances, workshops and talks; Hayy Learning, a community-focused education platform featuring a program that offers in-person and virtual learning, research and apprenticeships; and Hayy Residents, a space that will bring together pioneering creative businesses from Jeddah, ranging from contemporary art and performance to design and publishing, as well as baking institutes, new cafes and restaurants.

The the interior space is open and centered around Saha. Supplied

The complex is designed by waiwai, a Dubai and Tokyo-based architectural studio, also the creator of the Jaddaf Waterfront Sculpture Park in front of Dubai’s Jameel Arts Center. The cinema is designed by Jeddah-based Bricklab, a commission awarded to the firm after an international design competition staged by Art Jameel.

Jeddah has long been known for its creative scene, with its annual 21’39 festival that has taken place throughout the city since 2013; its Athr Gallery and Hafez Gallery, two of the Kingdom’s most renowned art galleries; and its host of emerging and established Saudi artists. The city will also play host to the inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival in November 2021. What has been lacking in the scene, however, are spaces in which to create and incubate artistic production.

Hayy Arts render. Supplied

In many ways, Hayy Jameel has arrived as the missing ingredient in Jeddah’s cultural mission. It is distinct from Dubai’s Jameel Arts Center in that its purpose is not solely to act as a museum or place to exhibit the Jameel family collection but to nurture cross-cultural dialogue and creative production.

“We think of Jameel Arts Center as a contemporary visual arts museum and Hayy as a multidisciplinary creative hub,” added Carver. “Both embrace creative dialogue, while Hayy focuses more on artistic production.”

Hayy Cinema render. Supplied

Such ideas are reflected in its architecture. Its three-story structure is characterized by tall façades that reflect the intimacy of a private home, while the interior space is open and centered around Saha, a communal courtyard meant to be a re-interpretation of the traditional courtyard typology with surrounding landscaping rooted in sustainable and green practices. The structure’s airy ambiance is supported by natural light, which streams in from all sides, further enhancing the space as a place for easy dialogue and creation. The building uses a steel structure with aluminum cladding and concrete flooring — elements that offer flexibility to the spaces, allowing them to be used in a versatile fashion for exhibitions, events, workshops and more.

Saha, a communal courtyard meant to be a re-interpretation of the traditional courtyard. Supplied

Hayy’s architecture and design are already the recipients of numerous architectural accolades, including Gold in the Hong Kong Design Awards; Silver in the New York Design Awards; and the Honor Award for Exceptional Design by the American Institute of Architects’ Middle East chapter. It has also been nominated for the 2A Continental Architectural Award as well as the London Design Awards.

Hayy’s inaugural show titled “Staple: What’s on your plate?” is co-curated with London-based partner the Delfina Foundation. Inspired by Jeddah’s diverse demographic, the exhibition will explore the relationship between food and memory, ecology, and place through the works of over 30 artists, thinkers, performers, researchers, filmmakers, and other creative practitioners.

The kickoff date for such conversations is set for November 2021 and will continue until April 2022, supported by a public program of talks, performances, and educational and film programs, with contributions from regional and international artists. Workshops will also be held for people of all ages, from children to the elderly, proving how art is accessible to all and the creative journey and knowledge acquired through it long-lasting.

Abdul Latif Jameel (center) with management, 1980s. Supplied

Hayy Jameel also marks the 75th anniversary of the Jameel family’s global philanthropy.

Headquartered in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Jameel family has long been one of the Arab world’s biggest patrons. For decades, Art Jameel has supported artists and creative communities across the Middle East through exhibitions, commissions, research, and community-building, propelled by the belief that the arts can be open and accessible to all. Hayy is the next chapter in Art Jameel’s journey.

“Art Jameel was born in Jeddah, and Hayy is our most ambitious project to date,” Fady Jameel, chairman of Art Jameel, told Arab News. “This homecoming, at a time of unprecedented local interest and investment in the arts, is such a significant milestone moment for our family.”

This article was first published in Arab News

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HOTLIST – Looks we loved this month

26/12/20

Egyptian actress Asmaa Galal championed a regional designer on the red carpet for the closing ceremony of the Cairo International Film Festival. (Getty)

Kelly Clarkson

For the finale of season 19 of “The Voice,” coach and pop singer Kelly Clarkson selected a multi-colored floor-length gown with plunging neckline from Lebanese designer Zuhair Murad. The designer is a hit with US singers — Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez have also worn his dresses in the past.

Asmaa Galal

Like several of her peers, Egyptian actress Asmaa Galal championed a regional designer on the red carpet for the closing ceremony of the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF). Galal selected this backless sparkling gown from Egyptian fashion house Shahira Lasheen, accessorized with jewelry from Damas.

Arwa Gouda

The Egyptian actress and former model walked the carpet at CIFF’s closing ceremony in this metallic backless sequined dress detailed with black velvet ruffles, created by Lebanese designer Antoine Kareh’s eponymous label.

Cynthia Khalifa

Lebanese actress Cynthia Khalifa had a busy time at CIFF. “Lovely festival! I had a great week, although I was parallely overwhelmed with overnight shoots,” the 28-year-old wrote on Instagram. For the closing ceremony, Khalifa wore an eye-catching shimmering metallic suit from Cairo’s own Alia El-Esseily’s Fall/Winter 20/21 collection.

Katy Perry

The 36-year-old pop superstar hit the stage at the recent UNICEF Changemaker event in a vivid pink taffeta dress from Bahraini designer Monsoori’s Spring 2021 collection. The voluminous tiered skirt and bow-embellished shoulders made a statement as loud as Perry’s performance of her latest single, “Only Love.”

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‘Scales’ is set to make its theatrical release in cinemas across Saudi Arabia

Time: 11 November 2020

‘Scales’ was picked up by Saudi distributor Cinewaves Films. Supplied

DUBAI: Cinemas are slowly starting to reopen across the Middle East and there are a slew of new releases to look forward to. In particular, “Sayidat Al-Bahr,” or “Scales” in English, Saudi filmmaker Shahad Ameen’s black-and-white dystopian fantasy.

The film, which was created by Image Nation Abu Dhabi, was recently picked up by Saudi distributor Cinewaves Films, and is set to make its debut theatrical release in cinemas across Riyadh, Jeddah, Tabuk, Jizan and the Eastern Province on Nov. 12.

The fantasy film, made in the UAE, tells the story of Hayat, a young girl living in a village with a tradition of sacrificing female children to mysterious sea-dwelling creatures in the. When her time comes, she decides to break with tradition and forge her own path.

It premiered in 2019 at the Venice International Film Festival Critics’ Week, where it won the prestigious Verona Film Club award and has been shown at a number of international film festivals including in London, Los Angeles, Carthage, Cairo and Singapore where it was awarded Best Picture.

Ameen — known for her short film “Eye & Mermaid,” which premiered at the Dubai Film Festival in 2013 — said that the film is an artistic comment on patriarchal societies.

“‘Scales’ tells a visceral story about growing up as a woman in a patriarchal society, offering an allegorical take on a universal theme that will resonate with audiences around the world, Ameen said in a released statement at the time the film debuted.

Ameen attended the film’s socially-distanced premiere this week at AMC cinema in Riyadh, alongside the film’s stars Yagoub Al-Farhan and Basima Hajjar.

The private screening was followed by a live Q&A session between the cast of the film and a variety of well-established filmmakers, critics, media and cinema enthusiasts.

This article was first published in Arab News

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WATCH: Saudi singer Tamtam on her new single written during the pandemic

Time: 05 August 2020

DUBAI: Born in Riyadh, Tamtam has gained a following for her socially conscious music that explores the challenges she faces as an unapologetic Arab woman. In an exclusive interview with Arab News, the LA-based musician opens up about her latest single titled “Heartsick” in collaboration with Saudi music producer Saud and her hopes for the music industry post-pandemic.   

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The future of the entertainment sector in Saudi Arabia

02/08/20

Many analysts expect that most countries, including Saudi Arabia, will reopen their skies during this quarter. However it is widely anticipated that traveling for tourism, hospitality and entertainment will not be as it was before the COVID-19 pandemic, as precautionary measures and restrictions remain in place in various destinations.
With that in mind, local tourism and entertainment will be an obvious destination for millions of nationals and residents these days and probably until the end of the year. Obviously, until giga and other projects are fully developed and completed, as most of us are in the country this summer celebrating the Eid Al-Adha break and with such hot weather too, there are a limited number of places we can escape to such as the beaches on the Red Sea or Arabian Gulf, and the breathtaking mountainous landscape of Asir.
In addition to the new entertainment centers announced by the Public Investment Fund including Qiddiya Entertainment City, the Red Sea Project, Amaala, AlUla, King Salman Park, Diriyah Gate Development and Riyadh Sport Boulevard, the Saudi Entertainment Ventures Company (SEVEN) was created.
SEVEN, which is headed by Bill Ernest, has a mandate to develop theme parks and entertainment centers around the country. Plans include 20 entertainment destinations, 50 cinemas and two large theme parks in prime locations across the Kingdom.
Each complex will feature entertainment and leisure choices including waterparks, cinemas, play areas, rides, other attractions and more. The complexes will position the Kingdom in the post COVID-19 era as an entertainment, culture and tourism hub for the region.
As part of its strategic business development activities to support key government initiatives and plans to boost economic drivers such as SEVEN and the $20 billion Tourism Development Fund headed by Qusai Al-Fakhri, BMG Financial Group is undertaking a comprehensive study for the capital structure to create world-class water parks in key cities across the country. The plan is to create water parks which meet the social demands of different family members. The branded product could be franchised by different public or private entities.
Furthermore, this initiative will be structured as a public-private partnership vehicle in association with local contractors and international operators coupled with an exit strategy via public listing. In my opinion, even though COVID-19 has had an unprecedented negative impact on many sectors, including hospitality and entertainment, over the next few years these sectors are expected to regain their market share and will benefit from local demand as well as an international one. I still believe that Saudi Arabia remains one of the game changers in the entertainment and tourism sectors.

Basil M.K. Al-Ghalayini is the chairman and CEO of BMG Financial Group.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view

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Saudi filmmakers ‘The Godus Brothers’ premiere debut film

27/07/20

The cast and makers of Shams AlMa’arif during premiere night on Saturday in Riyadh. (AN Photo/Bashir Saleh)

Faris Godus. (AN Photo/Thamer Alfuraiji)

Speaking to Arab News, Alem told of his experience of playing the main character, and how he felt bringing the story to life on screen.

“Faris wrote an incredibly personal story, in more ways than one. You can imagine the character of Husam as an amalgamation of both of us, in a way. Reliving ten years’ worth of past experience, my passion for cinema and filmmaking, and the mischief we used to get up to in school, was an incredibly personal experience,” he said.

He hopes that viewers would leave the film feeling like they can relate to the characters, or that they could consider the characters in the film their friends.

“It’s basically a character film. The story is great, but you can’t help but fall in love with these characters first,” he said.

Baraa Alem. (AN Photo/Thamer Alfuraiji)

Though the “movie-within-a-movie” premise is hardly a new one, the film offers a refreshing twist on an old trope. The film is a glorious, nostalgic romp through Jeddah in 2010, during the golden age of the Saudi YouTube movement. Peppered with references to Saudi pop culture and offering an interesting take on the history of Saudi cinema and television.

The film also features moments that are poignant, emotionally taxing, and familiar to any Saudis who dreamt of working in the creative industry ten years ago. It also highlights the often-vicious comments that are the bread-and-butter of Saudi YouTubers, in one of the film’s most emotional sequences.

The laughs are almost non-stop, even interspersed with surprising moments of tenderness and wisdom. The film perfectly encapsulates the complex feelings of an entire generation of Saudi youth, who struggled before the current era to imagine a future when creative professions could ever be taken seriously.

Shams AlMa’arif showcases the trials and tribulations of becoming a filmmaker in Saudi Arabia in an age where actors and directors needed to be creative in order to see their visions achieved, battling a lack of resources, support from society, and access to locations for filming.

Shams AlMa’arif is now available to watch in MUVI cinemas across Saudi Arabia and will be available in all cinemas by July 31st.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Screen scene: Films, series to stream at home this week

14/04/20

Toy Story 4 

Woody, Buzz and most of the rest of Andy’s ex-toys take a road trip. (Supplied)

Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Tony Hale

Where: OSN Movies, April 27, 11:40 (Saudi time)

Woody, Buzz and most of the rest of Andy’s ex-toys (who are now Bonnie’s toys) take a road trip, along with a new addition to Bonnie’s toybox, Forky. Woody meets an old friend on the way, who makes him reassess his sense of duty — to himself and others.

Tigertail

“Tigertail” is on Netflix. (Supplied)

Starring: Lee Hong-chi, Tzi Ma, Christine Ko

Where: Netflix

The story of Pin-Jui, a Taiwanese factory worker who decides to leave his homeland — and the woman he loves — to seek a better life in America. Years later, after a miserable arranged marriage and a hard and unsatisfying career, he struggles to connect with his past and his daughter.

Love, Wedding, Repeat

The film stars Sam Clafin, Olivia Munn and Joel Fry. (Supplied)

Starring: Sam Clafin, Olivia Munn, Joel Fry

Where: Netflix

Ever wished for a remake of the time-loop comedy “Groundhog Day” but set around a wedding instead? No? Well, someone did. So now we’ve got this film, in which Jack tries to ensure his little sister has the perfect wedding day, and gets multiple goes at it.

The Innocence Files

This docuseries covers eight cases of wrongful conviction uncovered by non- profit organization The Innocence Project. (Supplied)

Creators: Liz Garbus, Alex Gibney, Roger Ross Williams

Where: Netflix

This docuseries covers eight cases of wrongful conviction uncovered by non- profit organization The Innocence Project. Netflix says the show “exposes difficult truths about the state of America’s deeply flawed criminal justice system.”

The Main Event

Leo discovers a wrestling mask that magically grants him superhuman strength. (Supplied)

Starring: Seth Carr, Tichina Arnold, Adam Pally, The Miz

Where: Netflix

In yet another WWE spin-off, 11-year-old Leo discovers a wrestling mask that magically grants him superhuman strength. With the support of his feisty grandma, Leo sets about becoming a pro wrestler.

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COVID-19 and the power of social media influencers: Are they more important than ever?

13/04/20

PARIS, FRANCE – OCTOBER 02: Models take a selfie, outside Chanel, during Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Spring/Summer 2019 on October 2, 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by Edward Berthelot/Getty Images)

Influencers may play a significant role in helping to combat the spread of the virus. (File/Getty)

DUBAI: As the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues to afflict thousands worldwide, influencers have been forced to rethink their perfectly curated aesthetics. Gone are the brightly filtered snaps of avocado toast and ‘Outfit-of-the-day’ posts. Instead, quick workout videos and makeup-free selfies are flooding our social media feeds as people practice social distancing in a bid to curb the spread of the virus.

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“It’s time for us to utilize our platforms to voice concerns, spread awareness, share lighthearted humor, engage with our viewers and create content to lift people’s spirits,” Dubai-based Zeynab El-Helw, known as “Fashion Pirate” to her 1 million Instagram followers, told Arab News.

UAE-based fashion influencer Ola Farahat, who boasts 1.2 million followers on Instagram, agrees. “I think there is something empowering about sharing positivity, especially because the world is so saturated with depressing news at the moment,” she noted.

View this post on Instagram

For a good cause! #FIGHTFORHEROES CHALLENGE: HOW MANY PUNCHES IN 60 SECONDS? It only takes #60seconds to show appreciation to real heroes. So listen up! @Masafi and I have launched a fitness challenge to show our gratitude to the heroic nurses and doctors fighting for us every day. The more posts we put out there the more gratitude we send them and @Masafi will provide free water to nurses, doctors and their families across the UAE. It’s simple! Check my upcoming story and join me in saying THANKS! Pick up any 2 bottles of water and start throwing as many punches as possible in 60 seconds Tag 3 of your friends and challenge them to beat your number! I nominate @lynjawharji @lubzfitness @mayawilliamz @rafalhabib @zarahzamira #FightForHeroes #FitnessChallenge #Masafi #NaturalWater #AlkalineWater #AskForNatural #StayHome #StayFit #knowyourwater

A post shared by Ola (@olafarahat) on

But can they do more?

According to Dr. Stephanie Alice Baker, lecturer in sociology at City, University of London, influencers may also play a significant role in helping to combat the spread of the virus by using their platforms to enforce the worldwide stay-at-home mandates.

Indeed, a big part of the fight against COVID-19 is getting information regarding government guidelines and regulations out to the public as quickly and efficiently as possible — and encouraging audiences to adhere to them. Just last month, a fitness influencer was detained by Dubai police for mocking the UAE’s stay-at-home rules on Instagram.

“Influencers play a particularly important role in encouraging the younger demographic to comply with lockdown rules and social distancing measures,” Baker said.

“Given that younger generations appear to have a relatively low risk of mortality from the virus, social media personalities are instrumental in using their influence to communicate the importance of such rules and measures,” she explains.

Social distancing rules mean that people are required to spend large amounts of time at home physically isolated from others, so those with a large social media following can also provide some much-needed entertainment while encouraging their followers to comply with the rules.

On the whole, social media consumption is soaring as more and more people around the world go under lockdown.

“We are seeing a move towards posts that portray how influencers are coping during the lockdown, which can be both informative and a source of entertainment,” explains Baker.

“Influencers have been able to turn these restrictions into opportunities to market products related to the domestic sphere including home workouts, DIY beauty, and cooking and cleaning items. The influencers who have stood out during the pandemic are those who use their brand to provide strategies for their followers to cope during the enforced lockdown.”

https://www.instagram.com/chiaraferragni/?utm_source=ig_embed

Baker went on to provide examples of public figures who have adapted their social media strategies during the pandemic, such as fitness guru Joe Wicks who is using his platform to provide free at-home workouts to children amid school closures.

“Fitness and wellness influencers have used their fame to promote health and diet advice on how to improve the immune system, for example, and avoid being more susceptible to the virus. There have even been instances of beauty bloggers and fashion influencers providing health advice.”

Korean beauty blogger Carey gave his followers practical COVID-19-related tips, including which disinfectant to use to kill the virus and how to choose a face mask.

Hady Hajjar, co-founder of the Dubai and Beirut-based Humanagment, coined the term “edutainment” — a portmanteau of the words education and entertainment — to describe how influencers can provide valuable information to their followers in an entertaining, lighthearted way.

“If you only take the entertainment route, you will potentially garner negative feedback,” Hajjar said. “On the other hand, your followers might get bored if your feed is solely dedicated to educating them on the pandemic. You have to balance it out.”

Hajjar believes that it is those who are able to generate creative content amid such uncertain times that will remain relevant after the pandemic.

Meanwhile, as the virus rages on, anxiety is rendering people increasingly susceptible to misinformation, with a flurry of conspiracy theories gaining traction in recent weeks. In particular, a conspiracy theory linking 5G wireless technology to COVID-19 has been spread by celebrities, including singer Kerry Hilson, as well as other known influencers.

Zaineb Al-Hassan, co-founder of Dubai-based PR agency Pop Communications, believes that those with large followings must use their voice to tackle misinformation and prevent the spread of baseless and often dangerous theories to a wider audience.

“Influencers can also be helpful in advocating for campaigns against fake news, especially if the majority of their audience does not consume news through traditional mediums,” Al-Hassan said.

El-Helw agrees.

“Ultimately, influencers need to work together to initiate supportive campaigns to share useful and correct information as much as we can. It’s our responsibility to our community, to ourselves, our families and our global network,” El-Helw said.

“We can use our platforms to share information from WHO and other trusted organizations for kids following us,” Farahat added.

One thing is for certain: Whether you love them or hate them, with the ability to communicate instantly with millions of people worldwide using a single hashtag, the role of an influencer is more important now than ever.

Hams Saleh contributed to this report.

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How online streaming is shaping Saudi pop culture — at the push of a button

12/04/20

ASEEL BASHRAHEEL

JEDDAH: Ever since streaming services became available in the Middle East, leading online sites have been dictating people’s tastes and preferences, their mass media effect influencing Saudi Arabia as it does the rest of the world.

Sara Al-Rifai, an English instructor in Jeddah, believes that streaming services are gaining influence in mainstream culture simply because younger people are unwilling to watch cable TV and sit through ads, or wait a week or more for new content.
“Competition on quality and cost is another factor in favor of streaming services. Neflix’s monthly subscription is affordable. The quality of its shows is rapidly improving, and many of its films and series have won prestigious awards such as the Oscars,” she told Arab News.
Renad Flimban, 26, from Jeddah, said that movies and TV shows have the ability to set mainstream culture in areas ranging from food to fashion and even hairstyles long before streaming became available.
“New streaming services have just made it easier to consume the media and the culture behind it,” she said.
The popular HBO series “Game of Thrones” is perhaps the best example of pop culture “spread,” with local fans joining a global audience in their love for the show. Many viewers in the Arab world watched the series on OSN, while it was also available on HBO.

New streaming services have just made it easier to consume the media and the culture behind it.

Renad Flimban

“I think it blew up here even though it was on HBO, which isn’t that popular here, because people seemed to really like/dislike the characters and the writing. They had extremely strong feelings on both ends of the spectrum,” Flimban said.
Popular shows in the 1990s and early 2000s have been reinvigorated after streaming services acquired the rights to reshow them for viewers. Many popular shows that used to air on MBC2 and Saudi TV, such as “Friends,” “Full House” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” have won new fans following recent exposure.
“Most of these shows’ themes — friendships, families and relationships — are still relevant today, and having easy access to these shows on current media platforms certainly helped to introduce them to a new audience and reconnect with an established audience,” Flimban said.
Al-Rifai agrees, saying these shows have become more popular among a younger generation due to their availability and a desire to understand the hype surrounding them.
“‘Friends’ is still the most-watched show on Netflix, yet it has been criticized for tolerating sexism and body shaming,” she said. “The generation gap and viewers’ beliefs affect the way they perceive a show, no matter how popular it was in the past.”

HIGHLIGHTS
• Fans of popular shows and films in Saudi Arabia behave just as worldwide fans do.

• Young Saudis collect merchandise and organize character-themed parties.

For Razan Sijeeni, a Jeddah university graphic design instructor, the pinnacle of pop culture in the Kingdom would be “Tash Ma Tash,” which aired every Ramadan for 18 years, often tackling conservatism and racism, among other controversial social issues.
“Unfortunately, there is very little authentic representation of our culture in our own media nowadays, and whatever there is, even when it’s well executed, it is being Westernized and viewed through a Western gaze,” she said.
However, Sijeeni has Netflix to thank for her favorite series, “Star Trek,” which she discovered on the streaming site.
“It was fascinating to me, watching the visuals of an explosion or space in the 1960s, and how the series progressed and improved considerably as the years went by,” she said.

Sijeeni said that online streaming also offers people from around the world an introduction to different cultures, languages and beliefs at the press of a button.
“I’ve seen a Saudi influencer meet the cast of “Money Heist,” and people were reacting to it — it’s like they know these people and it isn’t just a show.”
She said that in an age where the internet has a growing place in people’s lives, even individuals who don’t watch shows such as “Game of Thrones” and “Friends” still know who the characters are, and go as far as creating memes to help cope with the coronavirus crisis, for example.
Fans of popular shows and films in Saudi Arabia behave just as worldwide fans do, collecting merchandise, holding character-themed parties and recreating recipes from fictional universes.
Flimban’s favorite show since 2010 has been “Gilmore Girls,” and she admits to owning a few show-inspired items and attending a “marvelous” Gatsby-themed party.
Sijeeni had not been as lucky with her “Star Trek” obsession, however, and said that she was envious of fan events she saw happening worldwide. “My favorite mug was given to me by a friend,” she recalled. “It has the main ‘Star Trek’ six and they transport as you fill the mug with boiling water.”
Now she is on the hunt for a “Star Trek” pilot jacket. We recommend Etsy artists for fan-replicated items.

This article was first published in Arab News

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