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Essays

The great threat to Arab culture

Tarek Daouk is executive vice president, Starcom Mediavest Group – MENA

The scarcity of Arabic content on the internet is the most significant threat to Arab identity since the Ottoman Empire

“To date, there have been three significant events in history that have posed a significant threat to Arab culture: the Mongols’ burning of ‘Dar el Hikmah’ in Baghdad in 1258, the Ottomans’ attempt to force the Turkish language upon the Arab world at the turn of the 20th century, and last but by no means least, the invention of the internet.

Although the first two events constituted military acts driven by socio-political reasons, the internet represents the most significant threat of them all. Given that ‘history is the total sum of the things that could have been avoided’ (Adenauer), we must ask ourselves what lessons can be learnt from the past? Equally as important to understand is the extent to which this threat will impact the advertising industry in the Middle East.

As the internet has become a key information gateway for Arab youth, the scarcity of Arabic content will result in a young generation that is aloof to its cultural heritage and many of its social norms. Too much reliance on the English language on the internet will minimise interaction with Arabic literary cont-ent and entertainment, which has helped protect a distinct Arab cultural identity. This impact will be multiplied as the internet has become the main platform for socialisation and peer-to-peer influence.

We will witness the development of a new breed of Arabs who are indifferent to many ‘consumer insights’ that used to fuel the storyboards of Middle East advertising. Imagine the impact of this trend on many of the values that used to determine Arab consumers’ relationship with advertising and brands, like role models, interests, lifestyle priorities, daily lingo etc.

As the option of abandoning the internet is self-destructive, the first step of the solution must lie in Arabising its digital content. The objective is to transform the internet into a digital ‘Dar al Hikmah’ or House of Wisdom. The original House of Wisdom started as an institute in Abbassid-era Baghdad that translated global scientific and literary books into Arabic. Its importance was that it developed from a library into an excellent research and educational institute that managed to attract most of the well-known scholars from around the globe to exchange knowledge and ideas with Arab scholars. Hence, creating an ecosystem built on innovation and openness that encouraged the development of more locally produced ‘content’. As a result, Baghdad offered one of the earliest innovation-based economies that encouraged entrepreneurship.

In our day and world, publishing houses, TV stations, newspapers, agencies, PR specialists and production companies are responsible not only for putting their content on digital platforms, but also for encouraging a generation of writers and producers who can develop formats that better suit the new lifestyles. In parallel, it’s critical for advertisers to direct funds to finance Arabic content that could engage a valuable audience. The current challenge for many brands is not always necessarily to catch as many eyeballs as possible, but to build meaningful experiences with the consumer group that matters the most… those who influence and are liked by the masses.

In a more digitised Middle East, media fragmentation will not be an issue anymore. Targeting will naturally become easier and will be more executed by smart machines and dynamic algorithms. Technology will become ubiquitous and platforms will fuse. The brand attractiveness of a single channel that helps it appeal to audiences will become less relevant. Content will be abundant and from a growing number of sources. In such an environment, the brands that can identify, produce and use the right Arabic content will benefit the most.”

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