Freedom or Opportunism: Who is really benefitting from the Middle East?

During the Arab Spring social media channels were elevated to heroic status. Tunisian Facebook pages bore the slogan ‘Ben Ali, Out’, a harsh signal to the former president in a country more used to censorship than freedom of speech. It was through Twitter that the Egyptian revolutionaries disclosed their assembly points on a minute-by-minute basis in order to outsmart the police. Without individuals in Syria risking their lives to record the torture and brutality of Bashir Al-Assad’s regime and uploading evidence onto Facebook or YouTube, the world may only know a fraction of what is happening now within Syrian borders.

With people inspired by diverse ways to communicate, it is not surprising that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are now close to the US and Brazil in terms of total number of views on YouTube. According to statistics in the Financial Times, the region has over 167 million hits per day. From 2010 to 2011 uploads in Tunisia increased by 420 per cent and in Egypt by 220 percent. Saudi Arabia alone has 90 million views per day.

Sadly, whilst many are discussing how technology helped to accelerate the protests, these very same companies have their eye on the Middle East as an untapped market, a way to make profit rather than celebrate social change. It wasn’t until 15th July 2012 that YouTube yielded income from this region. Now, thanks to increased viewer ratings, they have created a new platform from which to gain revenue from advertisements.

Not content with just this, YouTube have just launched a Ramadan channel where people can stream episodes of popular shows that will be aired throughout the month. With advertisers spending the same amount of money during this period of time as in the rest of the year, Alfonso de Gaetano, who is in charge of Google’s Gulf region, said to the Financial Times, “this is a treasure trove if you know how to plug in.”

There will be no shortage of these Ramadan shows to stream through YouTube thanks to a new initiative by Sony who are releasing an Arabic adaptation of Everybody loves Raymond, Who Wants to be a Millionaire and a chat show called The Desk, all with 30 episodes ideal for broadcasting one a night for the month long period.

Ziad Kebbi, president of the Sony Pictures Television Arabia cynically told the Financial Times:

“We’re targeting a region where people don’t have much access to entertainment… there is little cinema so they turn to TV… the peak viewing period really starts the hour before they break the fast and they want to kill some time.”

So who is it that is really benefitting from the Arab Spring and currently Ramadan? Many of the protests in the Middle East and North Africa erupted as a result of anger with widespread unemployment and the general desperation of living in a stagnant economy. As post Arab Spring countries begin the daunting task of piecing their country back together it seems that opportunistic multi-national companies may in fact make more immediate gains than the citizens who sacrificed so much to bring about change. Meanwhile, Ramadan, a time for spiritual reflection, is trivialised as a time to reel in a ‘captive audience’.

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor