REPORT ON WORLDWIDE ADVERTISING: Look into the Middle East - The Middle East was a tough environment for outside ad agencies. But, Steve Shipside says, technological advance is forcing the region to open up

By STEVE SHIPSIDE,, Friday, 07 May 1999 12:00AM

From an outsider’s perspective, business in the Middle East has traditionally been seen as a dark art. Old hands shrug wearily and tell tall tales of the regional evils of backwardness and backsheesh - the Arabic version of manana derived from the words inshallah (god willing), bukra (tomorrow) and malesh (no matter). It’s an enduring association, carrying with it a certain colour and exoticism. But signs from the region suggest the old stereotype belies a fast-evolving media landscape of satellites, silicon and business transparency.

From an outsider’s perspective, business in the Middle East has

traditionally been seen as a dark art. Old hands shrug wearily and tell

tall tales of the regional evils of backwardness and backsheesh - the

Arabic version of manana derived from the words inshallah (god willing),

bukra (tomorrow) and malesh (no matter). It’s an enduring association,

carrying with it a certain colour and exoticism. But signs from the

region suggest the old stereotype belies a fast-evolving media landscape

of satellites, silicon and business transparency.

’Now the markets are open to everyone,’ Nadim Barrage, the managing

director of the events organiser, Media Power, says. ’In Saudi Arabia

they issued a new law two months back whereby anyone can register a

company, although you do still have to have a Saudi partner, but the

system is much more flexible than it used to be.’

In response to the potential of the region, Media Power is launching an

exhibition, One to One Arabia 99, in an attempt to help oil the

machinery that brings clients, agencies and support services together

The idea is that as Saudi, in line with other Gulf countries, becomes

increasingly geared towards diversification to ease its reliance on oil,

so it is opening up to Western business - and Western business attitudes

- as it grows its own services sector.

It has some way to go. Despite the fact Saudi has the largest GDP in the

Arab world, and a population of which 60 per cent is under 20, adspend

per head is less than dollars 30 per annum. With a population set to

double by 2020, however, and in the light of South East Asia’s economic

troubles, advocates point to the potential for investment.

There are signs that the advertising industry across the Middle East is

shaping up for a period of greater transparency. Last year the Lebanese

newspapers covered an ongoing scandal in media buying, in which clients

were being misled as to the real cost of space. Nothing too unusual in

that; magazine publishers across the region will tell you about media

mafias controlling media buying. What was interesting was the coverage

it received, and the determination to clean up the issue in the interest

of publishing generally.

’It’s definitely not backsheesh led,’ Imad Kublawi, chief operating

officer of the leading ad agency and J. Walter Thompson affiliate,

Tihama Al Mona International, says. ’It’s built on solid ground as far

as media is concerned, with much of the pressure coming from clients who

demand the same quality of service and agencies they would expect in

Europe. There are now bodies to ensure that - including a media industry

body, the Joint Industry Committee, formed to ensure we get the quality

of media research from the area.

It’s a group of people representing agencies and clients, meeting to

enforce international practices.’

According to John McNeel, chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, Middle East:

’It’s a very interesting time to be working in the region; progress is

happening, slowly but inexorably. It’s not a region like Eastern Europe

which has opened up with a rush to embrace the West. There is a desire

to embrace the best that the West has to offer - in terms of business

practices, media and economic growth - but not necessarily culturally

because they have a culture of their own that they are determined to

protect. That needs to be respected and that defines the way people do


Kublawi says: ’Media is the main thing happening now - there’s an

economic cycle as the price of oil fluctuates, but everything seems

under control and, certainly in Dubai, we’re taking over a lot of the

importance the Asian markets used to have.’

TMI is expanding in the region, launching TMI PR and, more surprisingly,


MindShare, the joint JWT/Ogilvy & Mather media venture, opens in Beirut,

Cairo, Dubai and Jeddah this year, and its presence is a tribute to the

growth of new media in general and specifically the internet. It is one

of the intriguing conundrums of the region that, in Cairo, topless

models on magazine covers remain discreetly blacked out by hand, while

access to the net via cybercafes remains uncensored. Saudi Arabia, up

until last year, disallowed internet service providers from setting up

in the country.

’Technology, coupled with the number of people being educated abroad, is

playing a major role in moving society away from traditional approaches,

and with that consumer attitudes are moving in terms of brands,’ Kublawi


With the 80 digital free-to-air TV channels, media in the region could

even be said to be developing faster than in Europe. But while

satellites and silicon are helping to usher in a new era of media

maturity, it would be wrong to think that all barriers to business have

magically disappeared. However much more flexible it may be than of old,

regional administrations still maintain sway.

McNeel says: ’Satellite TV over the past few years has meant greater

exposure to programming from other parts of the world and that leads to

a cultural liberalism. But satellite TV is playing a careful game in

terms of what channels can and cannot show.’

The One to One Arabia exhibition - that brave step forward in relations

between advertisers and clients - will take place this September. It was

originally scheduled for last April, however. The official reason for

its postponement is to allow the internet to build critical mass, to

give advertisers more time, and to catch them as they prepare for their

Ramadan campaigns. Unofficially, however, industry insiders say that

with the influx of visitors for the Hajj pilgrimage in April, there were

fears that the Saudi authorities just might not issue visas in time for

visitors wishing to attend. Those old Middle East hands would have told

you so.


It’s often said the Gulf War was the reason for the take-off of

satellite TV in the Middle East, as the only way to get access to the

CNN coverage at the time was to invest in a dish. Whether or not it’s

true, the fact remains that the region has proved the world’s most

fertile breeding ground for satellite channels. More than 150 channels

have been delivered in the past seven years and, most notably, 80

digital free-to-air channels are now available with another 100 or more

due this summer once Arabsat 2 and 3, Nilesat and Asiasat start beaming


At Cabsat (the Middle East International Cable and Satellite Broadcast

Exhibition) last March, Nilesat - a 96-channel transponder satellite and

the first dedicated digital platform in the Middle East - was being

lauded as the landmark launch to ’kick off the

renaissance in media land in the Middle East and therefore major

competition to the Hotbirds, PanAm Sats and Arabsats’.

It’s a far cry from the days of 1976 when the member states of the Arab

League created Arabsat as a vehicle for Arab culture. Arabsat continues

to broadcast national TV stations for each of the countries of the

region, but its

worthy fare of news and images of the head of state now competes with a

wide mix of the best and worst of world television.

Over the past five years, four major digital satellite pay-TV platforms

have come on to

the scene: Orbit, Star Select, Gulf-DTH

(Showtime) and Sara Vision. Showtime, a digital pay-TV service, is one

of the fastest

growing in the region, offering more occidental fare than the Arab

staple of Egyptian soaps

and Saudi oil news.

Cliff Nelson, Showtime’s senior

vice-president for marketing and network development, says of the

channel ’the Showtime leasing scheme represents tremendous value for

money. TV viewers can now receive the best in Western entertainment for

as little as six dirhams a day.’

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the

explosive growth of satellite in the region is reflected in the

advertising spend. Last year in Saudi, for example, adspend through TV

was about dollars 250 million, compared with about

dollars 60 million on magazines and less than

dollars 2 million on radio.

Despite expectations of a shakeout in the market, the hundreds of

channels continue to co-exist. ’We thought people would merge and the

number of satellite stations reduce,’ Imad Kublawi, the chief operating

officer of TMI, comments.

’But we’re still getting more channels and the same big boys are still

there. Everyone is taking it very seriously, and media expenditure has

gone up generally with everyone taking a part of the slightly bigger

cake - so we’re seeing an increase in the media vehicles. As to whether

there is any increase in consumer media usage, that’s another question,

though the alternatives have certainly increased.’

Indeed they have, and sometimes those alternatives raise some

interesting cultural issues. Receiving ’the best in Western

entertainment’ is likely to be something of an eye-opener in some areas.

On Saudi national TV, for example, it is still beyond the bounds to show

women smoking, driving or meeting men in public - which would rule out

just about every Western TV programme from the past 40 years. Similarly,

ads for depilatory products have to be remade with animations for


Saudi market, since showing even the slightest bit of leg would be

beyond the pale.

It is clearly impossible to police such strict mores in the satellite

age. So what do the censors do? The simple answer is nothing. Despite

the Draconian image of Wahabi culture, there is some sophisticated

double-think about satellite, which is entirely self-policed.

’Local stations have to abide by censorship rules, it’s true,’ Kublawi

notes, ’but with

satellite you are free to use whatever you like, though there is a

responsibility about what we want to show so we discuss it beforehand

with the satellite station. After all, we don’t want to provoke

unnecessarily. It’s a fair system, and it gets us what we want.’

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