As the only Middle Eastern speaker at a conference dominated by a white, Western definition of creativity, Yousef Tuqan Tuqan has the pressure and privilege of speaking for the current state of digital in a marketplace of over 392,000,000 consumers.
“Arabs love a good conversation,” he says, “we love to talk, and we have an opinion on everything.” Which goes some way towards explaining why Middle Eastern users are leading global penetration on Twitter; there’s a conservative Muslim scholar who has five million more fans than Pharrell, and three million more than the Pope. Another indubitable driver in social adoption is the fact that 75% of Egyptians and 55% of Saudis are under 25.
The change that has taken place in the MENA region in the last decade is staggering, says Tuqan; “No generation has seen change like mine.” The explosion of new media and freedom of expression has changed the cultural and commercial landscape of countries which just five years ago were deemed “enemies of the internet.” The digital awakening has been a double-edged sword in many cases, leading to revolution in Egypt and providing a platform for extremist propaganda in Syria.
What’s so important about social media in these incredibly conflicted areas, Tuqan believes, is its ability to enable action that would be impossible in real life, especially for women. “You can cross these invisible red lines and start debate on the web,” he says. Powerful examples of this include Kafa’s ‘red thumb’, which put public pressure on the government to introduce laws against domestic violence, and the #KeepWalkingLebanon campaign, which shifted perceptions of the country from pessimistic to hopeful.
But when it comes to brands reaching these passionate, empowered individuals, so many companies get it wrong. Tuqan cites the ludicrous and much-parodied campaign by Ikea, which literally photoshopped women out of its furniture catalogues, as a primer in what not to do. “You don’t have to be super conservative,” he says, “it’s a varied audience.” McDonald’s, on the other hand, enjoys stellar engagement on its Arabic Instagram page, through the creation of localized content in the language and voice of their customer.
And then there are the start-ups, who are coming up with their own innovative strategies on Instagram. They range from matchmakers to sheep farmers, and most notably, female-owned businesses. This means women in Muslim countries can engage with a wide array of customers, with no fear of impropriety. Not bad, considering it was originally frowned upon for women to own smartphones.