Is Qatar Blinded by Bling?
About 3,000 years ago, well before the Roman Era, bold and enterprising Arabs in the pearl, spice and incense trades decided to expand their economic horizons. The medium for distributing their exotic product lines to distant eager markets was a new-fangled and highly efficient mode of transport: the camel caravan.
Whether or not those camels were outfitted with colorful new kit remains eternally irrelevant. What mattered was the endgame - unprecedented revenues and prosperity which resulted from that pioneering decision, the much-desired cargo content, the innovative trade routes, the secret navigation techniques. Collectively those elements powered the growth of vibrant towns along the routes, like Petra. Most importantly, wealth and influence gravitated to the anchor-points for that trade, principally in the Arab Gulf.
Imagine the effect on market confidence if those early incense, spice and pearl trade operators had erratically supplied (or failed to provide) content for their caravans’ cargo saddle bags. How quickly would their trade have withered and died? Today a comparable situation is unfolding in the Arab Gulf. Whether due to recent cultural inhibitions, or detachment from their rich storytelling heritage, or lethargy stemming from oil- and gas-fuelled prosperity, former oases of Arab risk-taking flair are becoming mirages in the media and Internet realms.
Amidst some Arab Gulf jurisdictions’ canyons of office buildings and glistening iconic structures there are now blossoming “Media Cities” packed with digital media transmission equipment. However, they represent modern-day camel caravans festooned with “bling” (colorful bridles and saddle bags). Where are any imaginative and sustainable media, advertising and nation branding strategies? Where are any marketable high-yield content products? In this context “content” means electronically-rendered (via print, video or radio) compelling stories and insights concerning issues, people and events that mainstream (i.e. Western) media conglomerates do not present well -- if at all.
When the oil and gas run out (in less than one lifetime for some) how soon will nearby metropolises start turning into ghost towns like Petra? Which enterprising Head of State or First Lady will be the earliest to recognize that owning or producing content for digital media distribution will become a major economic activity for citizens in that region’s inevitable post-carbon, knowledge-based economies?
Al Jazeera of Qatar has only a handful of people struggling to market their camel train’s brand worldwide. In contrast, the U.K.’s comparably state-supported BBC employs hundreds for the same purpose (and very effectively). In the highly fragmented U.S. media market, the world’s largest in terms of advertising dollars, Al Jazeera has spent years and an unknown fortune to achieve a near-zero audience share.
Despite this, and the steadily-fragmenting 400+ channel global TV universe, Al Jazeera’s owners and senior management still cannot grasp the wisdom of finding or developing compelling content that attracts mass audiences and motivates customers (especially American) to spend. In today’s media trade, wealth and power will increasingly stem from creating and / or producing unique demand-side product, not from merely enabling supply-side coverage or carriage.
In speeches just 3-4 short years ago, barely measurable against the sands of time, Qatar’s First Lady Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned displayed remarkable vision and nation branding ambition when she declared: 1) “Globalizing education and educating the globe…” was Qatar’s mission; 2) “Our objective is building prosperous minds, not destructive minds… a more effective kind of WMD: a ‘Wealth of Mind Device’.”
These are insightful and compelling position statements, certainly John F. Kennedy-quality in terms of thinking and oratory, which could energize hundreds of millions of customers and tourists. But today, just as in the era of camel caravans, execution is critical. You must deliver the goods -- consistently. By activating superb vision with creative and sustainable methods, postage stamp-sized Qatar could win unprecedented global prestige and durable influence over mass cultures.
Yet, last month Sheikha Mozah urged news organizations like Al Jazeera to “spend more money on [im]proving quality international reporting… to spend more on good media …” (Oxford Economic Review, May 23rd, “Qatar: In The Media”, http://www.oxfordbusinessgroup.com/weekly01.asp?id=3870). She also threw her support behind an Al Jazeera-inspired new media city planned for Lusail.
Incredibly, advisers to Sheikha Mozah must have recommended that, since they are convinced ‘nothing is preferable to the camel’, profit and influence will result from buying additional trappings and shiny saddle ornaments for Qatar’s newest nation branding caravan.
Pity about all those empty saddle bags.
Jim Egan is the President of Ferrumar. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.