Listen up: How Saudi Arabia is tuning in to a new future

Podcasts are transforming Saudis’ daily rituals, turning mundane activities such as driving, exercising and cooking into ‘listening experiences.’ (Supplied)
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Updated 26 October 2021

Listen up: How Saudi Arabia is tuning in to a new future

  • Digital-savvy Saudis are becoming a nation of podcasters embarking on an exciting aural adventure

JEDDAH: As digital audio and podcasts become part of everyday life in Saudi Arabia, millions of regular listeners are tuning into the future, sparking what one insider describes as a “podcast frenzy.”

Easy to access, and with a seemingly endless choice of programs and subjects, podcasts are transforming Saudis’ daily rituals, turning mundane activities such as driving, exercising and cooking into “listening experiences.”

But not content with simply tuning in, many people are setting up their own audio blogs and becoming podcasters themselves.

“It’s a free space; anyone can participate,” one podcaster told Arab News. “All you need is content, a microphone and a mobile device, to record and publish.”

Podcasts began to appear in the Kingdom in 2015, gradually reviving Saudis’ love of listening to radio broadcasts.

According to one 2020 survey, 15 percent of respondents in the Kingdom’s western region were regular podcast listeners, while more than 5.1 million people tuned in around the country.

Numbers continue to surge in line with worldwide trends, as national surveys in countries such as the US and South Korea show up to 50 percent of respondents listening to podcasts in any given month.

A podcast is a digital audio file made available on the internet for downloading to a computer or mobile device. Typically, podcasts come in series, with new installments that subscribers can automatically receive.

According to Ammar Sabban, creative director and founder of the “Mstdfr” podcast, ease of access makes podcasts especially appealing.

FASTFACT

Podcasts, previously known as audio blogs, date back to the 1980s. With the advent of broadband internet access and portable digital audio playback devices, such as the iPod, podcasting began to catch hold in 2004. The term podcast is an amalgam of ‘broadcast’ and ‘pod’ from iPod.

“Unlike TV shows, you don’t have to wait for a podcast — you can listen to it any time,” he said.

“The average person usually listens for up to 15 minutes, but those who are into it can listen for up to two hours — the more the merrier for them. Some people are obsessed with podcast shows. Another reason is because the hosts are spontaneous and laidback, and people like that,” Sabban added.

As the trend gathers pace, more people are coming up with their own concepts for podcast shows. “Anyone can do it if they are talented enough,” he said.

“We can meet anyone, and record and upload anywhere, because we don’t have to be in the same place to interview people. Production costs are low, so we can interview people who are not that famous but are interesting to listen to. This is what our listeners want — someone they can relate to.”

Sabban believes podcasts can only grow. “There is a podcast frenzy now. A lot of people are making them and we have thousands of them. Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest Arab countries and the production of podcasts is big here — now companies are aware of this and want to join the field.”

Firms seeking to creatively market their products are also looking to podcasts, with the equivalent of modern-day radio ads.

“Ads, sponsorship and company contracts are the main ways for podcast income, and we do have a studio that we rent for content creators. Companies contact us with a podcast idea, and we create it for them,” Sabban said.

He said that podcasts also lead to a lot of business deals. “We did not expect that our shows such as ‘Mstdfr’ and ‘Cartoon Cartoon’ would bring people together. Some of them created businesses because they found their people through podcasts.”

With more than five years’ experience in the field, Sabban and his colleagues constantly strive to keep their programs fresh.

Their latest podcast, “Let’s Talk Saudi,” highlights Saudis that people overseas want to know about.

“We received a lot of messages from Saudi students studying abroad, telling us that this show touched their hearts and they feel closer to home when they listen to it,” he said. “It is like a haven for locals away from home.”

Another Saudi podcaster, Abdul Aziz Al-Qattan, host of “Tanafs Breath,” described the podcast as an “audio companion that whispers to those who are curious about their surroundings.”

He added: “It guides those searching for answers and meaning, especially understanding themselves.”

Al-Qattan said that there is a revolution in podcasts and audio media in the Arab world. “The future of podcasting is very large and wide, but it lacks organizations and sponsors to support content makers, to push and motivate them to continue providing content,” he said.

The podcaster’s interest in audio media grew out of his love of voiceover and recitation. “I met with my friend Mohammed Ishaq, who had a passion for writing, and discussed the idea of a podcast, and we started publishing initial episodes. The popularity of the podcast was unexpected, exceeding half a million listeners. After that, we had Ibtihal Al-Misfer join as a writer, too.”

Al-Qattan said: “We started in October 2020, and it was a humble beginning. We had to learn how to present ourselves to an audience, to prepare realistic content.”

People listen to the podcast because it is an effective way to enjoy content, he said.

“Unlike visual content, which may require you to focus on certain details and visuals, with podcasts you can listen to a science article or story while you are driving or doing sports, in other words keeping outside noise out and enjoying an audio journey using your imagination.”


Saudi authorities: 4 dead, 48 injured after bus collision in Madinah province

Updated 26 November 2021

Saudi authorities: 4 dead, 48 injured after bus collision in Madinah province

  • The bus carrying 45 passengers collided with a truck
  • Madinah, Makkah and Qassim authorities assisted victims

RIYADH: A collision between a bus and truck left four people dead in Saudi Arabia, authorities reported on Friday.

The bus, which was carrying 45 passengers, collided with a truck on Al-Hijrah highway, in Madinah province.

The crash happened just after the town of Al-Yutamah, around 90km from Madinah city.

Some of those injured were treated at the scene of the crash before being transferred to local hospitals.

The multi-province operation to deal with the incident featured over 20 ambulances and advanced care units from Madinah, supported by eight units from Makkah and another three from Qassim, according to Khaled Al-Sehali, a Saudi Red Crescent Authority spokesperson.

Okaz newspaper said ambulances were called at 11:27pm on Thursday, though authorities did not confirm exactly when the accident occurred.

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The busy route, which underwent refurbishment more than two years ago, is one of the main road links between the provinces of Makkah and Madinah.

Pilgrims and other worshipers often use the route to visit the Two Holy Mosques: The Grand Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah.

Photos from the scene show a red Bonluck bus with extensive damage to the right front and side, its windshield torn off.

In 2019, thirty-five pilgrims died on the same highway near the village of Al-Akhal after their bus collided with a loader. Those on the bus were expats in the Kingdom and of Asian and Arab nationalities.

Saudi Arabia had 12,317 traffic deaths in 2019, according to World Health Organization estimates.


Saudis prefer revisiting their favorite holiday destinations

Updated 26 November 2021

Saudis prefer revisiting their favorite holiday destinations

  • Egypt, UAE, Maldives and Austria most popular travel destinations for Saudi travelers abroad post pandemic

JEDDAH: Year after year, holidaymakers in Saudi Arabia prefer revisiting their favorite holiday destinations, and research shows that Saudis are not breaking away from their pre-pandemic patterns anytime soon.

According to new research from Marriott Bonvoy, the travel loyalty program encompassing hotels, resorts, home rentals, and experiences across 30 brands in 138 countries, 12 percent of Saudi travelers have revisited the same country 10 times or more. In contrast, 30 percent returned to the same country five times or more before the onset of the pandemic last March.

International tourism has always been the preferred way of vacationing for many Saudis, with Arab countries leading in many categories.

“I would normally prefer my getaway destination to be familiar and cozy, somewhere I can call my second home. I like walking down the street to a coffee shop that knows my order, and hiking a trail alongside a river I have memorized,” said 29-year-old Abrar Abulfaraj from Jeddah.

The habitual nature of Saudi travelers shows that even post-pandemic, just 21 percent of those traveling abroad would opt for exploring a new vacation spot. 

Abulfaraj added: “Only due to the pandemic have I become adamant to visit new destinations, (have) new adventures, and appreciate more the luxury of traveling abroad as soon as the coast is clear.”

It is worth noting that the current health measures still being exercised around the world to manage the pandemic also contribute to Saudi travelers’ decisions.

While the following countries have always been staples, many elements come into play when deciding on a trip abroad, including accommodation, cuisine, language, route, currency exchange, and guaranteed weather.

As of 2021, 84 percent expressed their intention to go on a trip in the next 12 months, compared to the 8 percent who plan not to, and the remaining 8 percent are still on the fence.

Post-pandemic statistics show that Egypt will be the No. 1 getaway destination, with 33 percent of travelers intending to visit the country.

I would normally prefer my getaway destination to be familiar and cozy, somewhere I can call it my second home. I like walking down the street to a coffee shop that knows my order, and hiking a trail alongside a river I have memorized.

Abrar Abulfaraj

Noha Yousef, a private-sector worker in Riyadh, told Arab News that getting back on planes and flying to her favorite destinations has revived the sense of adventure in her.

“My family has been visiting Cairo ever since I can remember and it’s always the first stop to any destination. Whether it was Europe or the US, even Bali once, Cairo is where I head to first and I visit it at least twice a year,” said Yousef.

“We’re creatures of habit and once you find something or somewhere that’s comfortable, you’ll keep going back to it because it’s where you enjoy yourself most of the time when you’re away. Cairo to me has always been a place of adventure, there’s always something new to experience. 

“Whether you’re wandering in the alleyways of the old town or zigzagging in the double-parked side roads in the heart of the city, headed to the newest attraction, there’s always something to do and you can’t beat the Egyptian hospitality.”

The second most popular travel destination for Saudi travelers is the UAE, with 29 percent planning on flying there for a much-needed break.

The language, food and proximity of the UAE to Saudi Arabia make it an ideal vacation choice.

Farther away favorites are the Maldives and Austria, respectively, with 15 and 12 percent of Saudi travelers considering them for their next trip.

While some embark on adventurous trips and immerse themselves in new cultures and experiences, research shows that most Saudis traveling abroad opt for familiar and previously visited holiday destinations.

Neal Jones, chief sales and marketing officer of Marriott International, said: “We know there is pent-up demand for travel and this research demonstrates the impact the pandemic is continuing to have on global travel trends.

“The figures suggest that post-pandemic, Saudi Arabian holiday makers are seeking out tried and trusted destinations where they know exactly what to expect — to be able to make the most out of a long-awaited holiday abroad and to avoid any surprises after 18 months of turmoil and uncertainty.”


Saudi ministry signs deal for training of people with disabilities

Updated 26 November 2021

Saudi ministry signs deal for training of people with disabilities

RIYADH: Acting Riyadh Gov. Prince Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Abdulaziz sponsored the signing of an agreement to provide more than 500 jobs to people with disabilities.
The agreement between the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development, the Technical and Vocational Training Corp., and the Sa3ee foundation will see the latter provide job training to people with disabilities registered with the ministry.
The training is also intended to improve the recipients’ standing in society, increase their independence, and help achieve the goals of Vision 2030 reform plan.


KSrelief provides aid in Pakistan, Yemen, Jordan

Updated 26 November 2021

KSrelief provides aid in Pakistan, Yemen, Jordan

BALOCHISTAN: The King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center recently distributed 1,700 bags of winter provisions to the needy groups in the Loralai district of Pakistan’s Balochistan province, benefiting 11,900 people.
In Yemen, KSrelief’s mobile medical clinics recently provided treatment to 351 patients in the Hajjah governorate. Meanwhile, Al-Jada Health Center outlets in the governorate provided treatment to 1,270 people in a week.
In Jordan, KSrelief continues to provide medical services to Syrian refugees in Zaatari camp, with its clinics there recently treating 529 patients in a day.


Visitors flocking to rare bird collection in Riyadh’s Salam Park

Updated 25 November 2021

Visitors flocking to rare bird collection in Riyadh’s Salam Park

  • Visitors can find more than 50 different bird species in the garden, including scarlet macaws, cockatiel, white peacocks, cockatoos, pionus parrots and many more

RIYADH: Visitors are flocking to Salam Park’s bird garden, part of Riyadh Season’s 14 zones, where colorful exotic parrots have found a new home.

The zone, which opened on Nov. 19, has been well received by visitors, with thousands of people marveling at the winged creatures on display.

Visitors can find more than 50 different bird species in the garden, including scarlet macaws, cockatiel, white peacocks, cockatoos, pionus parrots and many more.

The owner of the garden, Ahmed Khoja, has raised and trained birds for 15 years. He told Arab News that he transformed his hobby into a business in 2016.

“We witnessed a great turnout from visitors and everyone was pleased with the efforts that we are putting in. The turnout is now huge as we get about 700 to 1,000 visitors per day,” Khoja said.

“The popularity in Riyadh Season is more than expected. We have 80 to 100 visitors every 15 minutes and 100 to 300 people waiting in line to enter the garden, which is very surprising,” he added. 

Mohammed Awaji, a 13-year-old parrot trainer, used the opportunity to take part in Riyadh Season and hone the skills he has developed for more than two years.

“A lot of visitors here are passionate about parrots, and I feel like this place is perfect for people with this kind of hobby. We are striving to raise more awareness about animal culture. So far, visitors are conscious and committed to precautions,” Awaj said.

He added that some of the parrot species are exotic and rare and that within Saudi Arabia, Salam Park is the only place where they can be viewed.

“Sitting on my shoulder, we have a cacatua moluccensis, one of the rarest parrots. Its price is estimated between $50,000 and $150,000. This bird is native to Indonesia,” Awaji said, describing the trained salmon-crested cockatoo perched on his shoulder.

When people enter the bird garden, they arrive among a variety of visitors, including locals, foreigners, children and people with disabilities. 

Sultan Al-Otaibi, a visitor with down’s syndrome, told Arab News how excited and happy he was to touch and play with birds, and said that people with the condition are particularly fond of animals.

“The birds are so colorful and beautiful, especially the red ones, and the place is amazing. I touched all the birds. Without fear, I placed them on my arm. I want to come every day,” he added.

Manar Mohammed, a Saudi visitor, told Arab News that it was her first time seeing many of the birds within the Kingdom.

“My three-year-old daughter had so much fun here because she loves animals, and this kind of activity was much needed in Riyadh Season. The bird collection is enormous, and most of them look different to what we are used to seeing,” she said.

Mary Jane, a visitor from the Philippines, told Arab News that the Riyadh Season far exceeded her expectations and helped her feel less homesick after she reconnected with some of the native fauna of her homeland.

“I couldn’t imagine how beautiful it is. Riyadh Season met the expectations of their slogan, ‘Imagine More!’ It’s the first time I’ve seen these birds for a long time. It was nice to find this kind of activity in our second home, Saudi Arabia,” Jane said.

The garden is one of the activities included in the Salam Tree zone. Salam Tree, which means the tree of peace, is included among the free zones as part of Riyadh Season in 2021. Visitors can book tickets from Riyadh Season’s website to visit the garden.