Meet the Dubai-based Emiratis helping young Arabs connect through sound

For generations, millions of people across the Arab world have sat around tables laughing, ranting, swapping stories and anecdotes, and generally putting the world to right.

It’s often over shisha or cards, but almost always while sipping a cup coffee from small Arabic coffee cup—a finyal. Storytelling runs deep within the region’s cultural roots, and a new audio-only company is looking to stoke that culture and adapt it for a new—more individualistic —generation. Set up by friends Majid Al Qassimi and Mshari Alonaizy, the rather aptly-named Finyal Media is a Dubai-based company with the intention of creating podcasts to help young Arabs reconnect with the Arab world.

Following the initial success of Finyal’s first shows Millennial Mirrors and Yalla, Al Qassimi and Alonaizy are doubling down on not only creating good quality podcasts, but also educating the region about the medium.

Esquire: So, a simple one to start, why podcasts?

Majid Al Qassimi: We’re a very visual culture, but there is something to be said about the sensory deprivation of an audio-only medium. Nowadays people are happy to scroll through their phones, while talking or watching something. With audio you have to focus more and therefore you can build a different, more intense, connection with your audience.It is much more intimate.

Mshari Alonaizy: For me, I fell in love with the creation aspect of podcasting. As a medium of creating content you can do some amazing things with. There is a level of vulnerability when you only hear someone’s voice, and the intimacy of being in a studio to create an audio-only piece. That is what I enjoy.

ESQ: Would you both describe yourselves as naturally curious?

MQ: Absolutely. I enjoy listening to everyone’s perspective on things. And Mshari is such a great listener, which is a very undervalued trait today.

ESQ: Are more and more people in the region listening to podcasts?

MA: It’s a mixed bag. I think that people from an older generation probably don’t, but those who are more media-hungry do. Particularly people who spend a lot of their time in a cars.
MQ: I am still surprised to meet so many people that don’t. For me, it is a big part of how I obtain my information. What we realised when starting Finyal was that a big part of we have to do is educate people here about the power of the audio.
MA: It’s all about finding people’s hook. The content in the places like the US and UK is vast in the podcast space. Some people come into podcasts via music or news, in fact Majid first started listening to woodworking podcasts! [Laughs] But in this region what is available is quite small, so the more that we expand what is available, then the more people will come into it.
MQ: One of the most important things we need to do is to match the quality of what they are doing in West. We live in an attention economy, so if you’re coming up short in terms of what you’re doing compared to a global competition, then you’ll get lost.

ESQ: How important is the ‘cultural element’ of the region to what you are trying to do?

MA: Honestly, I felt like regional media was letting our generation down. There wasn’t anything that was being created that we related to—which is why I felt like we were forced to go to Western Media. For us, we want to create stuff that is relevant to us here. We wanted to create content from here for here because I think we deserve better that what is currently available.
MQ: I discovered podcasts because I was doing a lot of commuting. I was looking for stories that would grab my attention, and due to a lack of regional stories, I found myself listening to the storytelling scene in the US—which was interesting but not immediately relevant to me. What we want to do with Finyal is to tell the stories that help explain what is happening in our neighbourhoods as opposed to the ones across the ocean. There are 400 million addressable people in the Arab world and so much cultural diversity, we felt that we could provide a service to the listener here by making that available.

ESQ: Is there a pressure to feel that the content you produce has to speak for a wider culture?

MQ: I think that as the only voice in the medium at the moment, I feel that we will be labelled with that at some point, and there is a responsibility that comes with that.

MA: There is always that cultural element of feeling like you are speaking on behalf of everyone, because this generation, our generation, is one that is very individualistic—but we were raised in a generation that was all about the collective. That is the entire reason why I started Millennial Mirrors, to discuss such themes. That pressure will always be there, but it is about being brave enough to express your opinion, and to stand by that opinion as an individual so others can follow you as an your example.

ESQ: How important is the element of storytelling to you?

MA: It is all about storytelling. It’s very important to remember that tastes here are very different from what they are in the West, where people with long attention spans have been raised in a culture of long-form content. Here, Snapchat and Instagram perform significantly better in terms of usage, because in our region people tend to have shorter attention spans. The average audience has an attention span of about 90 seconds, so you need to constantly reengage them otherwise you lose them. What this means is that you cannot create content the same way they do in the West. This is a trap that other podcasters in the region fall into, trying to replicate formats which may not necessarily work here.
MQ: We live in an attention economy, so ultimately you have to be able to balance between keeping people’s attention, and providing value.

ESQ: You mentioned other people producing podcasts in the region. What makes you stand out?

MA: What I think sets us apart is that when I saw that I had a passion for making podcasts, instead of trying to grow it organically—we decided to approach it like a business. Set targets, scale it up and take all the decisions with a business mind, so we can get to where we wanted to go. While we may not be the first—and there are some people that are doing some great podcasts in the region—what we have is a different level of professionalism.

MQ: This is more than two dudes making some podcasts, we are actually very serious about this as a business opportunity and we have the ambition and strategy to take the region by storm.

ESQ: You already produce Millennial Mirrors  and Yalla. What is on the way from Finyal?

MA: We are going into Arabic for sure. And then expanding what we do with our cultural storytelling, via reportage.
MQ: We want to recognise the human element of stories and bring that to the surface.

ESQ: Initially in the UAE and then wider?

MQ: We currently work out of the UAE, but we’ve always had an audiences across the GCC and Pan-Arab world.
MA: Saudi is actually one of our biggest market, and we have strong listenership in Kuwait and Egypt. The goal is to be there for the entire Pan-Arab world to listen to.

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