While on a break at the PR company she works at in Dubai, Lana Makhzoumi was regaling her friend Maram El Hendy with yet another "crazy weekend story". It wasn't a particularly poignant tale, just something that happened over the weekend; perhaps typical of any twenty-something in Dubai.
"Maram was giving her feedback, as she always does," says Makhzoumi. "She was like 'girl we should start a podcast'."
With no equipment or platform, and knowing almost nothing about the medium, the pair went for it, recording their first episode in a cleaner's office. "It was literally the only soundproof room, because it was small," says El Hendy. "We closed the door … and we just put our phones on and started recording." El Hendy and Makhzoumi have since produced more than 15 weekly episodes of DXBabies – learning about everything from editing to metrics along the way. They attempt to capture something of a UAE cultural zeitgeist, chatting informally about everything from their lives and loves, to issues at work. There are now about 700,000 podcasts in the world, which is leading to a lot of speculation in the West about whether the medium has reached its peak.
Yet, with more than 400 active podcasts in the UAE, industry leaders here are focusing on growth; a notion discussed in depth earlier this month at the second Middle East Podcast Forum at Dubai's Jameel Arts Centre. "It is fashionable," Cheryl King, managing director of broadcast specialist consultancy Markettiers Mena, told a panel at the forum. "It's radio on demand, and I think the region is ready for it." According to a Markettiers survey of more than 2,000 people released in August, there are 1.3 million regular podcast listeners in the UAE, representing 16 per cent of the population.
And DXBabies has amassed exactly the kind of target audience – females between the ages of 18 and 26 – that certain brands would love to engage with. "Whether that's 1,000 listeners or 5,000, you can find someone who's looking to specifically target those people," explains Mshari Alonaizy, co-founder of the year-old Dubai podcasting company Finyal Media. "And then it just becomes a matter of calculating: 'hey, how much is this taking out of my time and how much do I want to make back out of it?'"
For DXBabies, it's all about speaking directly to the young people of the UAE. The young hosts are both third-culture Arabs – El Hendy was raised in the UAE, Makhzoumi in the US – and discuss topical issues relevant to millennials and Gen Zs. Their work has proved a draw for listeners eager for content. One week they topped the Apple podcast chart for the region, with almost 6,000 people having listened to their ninth episode.
The team are now on their 16th, with each episode getting an average of about 500 listens per day. "I think one of the reasons this has worked so well and why it's gained such popularity, especially in the Middle East and this region, is because both of our perspectives are drastically different," explains Makhzoumi. "We're definitely different ends of the spectrum." Pulling in their largest audiences from Jeddah, followed by Riyadh and Dubai, DXBabies has already had outreach from several media companies eager to help. Offers of studios and equipment have meant they no longer record in the cleaner's office. It's an meteoric rise for the podcast, but they're certainly not alone in their newfound popularity.
Kerning Cultures Network, which was at the forefront of podcasting when its title show launched in 2015, earlier this year became the first podcasting company in the UAE to raise venture capital funding to the tune of $460,000 (Dh1.7 million).
It has three shows under management and three more launching by the end of the year, says Hebah Fisher, the company's co-founder and chief executive. "Even until a few years ago, I would walk into a room and say: 'do you know what a podcast is?'" she says. "I don't have to do that any more."
It was only in September 2017 that Chirag Desai, founder and chief executive of Amaeya Media, launched the company with the podcasts, The Two Vegans and t3chtree. Two years later, Amaeya is the country's largest podcast network with 14 podcasts in its portfolio. Listenership has grown 20 per cent across all shows, which have been downloaded nearly 300,000 times in 135 countries. "I'd say that we're currently in the ramp-up phase of the podcast wave, with the peak still a bit away," says Desai.
The Podcast Forum, which was sponsored by Kerning Cultures and Jeddah's Mstdfr network, drew 150 people from 10 countries and the focus was on what is still seen as a dearth of content in this region. "In Arabic content creation we're one of 50, and internationally we're one of 700,000," explains Rami Zeidan, vice president of partnerships and special projects at Anghami, the region's leading music streaming service. "It took Spotify 10 years to get where it is, it took us seven years to get where we are at Anghami. Audio is ready. Technology is ready. It just needs content."
That need prompted Rushdi Rafeek, a podcast fan and stand-up comic who works in the property industry in Dubai, to launch Hangout with Rushdi last year. "I started digging to find out if there was anything in this region and even smaller, the UAE," he says. "There wasn't much to connect to."
He pays friends in "food and drink" to help him produce each week and has covered one room of his apartment with two foam panels for sound quality. So far, Rafeek gets about 100 listens an episode. So what drives him to spend five hours per week creating one? "Very selfishly I get to spend time with people I like and I get to dive deeper into a conversation," he says. "Conversations you can't have at parties and work."
The UAE is adding new podcasts every week on a range of subjects, whether the topic is Arabic sport (Man 2 Man) or science (Good Question). It's been more than four years since Emirati blogger and photographer Hind Mezaina and her friend Wael Hattar launched Tea with Culture. Yet it remains one of the few podcasts delving into the subject of arts and culture – something they wish would change. "The space needs more diverse voices that are experienced in arts and culture," says Mezaina, "and to be ready to ask serious questions and have a critical dialogue."
No matter the topic, those in the industry are still working out how to make money with podcasting. So far, revenue comes from a mix of branded shows, advertising, licensing content and "freemium", a model similar to streaming services. "There's a lot of space to grow, but there's also a lot of work that needs to be put into the ecosystem – content and revenue," says Desai.
With their new side hustle taking off, and a ready flow of conversation on topics ranging from break-ups to mental health and kindness, DXBabies is poised on both fronts. "There's a hijabi who texted me today on my DMs, she was like: 'I love you guys so much, I cannot believe how much I relate,'" says Makhzoumi."We want content that is actually going to help people," says El Hendy. "And make them feel 'you're not alone, none of us are perfect, we're all trying to learn here'."
Four new made-in-the-UAE podcasts to check out
This podcast from Kerning Cultures Network is about exceptional Arabs around the world and their journey to the top. It’s also the No 1 podcast in the UAE, ahead of international heavy hitters such as Joe Rogan, Jay Shetty and the BBC.
This podcast tackling broader themes of identity, place and belonging shows what a thirst there is for original content in the region. KaramaSutra immediately shot to the top of the Apple podcasts documentary chart when it was released in early October.
Azher ma3 Mouza
Hosted by Emirati entrepreneur Mouza Alhameli, when it launches in November this Arabic podcast will look at how to help companies and individuals thrive in their day-to-day lives.
‘Books of My Life’
In a new podcast series, Books of My Life, The National's Rupert Hawksley talks to some great guests, including Arianna Huffington, about the books they love and the ones that changed the way they see the world.