When young Saudi Abdulrahman Abumalih started to produce his podcast, Fnjan, about five years ago, he was certain he knew the power of online content. But he didn't realise how powerful it would become within only a few years.
Fast forward to 2020, and the successful podcaster has since made a documentary on the life of Malcolm X that has more than 40 million YouTube impressions. Abumalih is also chief executive of Thmanyah, one of the largest documentary and docu-series makers in the region, and the company produced the film, which chronicles the US civil rights leader's conversion to Islam and his Hajj, which he performed about a year before he was assassinated.
"The biography film is narrated by his daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, and she spoke at the centre where her father was assassinated," Abumalih says. "The other person interviewed is Peter Louis Goldman, a journalist who reported on Malcolm X before his death and who had written a book about him, despite X considering him an enemy initially."
The premiere took place in November at the King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture in Dhahran and the 300-seat theatre was sold out. But this pioneering project would never have come about if it wasn't for Fnjan.
The beginnings of ‘Fnjan’
Abumalih, 31, who answers to the nickname Salty (or "malih" in Arabic), is a story-hunter. No matter where the tale comes from – royalty, politicians, celebrities or regular people – if it's worth telling, Abumalih will give it a platform. It didn't happen overnight, but now Fnjan is one of the most successful Arabic-language podcasts in a region that has not embraced the medium as openly, or quickly, as other parts of the world. Yet Abumalih, who has a background in computer science and marketing, says he always believed in podcasts.
"I was always tech-savvy and I understood the power of technology," he says. "I knew for a fact this is the future of audio, that it's going to be big. So, back in 2013, I started my own [podcast] in my room, calling my friends, just trying to understand how hard it is to do, what the potential is. I was experimenting. I believed in the industry and was predicting that it would be big. I wasn't sure my show would be this popular so soon, but I believed and still believe in podcasts."
The rise of podcasts in the region
He was one of the earlier adopters of the medium, but since Fnjan's debut there has been an increase in the number of Arabic-language podcasts, although the field is still relatively small. A substantial number of series, such as ArabicPod101 and Arabic with Sam, teach the language, while others cover Islamic teachings. Some of the more established podcasts come from international news outlets. In the UAE, Sharjah Art Foundation offers a yearly series of podcasts that focus on classical Arab art and music. More irreverent offerings include The Mstdfr Show, a self-styled geeky podcast from Saudi Arabia that presenters Ammar Sabban and Rami Taibah deliver in "Arablish", alternating between Arabic and English liberally. There's also Basel Meets, in which host Basel Anabtawi, who works in Dubai, interviews local and international celebrities and prominent figures.
There are no definitive statistics for the Middle East, but positive trends for podcast-listening habits are starting to become clear. A study released last August by Markettiers Mena, in partnership with global podcasting consultancy 4DC, revealed there were 1.3 million regular podcast listeners in the UAE. About 16 per cent of the country's adult population listens to podcasts at least once a week, with a third of those broadcast in Arabic. Tellingly, 91 per cent of the people surveyed said they thought podcasts were more trustworthy than traditional media. The study said the popularity of podcasts was increasing more than in other markets.
What’s behind the story?
While Abumalih had little doubt about his show's potential, convincing others to come on as guests was not straightforward. "At the beginning it was difficult," he admits. "It was one of the most difficult things to build a podcast, having guests on, since no one really believed in them. So you have to convince them, show them it's worth their time to come on my show.
"The difficult part was to let them be themselves, to speak freely. I saw that here they didn't express themselves as easily as in other places. I tried to keep it as friendly as possible so the guests would speak up."
To make guests feel more at home, the vibe in the studio is kept informal and, in Abumalih's words, "chit-chatty". Because it is "not television", he says he began to notice his guests were far more at ease talking about their feelings and experiences. It also helped that Abumalih would mix celebrity guests with regular folk who have interesting stories to tell.
"There was a guy who spent 22 days at the airport, sleeping there," Abumalih explains. "He was having issues with his own life and he was trying to find himself, so he went to the airport to meet people. This is a story. He is Sudanese and lives in Dubai, a third-culture kid. So that was a very interesting subject."
One of his most high-profile interviews was with Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal, known as the "Tech Prince" in Saudi Arabia. In a memorable and much-shared interaction, the prince recalls the aesthetically pleasing phone numbers his father, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, has collected over the years. "I found that episode remarkable," Abumalih says. "I didn't think that episode would be that big, or that he would talk so freely. He would answer any question I asked him, he was talking just like he'd talk to a friend."
Other prominent guests include Emirati media personality and art expert Sultan Al Qassemi, who Abumalih describes as "a very interesting guy, super-friendly", and UAE Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development Noura Al Kaabi, who Abumalih says "was a listener of the show, so spoke as if we knew each other".
The podcast, which can be accessed on Apple Podcasts, GooglePlay and YouTube, focuses on culture in general, but also what it means to be Arab. "The idea of identity is something that I try to talk about more and more," he says. "The internet has brought all of us closer to each other, so who are we? The identity, culture, the norms as they change rapidly. I'm fascinated by that and I feel that talking about culture is something that not just I, but lots of other people, find interesting."
Changing a cultural landscape
In the past few years, Saudi Arabia has made unprecedented social and cultural changes, thanks to a sweeping programme set in motion by the kingdom's leaders. While Abumalih's podcast predates these events, his subsequent work has benefited hugely. "These changes in Saudi I think are helping us at many levels, economic and cultural," he says. "Part of what we do is tell stories. With these changes, you of course find a lot more stories. The culture is changing, which is such an important factor in how we tell stories."
Abumalih may have struggled to convince people to come on his podcast early on, but the new climate of openness in his home country has changed things. Without the changes, he says Thmanyah wouldn't exist. "You find people are open to discussing topics they wouldn't talk about years ago," he says. "These things are helping us make documentaries, make podcasts, and it even helps us on a business level, especially when you see so many companies wanting to tell stories, to present themselves. And we believe that the media and the openness on social networks mean we can do business, we can tell more stories and we can reach more people."
The fact he's doing this in Arabic is, perhaps ironically, even more groundbreaking. "I feel I have a duty to make content in Arabic for people who don't speak English," he says. "This comes to mind a lot when I listen to a song or podcast. I would be thinking, what if I don't speak English? How much knowledge am I missing if I only speak Arabic? Is it a sin to only speak Arabic? No.
“Arabic content is far below what we need. It’s about 0.6 per cent of the content on the internet for about 400 million Arabic speakers around the world. We could do better. This is what I’m trying to do.”
A golden era for content
Not only are podcasts a way for young Arabs to be heard and previously untold stories to be unearthed, the medium can also provide jobs to creative types. "First of all, it's all about content," Abumalih says. "This is the golden era for being a content creator. Now, this can be a job, a real job. It's never been this way before and it's going to get bigger and better. Now there's Netflix, Apple TV+, Disney+, Spotify – everybody is in the industry of creating content. This is the time that you can make a living out of it."
Apart from the Malcolm X project, Thmanyah has also produced documentaries about Palestinian writer and intellectual Edward Said and the demonstrations taking place in Lebanon. "Having a documentary about what was happening in Lebanon was something I was really interested in doing," Abumalih says. "We don't do traditional documentaries. So here we were looking at the revolution through the eyes of Lebanese people and their link to Downtown Beirut, how they think about it, the first time they went to 'the egg' building, which was built before the civil war. It's history. It's a very amazing story."
It may have taken half a decade, but Abumalih has gone from toying with the idea of producing a podcast in his bedroom to successfully documenting change across the Middle East and beyond, with more and more listeners tuning in every week – and he's still on the hunt for more stories to tell.