Blogging in the UAE: A comprehensive look

Buzz-time in UAE blogosphere
It cannot be denied now that the UAE has a vibrant blogosphere — a clutch of weblogs or blog-related web sites that discuss diverse aspects of living here. The blogs range from being acidic to hilarious, and intellectually sharp to inanely playful. Rajeev Nair reached out to a few bloggers

As wordplay goes, BLOG and BLOCK are more like estranged twins. They bumped into each other in the UAE. And, as future historians can take note, that rendezvous in cyberspace marked the beginning of a new era for bloggers in the UAE.
It also catapulted “Secretdubai” into the hall of fame of bloggers.
For over three years Secretdubai had been blogging to her heart’s content; about bad breakfasts at boring press conferences to the UAE weather. Succinct and incisive, her observations still didn’t really provoke readers (if at all they were there) to react with ‘comments.’
She was perhaps looked upon as another witty blogger, who was pushing the frontiers of the written word. She herself was just an “occasional blogger” then posting about three to four takes on UAE life per month.
All that was to change post July 18, 2005. Secret Dubai diary, her weblog defined as “the intrigue and adventure in the United Arab Emirates,” was blocked by Etisalat.
Secretdubai wrote:
“The cyber-ink must dry on the quill for now, as the Great Proxy wields its heavy axe and severs Secret Dubai diary from UAE computers.
Will prison vans and manacles await at the airport?
Fellow bloggers and web diarists, all courage to you in these dark and difficult times.”
By the time the “block” was lifted, thanks to enthusiastic campaigning by many fellow-bloggers, Secretdubai had become a cult figure of sorts for bloggers, who associated her experience with that of the curbs placed on a free press.
Her July 18 post, ‘Suffering in silence,’ fetched 81 comments, virtually all of them proclaiming solidarity with Secretdubai. Her next blog, ‘Blocked, unblocked and back,’ had about 28 welcome notes, including one from “Emirati,” that read: “Believe it or not, you live in the UAE where secretdubai’s blog is not only allowed, but loved.”
“I was overwhelmed by people’s reaction in campaigning to get the block lifted,” recalls Secretdubai, a “female expat since 2001,” in an email interview. “I had been surprised at the post that got the (temporary) ban because it was someone else’s poem aimed at the ridiculously quaint language used in a newspaper here. Of all the entries people could have got bothered about, I was surprised it was that one.”
Her blogs are more frequent now, and there are more visitors, the site meter well-accelerated. Secretdubai, however, expects the curiosity to die down. “There may be a few more readers that stick around, but it’s not likely to have mass appeal,” she notes.
She is likely to be wrong. On Aug. 18, her post, ‘Guide to New Dubaiians’ had 40 cyber-surfers opening their minds. In this part of the world where even newspapers find true feedback hard to come by, Secretdubai’s readers open up the possibility of a new era in publishing here using weblogs.
A UAE community blog set in motion recently to announce the arrival of new bloggers shows infectious levels of on-line buzz. There is new blogger virtually (no pun intended) every other day that gets added on to the UAE blogroll.
Secretdubai does not see it as marking the emergence of an alternative media in the Gulf. “In certain countries, such as Bahrain, they (the blogs) seem to have more of an activist role and purpose than in the UAE. With the general media progressing so rapidly in the UAE, there is already quite a bit of open debate about most controversial issues in the daily.”
Bu3askoor, a male UAE national, who blogs ‘Anything Blogable’ at http://bu3askoor.blogspot.com, shares the view. “If you live in a country where the government enforces unbelievable control on what is being said in public, then it will become an alternative media outlet. I think in the UAE, we are doing fine.”
Ike, a male Filipino expat, feels UAE’s blogs already serve as an alternative media. ‘Blogging from the UAE’ through http://ikesulat.blogspot.com, Ike sees it as part of the power and freedom offered by blogs.
Keefieboy, a male UK expat, whose blog, Adventures in Dubai (http://webmasterdubai.blogspot.com) is updated frequently, says blogging by their very nature is opinionated —”the opinions expressed, raw and unfiltered by any editorial process” — thus stymieing its chances of serving as a viable alternative media. “Most bloggers do not have access to reliable news sources and do not have the time to research ‘exclusive’ stories. What they can provide is an alternative view of current events with possibly a bit more ‘bite.'”
“Blogs are a great complement to the traditional media,” says Brn in Al Ain (Bss & Brn in Al Ain — http://bssandbrninalain.blogspot.com). “The great thing about blogs is that they allow people from different walks of life and with various areas of expertise to express their opinions and observations. The media does a fine job by and large but it is impossible for reporters to know everything. Bloggers can fill in the gaps on knowledge in their stories.”

A feel-good trigger
Blogging is a feel-good trigger for many. Secretdubai started it “more as a personal diary to keep a record of things here that amused, intrigued or frustrated me. It is also a way to keep a record of the way Dubai and the UAE are rapidly changing and to communicate to readers overseas about this country.”
One of the pioneering bloggers in the UAE, Adnan, who unlike many other bloggers takes no pain to stay anonymous, is more of a multi-blogger, who is currently active in four blogs.
From jottings of a personal nature initially, his blogs moved on to engage readers on regional politics while two blogs, which are also money-spinners, are dedicated to his core passion and profession: Wristwatches.
Keefieboy says blogging allows him to “engage in dialogue with a range of people” that he would not normally meet.
Sometimes blogging can be a personal experience to keep connected with friends and family “back home” as Brn in Al Ain observes.
Ike found blogging to be too hip an on-line activity for him to jump into the bandwagon. He warmed up to idea before long himself being a writer who makes “long posts on mailing lists, writes articles for on-line publishing and gives lengthy email replies even to complete strangers” — as he did for this feature.
For Saeed, blogging is an extension of his personality. “It is a place where I let some steam off. Sometimes you would read an article somewhere and go ‘that’s just not right!’ A blog offers an area where you can let your thoughts out whether someone out there reads them or not.”

Content freedom
Obviously, the blog content varies with bloggers. “It can be anything that strikes me as worth writing about,” says Keefieboy, who has been living in Dubai for about 11 years, currently involved in website and multimedia design through his DMC-company. “My ‘target reader’ is anyone who is interested in knowing more about Dubai and the UAE. I also have a bunch of readers who are former Dubai residents.”
Ike finds the trigger in “peculiar news items and nice personal events,” after setting off on which he “can go zonkers” on his own. The bottomline is that he doesn’t write fictional stuff.
Bss & Brn in Al Ain jot down about anything from spaghetti noodle length to the generosity of UAE donors in rebuilding Iraq. Bss, who works at the University in Al Ain, defines his blogs as “observations about life and how they appear to him” as an American.
Secretdubai says people are interested in reading about interesting things. “People are fascinated by the Middle East and Dubai. The three questions I am constantly asked by friends and family overseas, in order of frequency, are: Is it safe over there? What is it like for women; can they work/drive? What is The Palm/The World all about?”

Self-restraint:
With freedom comes responsibility. Most bloggers are particular about what goes into their blog, not just in what they write, in the feedback they get too. It is not uncommon for bloggers to remove “comments” that offend anyone’s sensibility.
“Most of us bloggers exercise enormous amounts of self-censorship,” Secretdubai observes. “A couple of times I have censored people’s comments on request, after they have expressed an opinion they later felt nervous about. One time, I also deleted a post where I felt someone was being deliberately offensive.”
Keefieboy says that unless the definition of ‘what you can and cannot say’ isn’t clarified by law, he will tread carefully. “I don’t try to hide my real identity and for that reason I am always careful to write pieces that I can defend, and that should not be offensive to any of my readers.”
Anonymity, most bloggers feel, isn’t an issue at all. “I have never once for a second felt that anonymity would protect me from the authorities,” says Secretdubai. “It would be child’s play for them to trace someone’s Internet account usage.”
She, however, stays anonymous for “personal privacy and her employer’s privacy.”
Bu3askoor says that while anonymity can motivate one to blog, he practices self-censorship. “Lack of knowledge of what is permitted by the law, to be said of others, makes you exercise caution. On the other hand, Islam discourages backbiting; so I do not single out individuals on my blogs.”
Ike too does not try to hide his identity though he has “ideas for several other blogs where he should be anonymous.” He says he has 18 ideas for blog entries that he can’t start right now.
Likewise, Bss has very limited anonymity having written a lot about himself, where he lives and what he does. But he exercises self-censorship also because he believes it is rude “for a guest, which is what I am, to insult his hosts.”
“If everyone is going to have to ask themselves, ‘Is it possible that what I’m writing could possibly offend even one person, even if they misunderstand what I say,’ then I don’t see how anyone could write anything (offensive) especially with the language barrier that exists with some people,” he adds.

Bottomline:
As with any communication tool, blogs too essentially are about interaction. “I love it when I get a comment,” says Keefieboy, “because it shows that not only are people reading the blog, but they are sufficiently engaged to add their own contribution.”
Brn in Al Ain takes delight in the cultural exchange his blogs have facilitated as well as the kind gestures of friendship forged on-line but activated in real life. He recalls how a UAE national had offered to ride him around in Dubai when he was car shopping.
Ike prods people to comment on his blog; any written reaction is “good enough” for him. “What is disheartening is the feeling that no one might be reading your blog,” he says.
Ike shouldn’t worry, really. It took many months before Secretdubai started getting regular feedback.
Building a dynamic blogosphere is only a matter of time. And keying into cyberspace the right words…

Boxes:

For the uninitiated
Blogs (for weblogs) are web-based publications consisting primarily of periodic articles normally in reverse chronological order. Blogs range in scope from individual diaries to arms of political campaigns, media programmes, and corporations: Wikipedia

John Berger coined the word ‘weblog’ in Dec. 1997. Peter Merholz condensed it to ‘blog’ in 1999.

Blogging became as easy as a three-step process with the launch of Blogger by Evan Williams and Meg Hourihan

(Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blog)

Blog vs Diary
Bloggers still debate on where a personal diary ends and a blog starts. The essential character of a personal diary — personal — is obviously lost in blogs. That, however, is the most simplistic of explanations.
The Internet is abuzz with the blogs vs diary debate with the more creative ones coming up with elaborate differences between the two.
Here is from vaidehinatu.blogspot.com: “It (diary) follows the rhythms and tunes of only one soul. Should a diary be this open so anyone can access it…? … once everything goes on-line, things become less personal and more generic…
Which is perhaps why most people call their blogs as on-line diaries.

From the diary of an unknown blogger

Dear Diary,
I saw a billboard last December announcing that, dear diary, you won’t be “boring” anymore. That you will wear brand new looks, that you won’t come in black, grey, blue, green jackets, that you will be slicker than the average single-(blue)-line notebooks.
Every December, dear diary, I waited for you. You know, I won’t buy you. I would rather wait for one of those countless MNCs with countless end-of-year complimentaries to drop one of your kind in my mail-box.
That way, dear diary, you are a perpetual latecomer. My diary reaches me one month after New Year, when all my steely resolve to “keep a diary” has evaporated like the morning dew that no longer envelopes the Dubai Creek.
Like letters gave way to emails, and greeting cards to e-greetings, shall I believe, my dear diary, that you too have gone on-line? And with that, you also have become less personal, more public?
Reading you by a third eye was sacrilege in good ol’ yesterday. And history records of many broken hearts caused by dads prying upon their pretty daughters’ pink-paged diary of hearty secrets.
Aren’t you aware, dear diary, that adventurous heroes, including the one and only James Bond has sought you out; that secret codes have been written on you and staked away, away from the reach of villains? Haven’t many in your tribe become later-day best-sellers? Haven’t you helped wage war and win peace, and discover new lands and conquer them?
You bore accounts of mounting expenses and dwindling incomes; you stored addresses; you had that mandatory one-pager where we posted our blood group and contact address (to be intimated in case of emergency)… you hid in your bosom floral-scented letters and rose petals; you sneaked in your folds a photograph, and the kisses thereon…
You had your fill some nights; little letters scrawled over your body. Some other days, when the world was gloomy, there weren’t any words to share.
Dear diary, you died from countless hearts many years ago. You are reduced to moth-eaten unwanteds in attics of old homes, and old minds. New homes and young minds don’t know you neither do they need you.
No, no blog can ever be the same as you.
Some day, some one will reinvent you, like the ‘not so boring’ diaries, and perhaps, then I will return to you.
Until then, I have a tryst in cyberspace, with my newfound cyber soul-mates
cu

Urs wistfully,

A blogger

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