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Why traditional Persian Music should be known to the World

Why traditional Persian Music should be known to the World

As a Friday essay: why traditional Persian music should be known to the world, Darius Sepehri, of University of Sydney goes through all aspects of why today’s Iran cultural heritage should be appreciated. The author confronting life in today’s world recalls the Traditional Persian Music through remembering his own personal origin rooted in the world’s first superpower that is the Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great.

Weaving through the rooms of my Brisbane childhood home, carried on the languid, humid, sub-tropical air, was the sound of an Iranian tenor singing 800-year old Persian poems of love. I was in primary school, playing cricket in the streets, riding a BMX with the other boys, stuck at home reading during the heavy rains typical of Queensland.

I had an active, exterior life that was lived on Australian terms, suburban, grounded in English, and easy-going. At the same time, thanks to my mother’s listening habits, courtesy of the tapes and CDs she bought back from trips to Iran, my interior life was being invisibly nourished by something radically other, by a soundscape invoking a world beyond the mundane, and an aesthetic dimension rooted in a sense of transcendence and spiritual longing for the Divine.

I was listening to traditional Persian music (museghi-ye sonnati). This music is the indigenous music of Iran, although it is also performed and maintained in Persian-speaking countries such as Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It has ancient connections to traditional Indian music, as well as more recent ones to Arabic and Turkish modal music.

It is a world-class art that incorporates not only performance but also the science and theory of music and sound. It is, therefore, a body of knowledge, encoding a way of knowing the world and being. The following track is something of what I might have heard in my childhood:

Playing kamancheh, a bowed spike-fiddle, is Kayhān Kalhor, while the singer is the undisputed master of vocals in Persian music, ostād (meaning “maestro”) Mohammad Reza Shajarian. He is singing in the classical vocal style, āvāz, that is the heart of this music.

A non-metric style placing great creative demands on singers, āvāz is improvised along set melodic lines memorised by heart. Without a fixed beat, the vocalist sings with rhythms resembling speech, but speech heightened to an intensified state. This style bears great similarity to the sean-nos style of Ireland, which is also ornamented and non-rhythmic, although sean-nos is totally unaccompanied, unlike Persian āvāz in which the singer is often accompanied by a single stringed instrument.

A somewhat more unorthodox example of āvāz is the following, sung by Alireza Ghorbāni with a synthesised sound underneath his voice rather than any Persian instrument. It creates a hypnotic effect.

Even listeners unfamiliar with Persian music should be able to hear the intensity in the voices of Ghorbāni and Shajarian. Passion is paramount, but passion refined and sublimated so that longing and desire break through ordinary habituated consciousness to point to something unlimited, such as an overwhelming sense of the beyond.

Beyond media contrived images

The traditional poetry and music of Iran aim to create a threshold space, a zone of mystery; a psycho-emotional terrain of suffering, melancholy, death and loss, but also of authentic joy, ecstasy, and hope.

Iranians have tasted much suffering throughout their history, and are wary of being stripped of their identity. Currently, economic sanctions are being re-applied to Iran’s entire civilian population, depriving millions of ordinary people of medicine and essentials.

Why traditional Persian Music should be known to the World
A Persian woman playing the Daf, a frame drum, from a painting on the walls of Chehel-sotoon palace, Isfahan, 17th century. Wikimedia Commons

Traditional Persian music matters in this context of escalating aggression because it is a rich, creative artform, still living and cherished. It binds Iranians in a shared culture that constitutes the authentic life of the people and the country, as opposed to the contrived image of Iran presented in Western media that begins and ends with politics.

This is a thoroughly soulful music, akin not in form but in soulfulness with artists such as John Coltrane or Van Morrison. In the Persian tradition, music is not only for pleasure but has a transformative purpose. Sound is meant to effect a change in the listener’s consciousness, to bring them into a spiritual state (hāl).

Like other ancient systems, in the Persian tradition, the perfection of the formal structures of beautiful music is believed to come from God, as in the Pythagorean phrase, the “music of the spheres.”

Because traditional Persian music has been heavily influenced by Sufism, the mystical aspect of Islam, many rhythmic performances (tasnif, as opposed to āvāz) can (distantly) recall the sounds of Sufi musical ceremonies (sama), with forceful, trance-inducing rhythms. (For instance in this Rumi performance by Alireza Eftekhari).

Even when slow, traditional Persian music is still passionate and ardent in mood, such as this performance of Rumi by Homayoun Shajarian, son of Mohammad-Reza:

Another link with traditional Celtic music is the grief that runs through Persian music, as can be heard in this instrumental by Kalhor.

Grief and sorrow always work in tandem with joy and ecstasy to create soundscapes that evoke longing and mystery.

Connections with classical poetry

The work of classical poets such as Rumi, Hāfez, Sa’di, Attār, and Omar Khayyām forms the lyrical basis of compositions in traditional Persian music. The rhythmic structure of the music is based on the prosodic system that poetry uses (aruz), a cycle of short and long syllables.

Singers must therefore, be masters not only at singing but know Persian poetry and its metrical aspects intimately. Skilled vocalists must be able to interpret poems. Lines or phrases can be extended or repeated, or enhanced with vocal ornaments.

Thus, even for a Persian speaker who knows the poems being sung, Persian music can still reveal new interpretations. Here, for example (from 10:00 to 25:00 mins) is another example of Rumi by M.R. Shajarian:

This is a charity concert from 2003 in Bam, Iran after a horrendous earthquake destroyed the town. Rumi’s poem is renowned among Persian speakers, but here Mohammad-Reza Shajarian sings it with such passion and emotional intensity that it sounds fresh and revelatory.

“Without everyone else it’s possible,” Rumi says, “Without you, life is not liveable.”

While such lines are originally drawn from the tradition of non-religious love poems, in Rumi’s poems the address to the beloved becomes mystical, otherworldly. After a tragedy such as the earthquake, these lyrics can take on special urgency in the present.

When people listen to traditional music, they, like the singers, remain still. Audiences are transfixed and transported.

According to Sufi cosmology, all melodious sounds erupt forth from a world of silence. In Sufism, silence is the condition of the innermost chambers of the human heart, its core (fuad), which is likened to a throne from which the Divine Presence radiates.

Because of this connection with the intelligence and awareness of the heart, many performers of traditional Persian music understand that it must be played through self-forgetting, as beautifully explained here by master Amir Koushkani:

Persian music has roughly twelve modal systems, each known as a dastgah. Each dastgah collects melodic models that are skeletal frameworks upon which performers improvise in the moment. The spiritual aspect of Persian music is made most manifest in this improvisation.

Shajarian has said that the core of traditional music is concentration (tamarkoz), by which he means not only the mind but the whole human awareness. It is a mystical and contemplative music.

The highly melodic nature of Persian music also facilitates expressiveness. Unlike Western classical music, there is very sparing use of harmony. This, and the fact that like other world musical traditions it includes microtonal intervals, may make traditional Persian music odd at first listen for Western audiences.

Solo performances are important to traditional Persian music. In a concert, soloists may be accompanied by another instrument with a series of call-and-response type echoes and recapitulations of melodic phrases.

Similarly, here playing the barbat, a Persian variant of the oud, maestro Hossein Behrooznia shows how percussion and plucked string instruments can forge interwoven melodic structures that create hypnotic soundscapes:

Ancient roots

The roots of traditional Persian music go back to ancient pre-Islamic Persian civilisation, with archaeological evidence of arched harps (a harp in the shape of a bow with a sound box at the lower end), having been used in rituals in Iran as early as 3100BC.

Under the pre-Islamic Parthian (247BC-224AD) and Sasanian (224-651AD) kingdoms, in addition to musical performances on Zoroastrian holy days, music was elevated to an aristocratic art at royal courts.

Centuries after the Sasanians, after the Arab invasion of Iran, Sufi metaphysics brought a new spiritual intelligence to Persian music. Spiritual substance is transmitted through rhythm, metaphors and symbolism, melodies, vocal delivery, instrumentation, composition, and even the etiquette and co-ordination of performances.

Why traditional Persian Music should be known to the World
A six-string fretted lute, known as a tār. Wikimedia Commons

The main instruments used today go back to ancient Iran. Among others, there is the tār, the six-stringed fretted lute; ney, the vertical reed flute that is important to Rumi’s poetry as a symbol of the human soul crying out in joy or grief; daf, a frame drum important in Sufi ritual; and the setār, a wooden four-stringed lute.

The tār, made of mulberry wood and stretch lambskin, is used to create vibrations that affect the heart and the body’s energies and a central instrument for composition. It is played here by master Hossein Alizadeh and here by master Dariush Talai.

Music, gardens, and beauty

Traditional Persian music not only cross-pollinates with poetry, but with other arts and crafts. At its simplest, this means performing with traditional dress and carpets on stage. In a more symphonic mode of production, an overflow of beauty can be created, such as in this popular and enchanting performance by the group Mahbanu:

They perform in a garden: of course. Iranians love gardens, which have a deeply symbolic and spiritual meaning as a sign or manifestation of Divine splendour. Our word paradise, in fact, comes from the Ancient Persian word, para-daiza, meaning “walled garden”. The walled garden tended and irrigated, represents in Persian tradition the cultivation of the soul, an inner garden or inner paradise.

The traditional costumes of the band (as with much folk dress around the world) are elegant, colourful, resplendent, yet also modest. The lyrics are tinged with Sufi thought, the poet-lover lamenting the distance of the beloved but proclaiming the sufficiency of staying in unconsumed desire.

As a young boy, I grasped the otherness of Persian music intuitively. I found its timeless spiritual beauty and interiority had no discernible connection with my quotidian, material Australian existence.

Persian music and arts, like other traditional systems, gives a kind of “food” for the soul and spirit that has been destroyed in the West by the dominance of rationalism and capitalism. For 20 years since my boyhood, traditional Persian culture has anchored my identity, healed and replenished my wounded heart, matured my soul, and allowed me to avoid the sense of being without roots in which so many unfortunately find themselves today.

It constitutes a world of beauty and wisdom that is a rich gift to the whole world, standing alongside Irano-Islamic architecture and Iranian garden design.

The problem is the difficulty of sharing this richness with the world. In an age of hyper-communication, why is the beauty of Persian music (or the beauty of traditional arts of many other cultures for that matter) so rarely disseminated? Much of the fault lies with corporate media.

Brilliant women

Mahbanu, who can also be heard here performing a well-known Rumi poem, are mostly female. But readers will very likely not have heard about them, or any of the other rising female musicians and singers of Persian music. According to master-teachers such as Shajarian, there are now often as many female students as male in traditional music schools such as his.

Almost everyone has seen, however through corporate media, the same cliched images of an angry mob of Iranians chanting, soldiers goose-stepping, missile launches, or leaders in rhetorical flight denouncing something. Ordinary Iranian people themselves are almost never heard from directly, and their creativity rarely shown.

The lead singer of the Mahbanu group, Sahar Mohammadi, is a phenomenally talented singer of the āvāz style, as heard here when she performs in the mournful abu ata mode. She may, indeed, be the best contemporary female vocalist. Yet she is unheard of outside of Iran and small circles of connoisseurs mainly in Europe.

A list of outstanding modern Iranian women poets and musicians requires its own article. Here I will list some of the outstanding singers, very briefly. From an older generation we may mention the master Parisa (discussed below), and Afsaneh Rasaei. Current singers of great talent include, among others, Mahdieh Mohammadkhani, Homa Niknam, Mahileh Moradi, and the mesmerising Sepideh Raissadat.

Finally, one of my favourites is the marvellous Haleh Seifizadeh, whose enchanting singing in a Moscow church suits the space perfectly.

The beloved Shajarian

Tenor Mohammad-Reza Shajarian is by far the most beloved and renowned voice of traditional Persian music. To truly understand his prowess, we can listen to him performing a lyric of the 13th century poet Sa’di:

As heard here, traditional Persian music is at once heavy and serious in its intent, yet expansive and tranquil in its effect. Shajarian begins by singing the word Yār, meaning “beloved”, with an ornamental trill. These trills, called tahrir, are made by rapidly closing the glottis, effectively breaking the notes (the effect is reminiscent of Swiss yodeling).

By singing rapidly and high in the vocal range, a virtuoso display of vocal prowess is created imitating a nightingale, the symbol with whom the poet and singer are most compared in Persian traditional music and poetry. Nightingales symbolise the besotted, suffering, and faithful lover. (For those interested, Homayoun Shajarian, explains the technique in this video).

As with many singers, the great Parisa heard here in a wonderful concert from pre-revolutionary Iran, learned her command of tahrir partly from Shajarian. With her voice, in particular, the similarity to a nightingale’s trilling is clear.

Nourishing hearts and souls

The majority of Iran’s 80 million population are under 30 years of age. Not all are involved in traditional culture. Some prefer to make hip-hop or heavy-metal, or theatre or cinema. Still, there are many young Iranians expressing themselves through poetry (the country’s most important art form) and traditional music.

National and cultural identity for Iranians is marked by a sense of having a tradition, of being rooted in ancient origins, and of carrying something of great cultural significance from past generations, to be preserved for the future as repository of knowledge and wisdom. This precious thing that is handed down persists while political systems change.

Iran’s traditional music carries messages of beauty, joy, sorrow and love from the heart of the Iranian people to the world. These messages are not simply of a national character, but universally human, albeit inflected by Iranian history and mentality.

This is why traditional Persian music should be known to the world. Ever since its melodies first pierced my room in Brisbane, ever since it began to transport me to places of the spirit years ago, I’ve wondered if it could also perhaps nourish the hearts and souls of some of my fellow Australians, across the gulf of language, history, and time.

Darius Sepehri, Doctoral Candidate, Comparative Literature, Religion and History of Philosophy, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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A New Approach to Stalled State Transformations in Iraq and Yemen

A New Approach to Stalled State Transformations in Iraq and Yemen

Chatham House in this research paper titled Between Order and Chaos: A New Approach to Stalled State Transformations in Iraq and Yemen, Dr Renad Mansour, Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House (@renadmansour) and Peter Salisbury, Senior Consulting Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme (@peterjsalisbury) say that International policymakers have failed to stabilize states such as Iraq and Yemen, partially because of the assumed binary distinction between state failure and success. This paper advocates for a ‘middle–out’ approach that aims to strengthen the connectivity between the bureaucracy and de facto authorities.

The Summary of this paper dated 9 September 2019 is reproduced for all intents and purposes below and the paper can be read online or as a Download PDF (opens in new window)

  • In the Middle East and North Africa, a growing number of internationally recognized (de jure) states with formal borders and governments lack de facto statehood. Often, governance vacuums are filled by alternative actors that perform state-like functions in place of, or alongside, weakened official institutions. This results in hybrid orders where the distinction between formal and informal actors in the state is blurred, as too are the lines between the formal, informal and illicit economies.
  • International policymakers have struggled to establish political settlements in these contexts. Would-be state-builders have mistakenly assumed a binary distinction between state failure and success. They have sought to recreate an idealized archetype of the ‘orderly’ state, critically failing to recognize the more complex networks of de facto actors on the ground. At times, international policymakers pick or support leaders who lack local legitimacy, capability and power. This stalls and fragments ongoing organic state transformations, and produces hybrid orders as de facto actors adapt by both capturing state institutions and creating parallel ones.
  • We propose a new model for understanding the fragmentary transformations of the state underway in Iraq and Yemen. It involves the concept of a multi-layered state, consisting of the executive, the formal bureaucracy, the de facto authorities and society at large. The gap in legitimacy, capability and power between the middle two layers in this model – the formal bureaucracy and the de facto authorities – is a critical source of instability and an impediment to reform. Bridging that gap is thus the key to effective peacebuilding and/or state-building.
  •  This paper argues that all states lie along a chaos–order spectrum. No state is entirely chaotic or orderly. Even those that display many features of chaos – as in Iraq and Yemen – contain pockets of order that are all too often overlooked. The larger the gap between the formal bureaucracy and the de facto authorities, the more a state slides towards the chaos end of the spectrum. Effective state-building must find a way of institutionalizing improvised governance arrangements.
  •  To achieve this, we advocate a ‘middle–out’ approach that aims to strengthen the connective tissues between the bureaucracy and de facto authorities. Simplified, this more inclusive approach entails reframing international involvement as playing the role of a ‘referee’ to monitor the transformations of the state while enforcing accountability, as opposed to the practice of picking ‘winners’ and integrating unfavoured actors into unpopular political settlements.
Oman is the most improved nation in MENA

Oman is the most improved nation in MENA

Oman is the most improved nation in MENA, moving up eight places to 58th, in the Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index (TTCI) 2019 prepared by the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Oman most improved nation in MENA in WEF’s Travel and Tourism Survey is an article of the Muscat Daily of September 7, 2019.

Oman is the most improved nation in MENA

Conducted biennially, the survey found that Oman is MENA’s safest country and overall third in the world. Oman ranks third in safety and security due to lower homicides rates (19th in the world), a reliable police force (5th), and low costs of terrorism (7th) and crime (3rd).

Oman also recorded the region’s fastest improvement for its human resources and labour markets (103rd to 65th) and is among the most improved in international openness (116th to 97th), environmental sustainability (109th to 57th) and overall infrastructure (60th to 52nd).

The top 10 countries this year are Spain, France, Germany, Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Italy, Canada and Switzerland. India (40th to 34th) had the greatest improvement over 2017 among the top 25 per cent of all countries ranked in the report.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region significantly improved its T&T competitiveness since the last edition of the TTCI. ‘With 12 of the 15 MENA economies covered by this year’s index increasing their score compared to 2017, the region was able to slightly outpace the global average in competitiveness growth. This is particularly important given that, in the aggregate, T&T accounts for a greater share of regional GDP than in any of the other four regions,’ stated the report.

Consequently, it is no surprise that the Middle East scores above the global and regional averages on indicators related to enabling environment and infrastructure, with particularly high ranks on ICT readiness and business environment. Nevertheless, the subregion does trail the world and North Africa on T&T prioritisation and policy and natural and cultural resources.

This year, eight out of the Middle East’s 11 members improved their TTCI score since 2017. In contrast, the UAE had the Middle East’s largest decline, falling from 29th to 33rd, including the biggest percentage decline in score on the Safety and Security pillar (falling from 2nd to 7th) and Ground and Port Infrastructure (19th to 31st) and the subregion’s only decline on Environmental Sustainability (40th to 41st).

Nevertheless, the country remains in the lead in the Middle East and is MENA’s top TTCI scorer, leading on ICT readiness (4th), air transport (4th) and tourist service infrastructure (22nd).

Each country receives a score in categories from business environment, safety and security, health and hygiene, human resources and labour market and ICT readiness.

Why Syrian refugees have no negative effects on Jordan’s labour market

Why Syrian refugees have no negative effects on Jordan’s labour market

Jackline Wahba, Professor of Economics at the University of Southampton looks at the civil unrest in Syria direct implications on the country’s populations movements on one of the neighbouring countries, i.e. Jordan. Why Syrian refugees have no negative effects on Jordan’s labour market is a question in everybody’s mind since the start of the ensuing multilateral conflicts.

Why Syrian refugees have no negative effects on Jordan's labour market
MikeDotta / Shutterstock.com

Forced displacement is a global challenge. The number of displaced people rose from 43m to 69m between 2007 and 2017, with the highest growth primarily due to the Syrian conflict, which started in 2011. Since then, more than 6.3m Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries and beyond. This humanitarian crisis has generated public sympathy as well as concern about the implications of such a massive flow of people.

Jordan, which shares a border with Syria, has experienced a substantial influx of refugees. Around 1.3m Syrians live in Jordan, which has a total population of just 6.6m. The impact of so many people on members of the host community is a subject of great importance and debate.

One area of particular concern tends to be the job market. Jordan gives a unique insight into this as it signed an agreement with the EU in 2016, agreeing to allow Syrian refugees to enter legal employment in return for humanitarian aid, financial assistance and trade concessions from the EU. Known as the Jordan Compact, I studied its effect on the Jordanian labour market with colleagues Belal Fallah and Caroline Krafft. We found that the compact did not have a negative effect on Jordanian jobs or wages.

Using data that represented the whole country, combined with information on where most refugees live (which is fairly concentrated in certain areas of the country), we were able to identify the effects that Syrians had on Jordanians’ job prospects by comparing Jordanians’ labour market outcomes before and after the Syrian influx.

We found that Jordanians living in areas with high concentrations of refugees had no worse labour market outcomes than Jordanians with less exposure to the refugee influx. This result held across all labour market outcomes, including unemployment levels, hours, wages and characteristics of employment (such as sector, occupation and whether the work was formal or informal).

Our findings contrast with most of the very recent literature on the impact of the Syrian refugee influx, which to date had been limited to evidence from Turkey. Here, research found that natives who were employed informally were affected by Syrian refugees. But the global literature generally finds a similar mix to our findings of refugees having no or small specific negative effects on native job markets. This could be due to the demographics of refugees in Turkey and the fact that refugees aren’t legally allowed to work there, among other reasons.

Little competition

There are several reasons why the massive influx of Syrian refugees has had a minimal impact on the job situation in Jordan. The demographics of the Syrians in Jordan may have played an important role. Almost half are under the age of 15 and only 23% of Syrian refugees in Jordan are in the labour force (45% of men and 4% of women).

The aim of the Jordan Compact was to provide 200,000 Syrian refugees access to work permits and formal work. But the take up of work permits by Syrians has been very low. According to Jordan’s Ministry of Labour, by the end of 2017 only 87,141 work permits to Syrians were issued. This means there are few Syrians competing in Jordan’s (formal) labour market, making their effect on the labour supply relatively small.

Despite the massive inflow of Syrian refugees, the number of non-Syrian immigrants has not decreased in Jordan over the same period of time. According to Jordan’s 2015 population census, Jordan hosted an additional 1.6m non-Syrian foreigners. Other research has shown that Syrians mainly compete with economic immigrants in the informal sector where they don’t get given contracts, such as construction and some sales jobs. Here there is limited competition between refugees and Jordanians.

Demand and supply

The inflow of foreign aid has also been a potential mechanism for creating jobs for Jordanians. To help address the needs of the Syrian refugees, Jordan has received foreign aid from multiple sources. This aid has been channelled to help offset the budget deficit, finance public projects and support public services such as schools, hospitals and transport nationwide. Both direct assistance to refugees and aid to the government can create jobs, the latter disproportionately in the government and public sectors.

Finally, the increase in demand for public services by refugees, in particular education and health, has resulted in the Jordanian government increasing the provision of those services, which in turn increased the demand for workers (almost exclusively Jordanians) in these sectors.

Overall our results suggest that providing legal work opportunities to refugees is not detrimental to the native job market. The inflow of foreign aid to Jordan to assist with some of the needs of refugees, as well as the conditions of the Jordan Compact, which included aid and trade concessions and employment support for Jordanians, may have played an important role in creating labour demand for Jordanians. So it is vital to ensure sufficient resources and public services are in place to support refugees and the host economy.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A deep dive into the MENA games industry

A deep dive into the MENA games industry

SPECIAL REPORT of Region focus: A deep dive into the MENA games industry dated August 30th, 2019, by Will Freeman is literally illuminating in the sense of shedding the light on the presence of the games industry in the MENA region that was discretely kept away from the attention of the many. Here it is.

A deep dive into the MENA games industry

Ask anybody with their ear to the rail of the global games industry about the MENA region and they’ll very likely assert that it offers ‘opportunity’.

The vast area has for some time now been associated with market potential that games companies from across the globe would be wise to harness.

However, the detail around what founds that opportunity, how it should be seized and the reality of its distinct challenges can seem like something of a mystery. A thorough analysis, however, reveals a region that might not be as atypical or enigmatic in its machinations as many assume.

As the oft-talked about BRIC region – ‘Brazil, Russia, India and China’ – has blossomed from ‘emerging’ to ‘emerged’, the MENA countries have been quietly building an impressive momentum of their own. And it is the mobile games sector specifically that provides the region with its most striking prospects.

By MENA, of course, we mean ‘Middle East and North Africa’. It is ultimately an area without a firm or agreed definition. But for the purposes of this article – which kickstarts a series of pieces looking at MENA – we’re considering numerous countries, including but not limited to, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates/Dubai, Bahrain, Iran and Lebanon.

Nations such as Israel, Turkey and Egypt also warrant reflection, though those are places with games sectors that are relatively well-known to the outside world and even distinct from the rest of their MENA family.

Speaking the same language

While one could spend a lifetime developing a universally agreed framing of ‘MENA’, the reality is that the opportunity for mobile games developers, publishers, platforms and service providers is significantly defined by a language; not a list of countries. That language is Arabic, and one thing is clear; the Arabic speaking world provides a substantial audience for those that make a living from mobile games to consider.

A deep dive into the MENA games industry
Petra, Jordan

“The reason why the mobile gaming market [here] is so interesting comes from the fact that Arabic is the fourth most spoken language in the world, yet less than one per cent of all content available online is in Arabic,” offers Hussam Hammo, CEO of Jordanian outfit Tamatem, which specialises in publishing and maintaining mobile games in the MENA region.

“More than 70 per cent of the population of the Arabic speaking countries – around 400 million – use Arabic as their default language on their smartphones. Add to that that countries like Saudi Arabia have the highest ARPPU in the entire world, and you have a perfect opportunity.”

Record-breaking ARPPU alone should immediately prick the ears of industry observers. For while the world’s biggest gaming market China has ARPPU of around $32, Saudi Arabia’s ARPPU is a striking $270. Tamatem’s own figures, meanwhile, point to consumers in MENA spending $3.2 billion on games broadly back in 2016.

Arabic is the fourth most spoken language in the world, yet less than one per cent of all content available online is in Arabic.

Hussam Hammo

And then there are those 400 million people keen to digest Arabic language smartphone titles. They are presently served with a bounty of gaming content; but a great deal more fails to support both Arabic language – and culture.

An appetite for growth

It seems clear there is an underserved and ravenous appetite for gaming in MENA, which means one thing; there is a generous capacity for growth. Indeed, consulting giant strategy& predicts that by 2022, mobile gaming across MENA will stand as a $2.3 billion industry.

Smartphone penetration has also hit alluring levels in many MENA countries. 46 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s 33,554,000 residents own a smartphone, according to Newzoo data. That’s just shy of 15.5 million people.

The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, can boast of an 80.6 per cent smartphone penetration rate. That is against a relatively modest population of 7.5 million, but it still presents a demographic worth serious attention.

Contemporary data on smartphone penetration on Jordan is a little harder to come by, but the Pew Research Center’s data for 2016 lists a 51 per cent rate. The same study gives Lebanon a slight lead at 52 per cent. Of course, not every country in MENA provides such appealing device penetration, but looking at the region as a whole, growth is forecast.

The global trade body for mobile network operators, the GSMAcounted 375 million unique mobile subscribers across MENA in 2017. They expect that number to reach 459 million by 2025. By that same year, GSMA predicts the area will count 790 million individual SIM connections, not including IoT devices. That’s a striking 118 per cent penetration rate, if you consider the region’s entire population, across all languages.

As for the make-up of mobile device breakdown in MENA, region-specific data is in relatively short supply. StatCounter figures for specific countries in the area do, however, paint a fairly familiar picture.

As of July 2019, in Saudi Arabia specifically Android accounts for 65.6 per cent of in-use handsets, while iOS trails at a still-healthy 34.12 per cent. That leaves a trivial amount of unknown and fringe or legacy OSs, including the likes of Series 40, which still has a 0.01 per cent penetration rate in the country.

A deep dive into the MENA games industry
United Arab Emirates

Over in Jordan, Android dominates with 84.65 per cent of the market, while iOS accounts for 15.15 per cent of smartphones. And in the UAE, Android can claim 77.34 per cent of the market, with iOS holding on to 22.18 per cent. The picture appears reasonably consistent, including looking back over the last year.

The Google Play and Apple App Stores dominate, but that is a topic PocketGamer.biz will return to in-depth later in this series of features.

Cultural localisation

‘Growth’ remains the keyword if you look at MENA as a place to succeed with gaming content. And, when considering mobile specifically, that growth which will likely be significantly facilitated by providing a great deal more games in the Arabic language. Those 400 million handsets set to Arabic by default are active now, and their number is likely to climb.

Not that language is the only factor in localising a game for MENA. The region is culturally a different place from both the West and areas like China or Southeast Asia. Making a game created outside of MENA culturally appropriate for the market will perhaps offer the biggest challenge to companies external to the area.

The UAE and the Gulf region are at the forefront globally in terms of 5G launches and plans.

Jawad Abassi

It’s a perfect example of the distinction between translation and true localisation. As for the key to mastering cultural localisation? Collaboration with resident MENA outfits may be an absolute necessity.

Tamatem is one of a number of companies specialising in publishing to MENA, and it’s certainly not alone in its effort. Babil Games, MENA Mobile and others are striving to connect international games companies with the local market.

And then there are those taking the opposite approach. Saudi Arabia’s Manga Productions, for example, endeavours to deliver ‘animation and video game projects to promote Saudi ideas and messages internationally through unique and professional productions’. As a local market, MENA is culturally distinct, but that doesn’t stop it from being globally ambitious.

Another factor central to the potential of mobile gaming in MENA is, of course, the arrival of 5G networks. GSMA points out that in some parts of MENA, 5G has already been commercially deployed.

“The UAE and the Gulf region are at the forefront globally in terms of 5G launches and plans,” confirms Jawad Abbassi, head of Middle East and North Africa at GSMA.

“Operators in MENA – particularly in the GCC States – are among the first to launch 5G networks commercially. Following these launches, operators in 12 other countries across MENA are expected to deploy 5G networks, covering around 30 per cent of the region’s population by 2025. By then, regional 5G connections will surpass 50 million. Early global 5G pioneers include the GCC countries, South Korea, the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom.”

Clearly, when it comes to infrastructure, much of the MENA region rivals some the rest of the world’s tech leading nations.

Ultimately, of course, MENA is a diverse and multifaceted place. Its various nations all bring their own distinct make-ups, and in taking a broad perspective this round-up has perhaps just served to highlight the fundamentals of a very real opportunity.

The figures speak for themselves. But if you want to move on what MENA offers? You’ll want a little more detail.

That is why this piece is just the start of a series of articles looking at the companies, countries and trends shaping MENA’s mobile gaming future.

So keep an eye on Pocketgamer.biz and consider joining us at Pocket Gamer Connects Jordan on November 2nd and 3rd, where you can come and meet the publishers, developers and game tech outfits that might be the future of your success in MENA.

Get the latest mobile games news, interviews and in-depth analysis on TwitterFacebookLinkedIn and our daily newsletter.


Pocket Gamer Connects Helsinki is on October 1st and 2nd 2019. Book now!

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Will Freeman
A deep dive into the MENA games industry
  • Will Freeman is the former editor of trade publication Develop, having also written for the likes of The Guardian and The Observer.
Pieces of Ramses II obelisk arrive in Cairo for re-assembly

Pieces of Ramses II obelisk arrive in Cairo for re-assembly

Pieces of Ramses II obelisk arrive in Cairo for re-assembly. The obelisk will be restored, assembled and erected in Tahrir Square.

By Nevine El-Aref, Friday 30 Aug 2019

Pieces of Ramses II obelisk arrive in Cairo for re-assembly

In an attempt to develop Tahrir Square and to show the whole world Egypt’s unique civilisation, eight blocks of one of Ramses II’s obelisks, found in his temple at San Al-Haggar archaeological site in Zagazig, arrived in Cairo on Friday.

They will be restored, assembled and erected in Tahrir Square.

Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), said that the transportation of the parts of the obelisk was carried out under tight security by the tourism and antiquities police, within the framework of the government’s plan to beautify and develop Tahrir Square as part of the Historic Cairo Development project.

Pieces of Ramses II obelisk arrive in Cairo for re-assembly

The obelisk is carved in red granite and decorated with scenes depicting Ramses II standing before the gods with his different titles written alongside. After restoration and assembly, the obelisk will be 17 metres tall and weight 90 tonnes.

Mohamed Al-Saeidy, director of the SCA’s Technical Office, said that the antiquities ministry completed the first phase of the development project at San Al-Haggar archaeological site last September.

A collection of two obelisks, two colossi and two columns from the temple of Ramses II were restored, assembled and re-erected in their original location.

Now, he continued, the ministry has started the second phase of the project, which aims to restore, assemble and re-erect more obelisks, colossi and columns.

Pieces of Ramses II obelisk arrive in Cairo for re-assembly

In collaboration with the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo (IFAO), the antiquities ministry has recently launched a project to upgrade the facilities and services provided to the site’s visitors, including the establishment of a visitor centre, the installation of signage, and the development of a website for the site.

Pieces of Ramses II obelisk arrive in Cairo for re-assembly

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