By Sharifah Alhinai
31-year-old Saudi Abulrahman Abumalih is the founder and host of Fnjan, a podcast with a weekly episode release that has been taking the Arab world by a storm. More than 12 million people have tuned into the Arabic podcast, which was founded in 2015, and in which the soft-spoken Abdulrahman discusses a variety of topics with his guests, that have ranged from “How Does a Librarian Think?” to “The New Cold War: What if China controlled the World?” to “When I Lived in the Airport for 22 days!”
Guests on the booming podcast, which is available on platforms such as Apple Podcasts, GooglePlay, and is also available with additional video footage of the majority of its episodes on YouTube, have included businessman and CEO of KBW Ventures Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud and art collector, lecturer, and writer Sheikh Sultan bin Sooud Al Qassemi. More recently, the podcast has become available for passengers traveling on Saudi Airlines as part of the airline’s inflight entertainment.
Our co-founder and managing storyteller Sharifah Alhinai interviews Abdulrahman, whose podcast and its parent media company Thmanyah, of which he is also the CEO and Editor-In-Chief, earned him the New Media Award in Saudi in 2017. He talks to us about his beginnings, shares his thoughts on the state of audio content in the Arab world, and reveals his hopes and dreams for Fnjan.
Sharifah Alhinai: You spent approximately 10 years studying computer science, computer programming, and marketing. But today you are the founder and host of the Fnjan podcast. How did you reach this point? Was the idea of the podcast on your mind for years?
Abdulrahman Abumalih: The idea of the podcast itself wasn’t on my mind as much as I was thinking about Arabic content. My interest in Arabic content increased when I started reading more in English, and I noticed the vast difference between Arabic content and Western content. So, I started to ask myself, “How could it be that people are missing out on huge amounts of knowledge and culture just because they only speak Arabic?” Most of my Arabic content related projects started from there, and Thmanyah was the model I wanted to change people’s understanding of Arabic content through. The Fnjan Podcast was one of the ways to realise my dream of having authentic Arabic content that’s here for the long run.
Sharifah Alhinai: What’s the difference that you’d like to make through Fnjan?
Abdulrahman Abumalih: I want for Fnjan to be an Arabic platform that discusses ideas and explores their diversity and differences. This helps bring cultures closer together, breeds an understanding of the other, and makes us realise the rich diversity that exists in Saudi and the broader Arab world. This also helps us realise just how many commonalities and differences there are between us, the Khaleeji and Arab youth.
Sharifah Alhinai: The reason you chose the name “Fnjan” for your podcast...
Abdulrahman Abumalih: The podcast doesn’t focus on a particular topic or theme, nor does it have a clear framework in any of its episodes. The idea was that there would be a sip of every topic. In addition, Arabs appreciate the fnjan, and it has been a main element of their culture over the years.
Guests that have appeared on the Fnjan podcast. Photo credit: Fnjan.
Sharifah Alhinai: How do you choose the guests that you feature on your podcast?
Abdulrahman Abumalih: We, the production team of Fnjan, say that fame isn’t a criterion that we look for in a guest. We focus on two things when we’re searching for a guest to feature:
- That the guest has an idea they believe in that occupies their mind, and that they constantly talk about. For example, it can be someone who cares about the environment, sociology or anthropology, or thinks that media should transform into another form…etc.
- That they have gone through an experience that is unique enough to share. It could be a trip that changed the course of their life, or a year that they read many books during that changed their perspective on life, or even an experience with fame that they didn’t expect and its impact on their life.
Sharifah Alhinai: What’s the future you envision for Fnjan?
Abdulrahman Abumalih: For it to be the number one Arabic platform for discussions.
Sharifah Alhinai: What is your advice for people who are entering the world of podcast production in the Gulf region?
Abdulrahman Abumalih: I’ll say what everyone’s said: start now if you have an idea. And try to explore new ways of doing a podcast. It’s not just discussions and dialogues; there are a variety of possible styles . Try them out, be the first to do so, and carve your own path. That way, you’ll be creating a vast difference in the world of Arabic podcasts, and you’ll be opening doors for the many that’ll come after you. Find a foreign model that you like and imitate it. Yes, imitate it until you nail it. Then, you’ll slowly put your unique spin on it without you feeling it.
Sharifah Alhinai: What are your thoughts about the audio content in Arabic?
Abdulrahman Abumalih: It’s where it was in 2009-2010 in the USA. This is not necessarily a negative thing; it means that there is a good start in this field, especially in the Gulf region. But we need growth and development, whether it’s in our experience in Thmanaya or another. We need to create a variety of content that will attract millions of Arabs from all walks of life. And I think we’re on the right path. Podcasts will no doubt be the main way for people to listen to audio content.
Sharifah Alhinai: How can we compete with the West in the production of podcasts? And are you planning on launching a podcast in English?
Abdulrahman Abumalih: We need to think about how we can produce content that’s enough for us as Arabs. There are more than 400 million Arabs living on this planet, and Arabic content only forms 0.6 per cent of the content on the Internet. We have to produce for Arabs, and compete with each other to enrich content in Arabic. If we create content in English, it has to serve Arabic content. In other words, we could create content in the West, but it has to benefit or serve Arabs. In the West, the number of scientists is higher and the experiences are richer, and we have to take wisdom wherever we can find out. The challenge is how to take this knowledge and these sciences and to transform them in a way that would benefit Arabs.
Sharifah Alhinai: What distinguishes the Arab listener from others?
Abdulrahman Abumalih: Our cities are bustling with traffic, and so this forms an opportunity for podcasts to succeed! But, there isn’t anything that distinguishes the Arab listener from others except this listener’s thirst for content that is fitting for him/her. In addition, we shouldn’t forget the fact that we, as Arabs, represent a big portion of the world’s population. There are more than 400 million Arabs out there, and this number makes us a huge market globally.
Sharifah Alhinai: Do you think that audio will be king in the Gulf region in the future, and that the popularity of video will decrease with time?
Abdulrahman Abumalih: I don’t think so. I think that audio and video complement each other, but that the ways in which they do will change in the future. As I mentioned earlier, audio’s been around ever since man invented the radio, but now it’s changing form. And the same thing applies to video. People have shifted from watching live TV to watching content on demand. It’s internet companies that are making this shift possible. Companies such as Netflix, YouTube, Amazon and others have changed the way people consume video content. They have created unique opportunities that weren’t there before, and they’ve overtaken big share of viewerships of traditional TV channels.
To learn more about Fnjan or to listen to the podcasts, click here.
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This interview has been translated from Arabic.