A Saudi Prince is using video games to fuel an intellectual renaissance in the Middle East

Terrorist, cartoon stereotype, evil oppressive dictator.

It's through those lenses — those unfair representations of a complex, massive grouping of a wide variety of people and what they believe in — that much of the non-Arab world sees the population of the Middle East.

And it was this realization, this moment of clarity about how the world might view his culture, that led Prince Fahad Al Saud to try and play a part in disrupting that singular, often incorrect trope.

"I asked myself a whole bunch of perplexing, potentially paranoid questions," Fahad said in his keynote at the Games For Change Festival in New York last week. "Was this intentional? Why was I misrepresented like this so often? Is someone doing this on purpose, generally presenting me as some super-size, bearded, brown-skinned terrorist? I didn't know. I still don't know. All I knew at that point of realization was that I had to play my part in disrupting this narrative, in contributing with positivity, to this global story."

And his tools for sparking what he calls an intellectual, artistic renaissance are video games about camel racing, wordplay and soon, the revolutionary uprising of Saudi girls against an oppressive male regime.

The Other

"Popular media rhetoric has taken to defining everything that does not conform to the perceived norm as 'other,'" Fahad said. "Few nations and peoples are more notably attached to this label than those of the Arab world.

"Somewhere, there's a discourse going in how the planet presents itself, a kind of wild conflict between global vision and local reality, with one side winning — most of the time. Have projected perceptions taken us down a somewhat morbid set of exaggerated stereotypes, ignorance and most of all, fear?"

It's important, Fahad added, to take back that narrative and make it more celebratory. His first step in trying to do so, he said, was helping to develop Facebook Arabic to empower women in the Middle East through technology.


"I joined Facebook in 2010 to help develop Facebook Arabic, and whilst I knew it could be used for many things, my primary interest was to use Facebook as a tech solution for women in the Middle East," he said. "To make real use of this new phenomenon in social interaction, to empower the many entrepreneurial spirits I knew existed in my community, who could then find new ways in building business from their own homes — without worry or need to move around due to any given obstacles in front of them."

Instagram stars and Facebook-savvy Arabian women embraced the change and used it to express their own stories. That social change, he said, in part led to a growth in the tech industry for women.

Next Fahad turned to video games.

Thirty-five percent of tech entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa today are women, he said, compared to 10 percent globally. In Saudi Arabia, women employed in the Kingdom's private sector grew from 55,000 in 2010 to 454,000 by the end of 2013, according to figures from the Saudi Ministry of Labour.

"I wanted to really start telling our true story," Fahad said. "And to inspire change through creativity. I sat down, combined the transitioning aspects of my life, personal, observational and professional. I examined my creative desires, the creative desires and needs of my society, my traditions, our traditions, education, technology, innovation, entertainment, identity, and eventually ended up fusing it all into one platform. A platform that would not only start to demolish the construct of 'other' but also inspire and deliver real change."


The word "naem" means "yes" in Arabic. Na3m the company was founded to help deliver change through creativity.

Fahad describes NA3M as a transmedia creative incubator which hopes to build, shape and support Arab entertainment online. Through its divisions it creates, promotes, licenses and develops things like animated series, web comics, educational software and video games.


"By producing games about and for the benefit of the Arab world, a void is filled for under-serviced audiences in gaming and in the media — openly welcoming the rest of the world to explore and discover new content," Fahad said. "From racing and adventure to competitive sporting games, young, enthusiastic developers are able to highlight, share and celebrate their culture and inspirations which without incubation would not be able to come to fruition — leave alone compete in a flourishing international market."

NA3M, which is based in Jordan and Denmark, has 25 developers from 16 countries, and Fahad believes that the studio will double in the next year.


Since its launch, the studio has released a variety of games, including Run Camel Run, Nitro Punch, NA3M Words and Caravan Master Adventures. All were released on mobile devices.

One of the reasons NA3M is focusing on mobile is because it makes it easier for the company to release games and to get around government restrictions, said Ryan Riegg, chief operating officer and general manager at NA3M.

"Why do you need a publisher?" he said. "The world now is one of self-publishing mobile.

"Government restrictions don't come up when you're building for the rest of the world or mobile because it's really hard to restrict."

And NA3M's ambitions for games are growing.

Saudi Girls Revolution

As his talk wrapped up, Fahad showed the audience a quick glimpse of a big new project the company is working on: Saudi Girls Revolution, or SGR.

"It is going to be a comic book series that leads into a game focusing on new possibilities and new features and discussing certain issues that relate to Saudi women, exaggerated in a post-apocalyptic world," Fahad said. "We're focusing on trying to represent different stories and demographics of Saudi women in the protagonists we have."

The game, due out by the end of the year on mobile devices, will feature seven protagonists, all Saudi girls.

"In this post-apocalyptic future, women are placed in concentration camps with conservative men ruling the land and controlling resources," he said. "It is the story of the girls breaking out and liberating the Arab empire by replacing its leaders."


Rising out of this brutality, the women build and race souped-up motorcycles, according to the game's official website. The girls struggle through harsh landscapes from frozen mountain ranges to scorching deserts and crystal cities. Along the way they encounter enemies and mythical creatures such as baboon kings, crystal giants, fire dancers, mutants and zombie cyber-soldiers.

"I think it is the first time we are seeing Arab women in a powerful, empowering role where they are actually relatable, and most importantly, not oversexualized," Fahad said, "and not because of censorship but because ... I don't think that's a true representation of women and we wanted to showcase their strength."

Fahad added that while the studio remains focused on mobile, it is also looking at other technology.

"We built Saudi Girls Revolution ready for Oculus Rift," he said. "There's no point looking at the past; we're trying to own the future."

Culture war

Later, after his speech, a lunch and a brief public Q&A session, I asked Fahad if he thinks that the dominance of Western pop culture in places like the Middle East is part of a cultural war.

"Yeah, it's a huge thing," he replied without hesitation.

Riegg was quick to jump in.

"I don't like the use of the phrase 'culture war,'" he said. "I'm half Chinese and half white American and one of the things I love the most is when cultures come together and create something different.

"But you can't just have all of the American, Western content coming in all of the time. If that pushes out the other stuff you could lose some really good things. There are great stories coming out of the Middle East that don't get to be told. That's how [Fahad] convinced me to come on board, by saying, let's create opportunities for young Arabs to tell these stories.

"It's important that Saudi culture and art and Arabic culture and art also has a place on the global stage."


Much of Fahad's thinking on the ideas of culture comes from his childhood, splitting his time between a Middle Eastern upbringing in Saudi Arabia and his college years at Stanford.

"I was welcomed and embraced in Stanford," he said. "Young, educated Americans were unwilling to let someone else dictate their thought process and were eager to learn about a different culture and people."

And he says he sees that level of acceptance happening broadly in the U.S.

"Our culture is coming here and becoming pop culture," he said. "So now is the time to engage and to share and to build relationships between people through a game that may be telling a story about one person but really can be shared by everyone else."

As a self-described child of the internet, Fahad seems like the right person to be spearheading this movement. Decked out in fashionable clothes and a necklace featuring a gem-studded Stewie from Family Guy (big enough for the audience to notice it from across the theater), he talks with equal passion of anime, cartoons and video games.

"I see us all as humans and culture as culture, stories as stories," he said. "The internet is my home. I have no geography."

With Fahad, there is no time lost debating whether games are art or meaningful; games are important instruments in the struggle to reinvigorate Arabic culture.

So when asked by an audience member if his games might one day push back against things like intolerance of religion or the treatment of women, Fahad responds with his thoughts on art.


"That to me is what art is. Art is supposed to be a reflection of society, to challenge it and push people further," he said. "I don't believe the revolution that is happening in the Middle East is a political one, of course there are drives for it. You've seen it happen it in various countries before, particularly in the South. What I will say is that I truly believe what is happening is an artistic renaissance. This new digital age allowing us to show the world and each other that we are individuals and we do have these different complexities.

"Our goal is to push and help elevate consciousness, to allow people to start thinking critically, to start discussing issues. Our goal is not to attack or create dialog that is telling people what they should do without listening to their viewpoint."Babykayak