I’ve been reading lately an old copy of "Arabian Sands", Sir Wilfred Thesiger’s remarkable account of his pathbreaking explorations in the 1930s in the vast Rub al Khali "empty quarter" of the southern Arabian Peninsula. There, slightly more than 70 years ago, he described this vast, heroic and untouched land; a million square miles of sand and wind, virtually absent of human footprints, save for the rare caravanaserai of bedouins and their camels en route to trade posts of Muscat, Doha or Salala.
Though as with everywhere else, time and progess has transformed these lands, the empty quarter remains still one of the most unpopulated parts of the planets, and very occassionally camel-loaded bedouin tribes still can be seen occassionally transporting goods across its desolate regions.
So it was with some fascination to read today on my RSS feed of mobile and wireless innovations that BBC’s Arabic Service has recently launched real-time SMS news feeds for its listeners to access up-to-the-minute news and information and information services across the Arab-speaking world.
The Arabic service, BBC’s largest foreign news service, was launched in 1938, shortly after Britons like Thessiger, T.E. Lawrence, and Freya Stark began to open the minds of their fellow citizens to the facinations of Arab culture and history. Broadcasting on shortwave wirless bands to receivers through Arabian and Middle Eastern capitals, BBC Arabic Service was one of the earliest efforts to bring wireless innovation to Arab lands, and link the peoples and cultures of the near east and the west.
Now, some 70 years on, with its new Arabic language mobile-based service, BBC’s engineers, coders, and journalists, in a sense, have come full circle in deepening the reach of wireless innovation in the region where their wireless services were first pioneered. Mobile phone penetration in Arab countries like Oman and Jordan where the BBC services are being launched are among the quickest growing globally.
And now the citizens of those nations — and others in the region soon to come — have ubiquitous access to the BBC’s insights and information about the world and its news and events directly on their mobile phones.
I wonder if Thesiger ever could haved imagined that this mobile future would emerge in the Arabian sands about which he wrote?