In a preview from our forthcoming book, The Kinfolk Entrepreneur, Pip Usher meets Rashid and Ahmed Bin Shabib—the twin brothers giving voice to the modern Middle East.
Rashid Bin Shabib is seated behind his desk at the offices of Brownbook, the bimonthly Dubai-based periodical he launched with his twin brother, Ahmed. Wearing a kandoura, tousled dark curls bidding an escape from his white thobe, Rashid cuts a dashing figure. He’s internationally educated and erudite, as comfortable in Emirati national dress as he is in slim-cut trousers and owl-shaped glasses. He looks around him and sees the Middle East and North Africa as a region rich in tradition and beauty. And yet, whenever he flicks
on the news, it’s the same old story. Death. Destruction. Dark, heavy stuff. It’s hard not to let it wear him down.
“You read it, and then see it reinforced and reappropriated. It becomes an echo chamber to some extent,” he says of the mainstream media’s myopic portrayal of the Middle East. “We’re always hearing about topics of religion, tolerance, different value sets. That’s important, without a doubt. But that agenda is not our fight. Our job here is to show the progressive and optimistic side of the region.” Cue Brownbook, the brothers’ decade-old magazine that comes out of a desire to showcase a lesser-seen side of the Middle East that other media outlets largely ignore. Born and raised in the United Arab Emirates, the pair credit their grandfather—a businessman who later became Minister of Transport and Infrastructure—with instilling an academic interest in the evolving role of cities and society. Their mother, who raised them alone, was another powerful role model (“She’s very liberal, open-minded, progressive,” says Rashid). This conflation of interests and values can be seen on the pages of Brownbook, which describes itself as an urban guide to the Middle East and North Africa and unpacks the region’s modern identity.
“In Bahrain, Algeria, Alexandria, in Tripoli, Abu Dhabi and Jeddah, of course there’s normality,” says Rashid. “Not only is there a sense of stability, but there are progressive ideologies and a beauty that’s constantly evolving.” A recent issue of Brownbook showcased culture in Palestine; on its website, an accompanying short film featured a Palestinian-Belizean politician reflecting on his life. It’s an intimate and humanizing look at the ordinary—and extraordinary—individuals that make up the region and its diaspora communities. Or, as Rashid grandly de- clares, it’s “a periodical that audits the evolution of a culture.”
The brothers have witnessed the transformation of Dubai from small town to shiny metropolis. With the speed of a California gold-rush town, Dubai’s fortunes skyrocketed when crude oil was discovered in the 1960s. Frenetic development followed, an accompanying boom in real estate, finance, tourism and retail drawing a wave of migrants from around the world. Today, 83 percent of Dubai’s population is expatriate—a startling statistic that helps explain Rashid and Ahmed’s desire to map out who they are in a “post-modern, post-Oriental, very complex world.”
The brothers launched Brownbook in 2006—a bold move considering that many better-established magazines were disintegrating into financial disarray. But their decision was driven by practicalities; as Rashid explains, a magazine was the most practical vehicle for their ambitious storytelling. “Magazines are still the most progressive medium in which you can compile and build a narrative about a specific topic,” he says.
Even when dealing with subjects as complex as Palestine—the mere mention of which can send people into the political trenches—the Bin Shabibs are careful to remain neutral. They see the confrontational tactics employed in other countries as counterproductive in light of the more subtle social codes of the Gulf. “The whole whistle-blowing, finger-pointing style of journalism is well positioned in a liberal, democratic society,” says Rashid. “Whereas in a region that is extremely autocratic and driven by sheikhism, whistle-blowing and finger-pointing is not seen as the norm. It’s a Western approach toward journalism.”