The MADE Podcast – Carla DiBello

Tell us about your last decade in the Middle East and how you’ve developed a creative niche for yourself:

I have always gravitated towards this part of the world, but in being here over this last decade, I feel as though I’m watching this region fulfill the global potential I knew it had – and even surpass it. The last 10 years have been better than I could have ever expected. The amount of talent, the range of projects, the social changes, and the rate of growth in business, infrastructure and resources have been exponential. 

I didn’t start out with a niche – in fact, in many ways, I did just the opposite. There was just so much going on around me in the Middle East, so I initially focused on opportunity over specific areas. But one thing that worked well for me was to take the expertise I had cultivated in the West and used it to implement myself within the new ecosystem. In this way, I was able to bridge the best of both worlds. 

I think the unifying thread is storytelling, however. It’s a skill that’s often overlooked as an asset in the business world, but in my opinion, it’s one of the biggest value-adds. Storytelling is how we create relationships. It’s how we connect our experiences to find broader understanding and collaboration. 

As a producer, how have you brought your experience working into the USA into the new market of the GCC?

Living in the United States honed my skills. I was in the trenches – I had wins and losses. And these gave me a solid foundation when it comes to understanding how logistics and infrastructure play into every business sector. When moving to the Middle East, I was able to apply those same skills to a new terrain. A good business person knows that where there is curiosity, there is also opportunity. And the same goes for storytelling. 

I am a businesswoman first and foremost, but I consider every sector of business a kind of production in its own way. My business and production practice is rooted in the knowledge that when it comes to getting your ideas across, content is always king. And a lot of the same tools are applicable – from the ability to gauge opportunities, to understanding the importance of synergy on small and larger scales, to timing and knowing what components are crucial to building a message that others can identify easily.  

What are the key projects that have been stepping stones for you career-wise?

I think the ones I’ve been the most passionate about have also inherently been some of the bigger stepping stones for me. Passion can make seemingly impossible things become reality. The documentary, Electric Kingdom (2019), will always be close to my heart as it was one of our first projects for Arabia+ and also one of the most pivotal when you consider when and where we were at that moment in time. It’s a behind-the-scenes documentary that follows the first Formula E electric car race in the Middle East, right around the time where it became legal for women to drive. Saudi Arabia was just beginning to open up and make some major social changes – and we were right there at the base camp of it all. Electric Kingdom also proved to me that I could succeed in storytelling in a different environment, outside of the United States. And its success was proof to myself and the rest of the Arabia+ team that this was a kind of story that the rest of the world was hungry for as well, not just the Middle East. 

How did the concept of ARABIA Plus emerge?

In the beginning, it was so organic that I don’t know if we even realized what we were creating until in many ways, it was already created. It was more that the stories that told us they needed to be made. And they just kept coming. The response to those first few stories, and also just the news that we were making them, was the biggest signifier that we were really onto something. 

We had so much enthusiasm from both the East and also the West. The lack of knowledge in the West about the Middle East simply comes from lack of access. We want Arabia+ to be the home of Middle East content that is accessible in English for those who may not have the opportunity to understand the experiences over here who may not have yet traveled to this part of the world. We want them to have a better understanding of the culture, the similarities in our collective human experience as well as the differences that make the Middle East so special. We want to provide a platform for both aspiring creatives and authentic stories in a way that gives the creator control and presents the narratives with dignity. 

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve encountered getting this project off the ground?

The biggest challenge has by far been finding the right focus. There’s just so much opportunity everywhere. It’s been a lesson in control to let things happen organically and not to jump on every opportunity or chase all the potential, because there is so much out there that can be done. In both business and production, the biggest skill to have is to know what should be done first and what can wait, but it’s an ongoing practice. It’s easy to create an enormous amount of content very quickly. But developing the right stories takes far more time. And it takes patience. 

Because we are a little edgier in the stories we want to share, staying on brand also means being a little more discerning with what we create. We are more focused on quality over quantity. We see ourselves as a brand of the future. And that means being ok with taking a little more time and patience, paired with visionary grit. When Avatar came out, for example, it changed the face of film forever. And even though it took over 4 years to create, once it came out, the world suddenly felt like it changed overnight. That’s how big changes often happen. Slowly and quietly and under wraps, but once it’s out, the impact feels instantaneous.  

Why is it an important new streaming service for the region?

I would call Arabia+ more of a platform than a service. It’s a hub that provides access to creators and audiences alike, amplifying local voices while allowing the globe to immerse themselves in Middle East content. 

A platform like this has the potential to connect creators and audiences more intimately as well, which I think has been missing from the global conversation altogether, when it comes to other platforms. The rest of the world has a somewhat archaic idea of what the Middle East is like, and we want to replace that with something that’s both genuine, dynamic, and real.  

What do you see as the most important and exciting content sources coming out of the GCC?

It often begins with the locations. From AlUla to Rijal Alma to Dubai or  Abu Dhabi, every place unleashes a wellspring of stories, resources, unique dynamics, etc. 

My team and I have also spent a lot of time getting to know aspiring filmmakers. The young people within the MENA region are just incredible. Their perspective, style, talent, and hunger for storytelling is infinitely inspiring and bottomless when it comes to content. Where we are today globally has evolved and changed so much in such little time – the world itself is fresh again. The stories are fresh even to the GCC. 

And these days, people don’t have to go the traditional route to be a filmmaker. Sometimes it’s not even about the story itself, but more about finding new ways to tell a story. The younger generation is already becoming a master at that, and we want to help amplify their narrative contributions.. 

Who are you most interested in talking to with Arabia Plus and how do you see this brand evolving over the coming years?

Global reach. We want to talk to everyone. We want to facilitate conversations. But the truth is we want to welcome anyone with an idea. We want to mentor young creators and help them grow into powerful voices. We want Arabia+ to be that stepping stone that they need to reach a larger audience and to tell stories in an even bigger way.

How has your perception of the Middle East changed over the past decade and how do you think the world’s perception of the region has changed?

I’ve always been drawn to this area of the world, but before I moved here, the Middle East was such a place of wonder and mystery to me. And now, it is simply home. It’s the place that I feel the most familiar, the most grounded, the most like myself. When it all boils down, familiarity is a large part of what makes a place feel like a home. Familiarity is also a cornerstone of community. It’s a way to make us feel connected with the others around us. 

It hasn’t just been my shift of seeing the Middle East as home that has changed in the last decade. When I used to tell new colleagues and acquaintances that I live in the Middle East, I would be met with blank stares and baffled expressions. But now, it’s met more with enthusiasm and intrigue.

From hosting Formula 1 and Dubai hosting the first ever World Expo, golf, and now the World Cup 2022 in Qatar, there’s no ignoring that the Middle East is in full force. The region has always been a major player but now, it’s being recognized as one on a larger scale. It’s a huge testament to the leadership in the region. And it’s such a pleasure to see it happen from this side of the world. 

What are the most difficult things about starting a new venture?

 The most difficult part is getting others to see and be convinced of the vision you have. 

 But that’s a challenge that’s to be expected when you spot a new opportunity that others don’t. It means you have to be constantly aware of representing the project diligently, which means telling the story the right way. When you begin a new venture, you’re also the main ambassador for the project, which also means you’re responsible for its narrative.

As a self-made entrepreneur, how do you measure your successes?

When you work for yourself, you really are working for your toughest boss. I’m far harder on myself than anyone else I’ve worked for in the past. I never feel like I’m doing enough or working hard enough. I have to stop and force myself to measure success – because without acknowledging our success, we lose perspective and also motivation.

Gratitude practice is good business practice. The best companies know this and bake it into their practice because they know that recognition empowers people to reach their full potential. I work it into my own work process as well as best I can. When I’m having a hard week, I like to go back to where I was the previous year – or even two years ago – to regain perspective on how far I’ve come. It’s a way to gauge your metrics. It allows you to look to future work with a sense of optimism and energy. And there’s always more work to be done.

What’s coming for you in 2023?

There are a lot of exciting projects around sports and media, so that will definitely be a focus. But I’m also dedicating a lot of time to growing the vision of Arabia+ even further. We have some projects in development that we are very excited about. Just in 2023 alone, we are working with like-minded film makers around topics that include space, tourism, sports, history, and even more. 

Share with us the most priceless lesson you’ve learned this year so far:

Don’t force anything. When the time is right, or if it’s meant to be, then it will feel easy. Even the challenging tasks. You’ll be drawn to do it. I really don’t believe in forcing anything in business, because that is never sustainable long term. If it’s meant to happen, it will happen seamlessly. And also, don’t compare yourself to others, and don’t be so hard on yourself. Chances are, you’re doing far better than you think you are. 

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