Prominent Emirati commentator and journalist Sultan Al Qassemi. With such a huge following on Twitter, was he tweeting updates during the Arab Media Forum?

The tenth Arab Media Forum kicked off this morning in the presence of 2,400 media personalities and experts from the Middle East region, and Arabian Bytes was there to catch all the action from Day One.

After being officially opened by His Highness Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, the two-day forum – which is taking place at the Grand Hyatt Dubai – began with a keynote speech by Egypt’s Minister of Culture, Emad Abu Ghazi (who attended after Egypt’s post-revolution Prime Minister, Essam Sharaf, apparently pulled out at the last minute). And considering the theme of this year’s forum: ‘Arab Media: Riding out Storms of Change’, it was little surprise a keynote was delivered by an Arab country that has witnessed significant change this year.

Day One of the Arab Media Forum 2011 focused heavily on “new media” with the special appearance of speakers, including Laila El Honi, Zeid El Heni, Sultan Al Qassemi, Shadi Hamid, and Lamia Radi. With social media becoming a catalyst for change in the region this year, the sessions explored the various roles social media played, and how the Arab world – more specifically, Arab youth – is now portrayed.

Sultan Al Qassemi – a well-known commentator on Arab affairs, as well as a prominent user on Twitter (he even is verified) – began the discussion with the rise in popularity of social media sites, notably Facebook and Twitter.

“As journalists, we are able to connect with each other in live time through social media,” he told the audience, adding that those channels were not vital for development, but useful as a tool to connect and communicate. And the proof is in the results with “Facebook users rising from 11 million in 2009 to 22 million in 2010,” he continued.

Asked how his number of Twitter followers went from 4,000 to over 60,000 after the Tunisian and Egyptian revolution, Al Qassemi responded that it was thanks to his quick translation of Arabic news to English properly.

He said: “Users noticed that my translations made sense thus were received much faster than traditional media.”

He added that he was also being followed by Egyptian Twitter users who would send him news and he would publicise it. There was one downfall however, explaining that real-time news also spread fear in the area.

One of the first Arab countries to highlight how powerful social media could really be in the region is Tunisia, with Tunisian blogger Zeid El Heni stating: “Forty per cent of Tunisians use social media. During the uprising, since traditional media was not available, social media was used to communicate news and connect people.”

El Heni went on to add that while many revolts tend to be for political or military purposes, it was the economy that the Tunisian people had had enough of.

“It was a people’s revolt. No parties. Just people,” he said. “Social media compliments traditional media, but it does not compete. Our weapons were our cell phones. We were able to video the events and send to the world.”

Meanwhile, Shadi Hamid, Director of Research at the Brookings Doha Center played devil’s advocate by saying that we should not only look at the positives of social media, but also the limits they carry.

“Arab media expands to the world. You cannot hide behind curtains because with media, the world is watching. Social media takes us only so far until nation states decide to participate.”

Veteran Egyptian correspondent and journalist, Lamia Radi agreed with Hamid stating that only 9.2 per cent of Egyptians are Facebook users – that’s 7 million out of 85 million Egyptians.

“Social media played a role in the revolution, but it wasn’t a primary one.”

What’s interesting is that all speakers agreed however that the Arab world will never achieve the concept of true media completely until “true democracy” is achieved.

The Arab Media Forum 2011 will conclude tomorrow with the Arab Journalism Awards that recognise outstanding contributions to journalistic excellence.