Getting the communications balance right – Ras al-Khaimah, beaches and modesty

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I do feel for anyone who has to communicate on behalf of a government body in the Gulf. That’s especially so in places where there’s conflicting, divergent views resulting from a strong cultural diversity and significant business interests with the outside world. I remember the late Yasser Arafat often getting away with making one point in Arabic and then saying the exact opposite in English (there’s many other examples out there too). With the advent of the internet, social media, and a horde of citizen journalists out there in cyberspace it’s no longer possible to say explicitly different things to different constituents.

In this week’s The National newspaper in the UAE there was a great example of the above. On the 22nd of April police from the Emirate of Ras al-Khaimah announced a bikini ban for the area’s beaches. Ras al-Khaimah is a beautiful part of the United Arab Emirates. With a population of just over a quarter of a million people Ras al-Khaimah is known for its pristine beaches, and also for its rapidly growing tourism sector and free trade zone. However, the Emirate is also conservative. Trying to balance the two interests, tourism and tradition, isn’t easy as the below quotes from The National’s article on the 22nd April illustrates.

Bikinis have been banned from public beaches in the emirate as police urge residents to “use common sense” and dress modestly.

The municipality and police have put up signs on public beaches that state: “All coastgoers should commit to public morality and modest clothing”.

Offenders will be given a warning and after a second warning, they could face an unspecified fine.

The two most popular beaches in Ras Al Khaimah are located next to hotels where swimmers sunbathe in thong bikinis or trunks alongside women in burkinis, a modest full-body swimsuit designed for Muslim women.

On weekends and at sunsets, RAK’s public beaches fill with women in full hijab, who come with their families. Women in swimwear are a rare sight at these beaches and there are no women-only beaches in RAK.

In a plea to the public, police urged beachgoers to comply with “public morality and dressing modestly” to respect the country’s traditions and culture.

The move followed complaints by families about tourists who attended public beaches wearing indecent clothing.

The public have greeted the ban in Ras Al Khaimah, a conservative emirate with a large Emirati population. In RAK, it is common for women to dress for the beach by putting on more clothing so that they do not attract attention from men.

“I totally agree with that [ban] for us because it’s not a respectful thing to have on our beaches,” said Hessa Ahmed, a 31-year-old Emirati mother-of-two.

Many people, like Ms Ahmed, would like tourists to cover up but are too shy or polite to approach them. Her last visit to the beach ended abruptly when a man and woman in revealing swimwear sat near her family.

“I wasn’t sure about what she was going to do,” said Ms Ahmed. “I was afraid she would take off her top. So I preferred just to drive away just in case anything was going to happen, so I would just be away and my kids wouldn’t see them.

“There was no sign or board to inform these people you shouldn’t wear this, you shouldn’t wear that.”

Ras Al Khaimah has adopted a lenient approach to public dress in hotels but customs remains overwhelmingly conservative in public spaces, such as shopping malls.

The above was a great piece and insight into the challenges facing a country that is looking to adapt culture with business. And then came the follow-up article the next day in The National.

Police have backtracked over their statement that bikinis and tight trunks are banned from public beaches.

Revealing swimwear is not officially outlawed but strongly discouraged because of cultural sensitivities, police clarified.

“We respect the rights for people. We follow UAE law,” said Maj Marwan Al Mansoori, the head of public relations and moral guidance for RAK Police.

“Our campaign is not about catching people. We just want to tell people about our culture and our community.”

“You should respect our culture and our community rights but you have your rights,” said Maj Al Mansoori. “If it is under our law, you can do it.

“We wanted to tell people what we are thinking. It is communication between cultures. We want to explain this to people.”

It’s worth reading both articles in full, and to put this in its full context few Westerners will use a public beach in Ras al-Khaimah; all the hotels have private beaches which are fully equipped and only for the use of guests. However, such communications outreach isn’t going to help draw foreigners to a part of the country and world that has everything to offer. Perception is everything, especially online when social media is involved. The more people who talk about an issue, the more that issue or perspective is believed no matter its veracity.

This is a reminder about the challenges of trying to get the communications balance right in today’s connected world, where a tourism can view such news pieces while booking their vacation just as easily as a local sitting for a tea and reading the morning newspaper. Media relations is a tough job and I do hope that lessons are learned from this and that the right balance is found, both in terms of educating foreigners coming in (can you really tell someone what to wear after they’ve seen the glossy brochure/website, booked, traveled and arrived) and in preserving local cultural norms. And remember, if nothing else works there’s always the burkini!

The burkini! Foot flicking and hands on hips are optional (credit alrasub.com)

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