Is Dubai ready for what comes after the Expo 2020 win?

Is Dubai ready for the scrutiny that will follow the Expo 2020 win? Has the country learned any lessons from Qatar’s FIFA World Cup experiences? (image credit: http://www.expo2020dubai.ae)

The stage is all set, the bids are in. If I were a betting man I’d probably place my house on Dubai winning the Expo 2020, the World Fair that is set to be held in 2020 and which is expected to attract millions of visitors over a six month period. Of the other four national/city bidders Thailand has pulled out of the process and of the other three (Brazil, Turkey and Russia), two have been experiencing mass protests of late relating to governance issues (that’s a very PC way of saying riots, teargas and and general chaos as played out on television).

The bidding for the Expo 2020 is winding up this summer with a vote and decision expected by November. But if/when Dubai does win, what next? Ok, we have the plans to build a World Fair that is expected to bring in over 30 million people but as Qatar now understands the big events also bring major scrutiny.

Let me explain further; Qatar’s winning of the 2022 FIFA World Cup was exceptional and unexpected by most. Almost immediately after Qatar won the bid the questions came flying in. How does Qatar treat its ‘enslaved’ foreign workers? Will the beer flow for the fans? And, the most bizarre one I’m sure for the Qataris, will homosexuals be allowed to go to Qatar without facing the risk of being arrested? As they’ve found out, the bigger the event the greater the level of questioning on issues, many of which may not be directly related to the event.

I wonder how much Dubai is ready for this level of scrutiny? The Emirate suffered during the global economic crisis, and it could be argued that Dubai’s cause wasn’t helped by its lack of transparency on financial issues. How will Dubai cope with the level and intensity of questioning that will come win the Expo 2020 win? While I don’t see the Expo as being as high profile an event as the FIFA 2022 World Cup, Dubai and the UAE aren’t so dissimilar to Qatar in terms of issues such as labour rights, security issues and freedom of expression.

Is Dubai ready for the questions that will come after, Inshallah, the Emirate wins the Expo 2020 win? What do you think?

Balancing the information load – Saudi’s Ministry of Health and the Coronavirus

Do images such as this reassure or panic the public? (picture credit: Arab News)

When it comes to many issues, be it driving or otherwise, religion, and long beards, the Kingdom has always made the headlines. However, Saudi Arabia has been in the news recently for what could be an emerging health pandemic. The disease, named the Coronavirus, was first discovered and identified in the summer of 2012. Since then at least 30 people have died in Saudi Arabia from the Coronavirus according to the World Health Organization as reported by Reuters on the 31 May.

The country’s Ministry of Healthy has been criticized over a number of issues related to the Coronavirus. First up was the issue of firing the doctor who discovered the first case in the Kingdom and reported the virus (for the full story click on the link here for the piece on the UK’s The Guardian.

However, recent criticism has focused on a lack of transparency when releasing information about the Coronavirus. An article yesterday published in the English-daily Arab News was particularly scathing (by Saudi standards). I’m linking the article here and will quote in full below.

A specialist in infectious diseases said that withholding information by the Ministry of Health about the spread of the coronavirus following the deaths of the infected patients is significantly damaging and provides no benefit.

The specialist spoke on the condition of anonymity. He said citizens and residents in Saudi Arabia have the right to accessible information about the disease.

“I do not know why the Ministry of Health discreetly hid the information of the first case of Coronavirus in Saudi Arabia, and the infection got to Al-Ahsa region where the disease has appeared and is starting to spread. They bear the responsibility for this,” he said.

The specialist suggested that the reality seems to be withheld from the domestic public opinion, and the public does not know if the ministry has detailed information about the spread of the virus and refuses to disclose it, or whether they have not reached any conclusion. He said the Ministry of Health looks at research centers in Saudi universities as competitors when the relationship with research centers at universities should be a complementary relationship, not competitive.

He added that MoH indeed prefers to discover the scientific research on diseases via universities abroad rather than Saudi universities, although there are a number of Saudi universities that enjoy a huge potential and have reference laboratories recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO).

However, the Ministry of Health refuses to cooperate with them because they perceive them as competitors in spite of their supportive work with the MoH, he said.

He said preventive measures taken by the Ministry of Health lacks transparency, with no announcement about where the spread of infection started and whether it originated in Al-Ahsa or came from abroad. He also noted that ministry did not give any scientific information or details about the reasons for the spread of the virus.

“Unfortunately there are no details and nothing was published except the number of cases and deaths. This is not enough. It does not allow us to investigate the causes of the disease.”

Today, he said, there are more than 30 cases, but there is no clear information about the source of the disease and we do not know the results of the investigations.

What’s prominent here is that the article is a translation of a piece from Al-Eqtisadiah newspaper. Both papers are owned by the Saudi Royal family and the fact that these opinions are now running in the local press doesn’t bode well for the Ministry of Health. There’s no name associated with the ‘specialist’ and no invitation to respond by the Ministry.

There’s a significant lack of information about the Coronavirus, and when there’s a lack of awareness about a public issue such as a suspected epidemic people will seek information from other sources, most especially social media. However, if a public body reveals too much information they will be open to criticism that they are creating an unnecessary panic. There’s an interesting take on this issue by one public health blog, the Avian Flu Diary, that I’m going to quote below (do read the article in full if you have time).

We may simply be seeing a public relations backfire created as a direct, and 100% foreseeable, consequence of an overly secretive Saudi risk communications policy.

If there’s one thing you can count on in a crisis, it’s that rumors and speculation will rush in to fill any information void.

The other possibility is that this outbreak is somehow substantially worse than we are being told. But if that’s true, it seems unlikely that they could keep it hidden for very long.

Which puts us in a watchful waiting mode, looking for any indication – one way or the other – of how this outbreak is playing out.

It’s hard to see how this case has brought to light any positives for any of the parties involved. However, if there’s anything to be learned my hope is that the Ministry hires a public affairs agency that is specialized in such crisis communications, as this issue has the capacity to become much bigger and at a pace that few communications people would be able to handle. Remember SARS anyone?

Block and Bridge the SABIC way – an example from the World Economic Forum

Al-Mady is a media veteran and knows how to handle journalists through the use of techniques such as block and bridge (picture source: Arabianoilandgas.com)

There’s few companies which have a better reputation in the Middle East than SABIC. Founded almost forty years ago, Saudi Basic Industries Corporation has grown to become one of the world’s largest chemicals businesses and one of the top 100 corporations worldwide. SABIC is the largest public company as listed on Saudi Arabia’s stock exchange.

But no matter how well you try, there’s always some things that you can do better. SABIC’s CEO Mohammed Al Mady was at the World Economic Forum last week which was held in Jordan. Al Mady was speaking on a panel discussion alongside Saudi Arabia’s Princess Ameerah al-Taweel, the wife of Al Waleed Bin Talal and one of Saudi Arabia’s most outspoken women when it comes to female rights and the issue of change in the Kingdom.

Unsurprisingly, the issue of women’s employment in the Kingdom came up. This topic has been a major issue of debate over the past couple of years as the Kingdom has pondered how best to get women into work without upsetting cultural sensitivities.

The below quotes are from an article on Arabian Business which are a discussion between Princess Ameerah al-Taweel and SABIC CEO Mohammed Al Mady. It makes for an interesting if embarrassing read.

While a member of the audience during a separate WEF session on the Arab employment crisis, Princess Ameerah challenged Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) CEO Mohammed Al Mady to explain why his company had not “opened the door” to Saudi women.

Al Mady defended the company by saying it had employed 50 women, but the audience laughed when it was revealed SABIC had 20,000 employees.

“We have been slow for sure,” Al Mady conceded.

“That was not really by design that we want to be against women or anything, but we want to get the best practice done in Saudi Arabia because there are many mistakes that have happened and it really gives bad names for the employees and the employers.

“Now we’re in a position to get the best practices and do it in our company and you will see a big change.”

Well, yes, it’s not the best publicity for SABIC especially when one considers that most of SABIC’s plants are in the Eastern Region where women have been employed in mechanical roles by Saudi Aramco. However, what Al Mady did was a classic public relations tactic; he blocked and bridged. The technique is well-known and allows the interviewee to switch attention back to a key message or talking point. And Al-Mady spoke about a perennial favourite, military conscription. Below are quotes from both Arabian Business and Al-Arabiya.net.

“The countries have to work very hard in how to change the perception of their youth so that they can accept the existing jobs.

“How do we change them? Governments have to probably draft them into the military for six months before they go into the job market … [to] give them resilience, [teach] them how to be modest, how to work, how to take the ladder step by step until they reach what they want.”

“It gives them resilience… they have to take the ladder step-by-step before they get what they want. The countries have to work very hard and have to change the perception of their youth so that they can accept the existing jobs… The people themselves need to change.”

While I’m not completely sold on the concept of military service (it hasn’t done many favours to Egyptians, Syrians or Lebanese) Al-Mady’s block and bridge captured more headlines than the female employment gaffe and it says a great deal about Al-Mady’s media skills. If only more CEOs had his media abilities (maybe that’s a subject for another, future post).