The past week has been an interesting one for foreign media junkies who follow affairs in the Gulf. Two articles were published in the English-speaking press which have proved to be controversial. The first was a damning piece in the New York Times on labor rights for workers hired from the Asian sub-continent to build the New York University Abu Dhabi. The second was a fine piece of investigative journalism from the Sydney Morning Herald on the subject of government subsidies for Etihad, the Abu Dhabi-owned airline.
The above criticisms in the foreign media shouldn’t surprise experienced communications professionals. Etihad is becoming a global brand with stakes in a number of airlines across Europe and Australia. Similarly, the report about labour issues relates to an American institution, New York University, and its Abu Dhabi campus. Qatar has similarly experienced negative publicity from abroad relating to the country’s labour practices following its winning of the rights to host the 2022 World Cup.
Recently, I attended a conference on the subject of corporate social responsibility. When asked about whether expatriates should tackle these issues with both governments and the national population, one of the most senior communications professionals in the region responded by saying ‘we’re the guests and so we shouldn’t tackle these issues.’
Unfortunately, the most common refrain to any comment which can be taken in a negative light is, ‘if you don’t like it, then leave.’ There’s a lack of moral courage shown by many expatriates to talk about issues which may offend, or which may get them into the bad books. Similarly, are many nationals willing to listen to the opinions of others? The concept of traditional Arabian hospitality is often talked about, a tradition that requires the host to listen to and honour the guest, but the reality on the ground is often different.
Modern societies are mature enough to take on board different voices, to learn from the opinions of others. As a person who has tried to do his part for the rights of others, I do find it embarrassing that as the people who live here in the region, we’re unable to raise these issues with our hosts in a civilized dialogue (and for those who say I’m looking to impose foreign, western standards there are many hadiths or sayings of the Prophet pbuh on issues such as workers’ rights).
Should we have the moral courage to speak on these issues, to benefit the communities and the countries with which and in which we live? Or should we remain silent? The answer, to me at least, is obvious. What do you say?