I'm am obsessive compulsive communicator who has lived in the Gulf for almost a decade. Enjoying the challenge of working in a region where you've got to be innovative, patient and determined to make things happen. Miss being a full-time journalist! Miss family even more!
Sometimes I mouth off, but more often I grit my teeth and try to encourage change through a smile (not as easy as you think). Despite now living in Dubai Bahrain is home for me.
A new year, a new job and a new country. Well, the last isn’t exactly true. I’m back in Saudi Arabia, the country I lived in for a number of years over a decade back. And if it wasn’t for the unmistakable Najd accent and the landmarks, I may be fooled into thinking that I was somewhere else. The change in Riyadh alone has been remarkable. There’s the obvious changes, such as women driving (and yes, I’m both enjoying and a little fearful of sitting in the passenger seat as my wife drives me around a town she used to know even better than me). But there’s also a shift in society, in how people deal with each other. There’s more activities in Riyadh, including live shows (I never imagined I’d see an ice show in Riyadh). Society is shifting, partly due to a top-down push and partly due to the relentless energy of the Kingdom’s youth (who make up the majority of the population).
This means opportunities for communications and communicators. For the past two years, the Kingdom has been in many ways the boom market for new accounts, with the launch of government project after government project. And this increasing focus on Saudi Arabia will inevitably translate to demand for more, better communicators on the ground, professionals who both understand the local market (and its language) as well as the media and communications outside of the Kingdom. For the Saudis, this is key. The country I know, and a people who are the most generous and hospitable in the Gulf, is a far cry from how Saudi Arabia is perceived abroad. Open, transparent dialogues will help alter those perceptions.
In true New Year’s style, I’m going to make a few simple predictions about communications in Saudi Arabia. First of all, I believe that the Kingdom will host more foreign agencies over the coming 12 months – you cannot serve the Saudi market from abroad, even from Dubai (and the UAE’s working week shift makes this more difficult). Second, I also believe we’re going to see more home-grown agencies appear, with specializations in new areas such as internal comms and change comms. And we’re going to see more Saudis enter the comms field, which will be essential if we’re going to create the type of professional I believe who can help the function flourish here, a hybrid who can understand both Saudi Arabia and its people as well as the outside world. Both agencies and those client side need to help make this happen by working with universities and giving young Saudis a taste of what communications is all about.
For now, we’re settling in and enjoying the new Saudi Arabia while getting reacquainted will all that makes this country so special. And I’m hoping to both blog and podcast more from this truly special place. If there’s anything you’d like me to write about, please do let me know!
It’s been a while since I’ve written here (I blame overwork, events, and myself for being tardy). But I do want to share some pieces I’ve written recently for others. Here’s my first, with a look at ethics in the region, starting with a look at a local public relations association (MEPRA, if you’re asking) in a piece I wrote for Campaign Middle East.
Yes, I know you’re yawning. There’s really no way to make this issue sexy. But, the issue of good corporate governance matters. It’s the basis for trust and transparency. When a company or organization is above board, you feel you don’t need to question what’s going on. There’s accountability too, and questions get answered head-on. There’s no spin. And this leads me to why I’m even writing this. Recently a local industry body for the public relations sector announced two new fellowships. The fellows are very good at what they do. But they’re also very much part of that organization, with one of them serving on the strategy board (which puts forwards names for fellowships, unless I’m mistaken), and the other on the executive board (which makes the decisions on the fellowships).
So, why does this matter? It’s a good question, and I was asked this by one of the two new fellows a couple of years back when I raised similar issues. After all, this is an honorific title. Well, I work in a job that is all about reputation. My job is to build and protect reputations. And I truly believe the best way to do this is by being straightforward and open. And I benefit indirectly when others do the same, as my profession becomes more trusted. That’s why associations over the world work hard on their corporate governance. To give you an example, here’s what the International Association of Business Communicators says for nominee eligibility as part of their own corporate governance.
Only members of IABC in good standing are eligible to be nominated to be IABC Fellows.
The nominee must have been a member of IABC for at least five years. (The years of membership do not have to be consecutive.)
Current members of the executive board, the Fellows Selection Committee, and anyone who has served as IABC Chair in the past three years are not eligible.
Interestingly, they seek out diverse nominations from their members, just like other associations do.
Now, here’s the other reason why we need to get serious about how we do things as an industry here. I hope I don’t shock anyone when I say that the Middle East isn’t generally known for its transparency or accountability. It may be a stereotype, but this is an image that we shouldn’t be reinforcing through our actions.
I remember the last time I wrote a similar piece, a couple of years back, about the same association that was appointing members to its board in violation of its own charter. The response wasn’t exactly a lesson in reputation management. But I hope that this time around, there’ll be a little more thought given to corporate governance. Given that we work in an industry that’s based on ethics, it should matter to every communications professional how the industry bodies that represent us behave.
The article hits all the points – it’s to the point, makes great observations, and is designed to spark a debate (which it has done incredibly well online). It’s exactly the type of opinion piece that any editor would be desperate to pick up and publish.
And yet, it’s increasingly difficult to find any type of content published in the Gulf’s media which doesn’t adhere to an official government position. Be it censorship or self-censorship, the outcome is the same. There’s no discussion of ideas, no debate on how to progress. As one friend put it, the media is the last place anyone in the Gulf should go to if they want to debate how the region can make any progress.
Open debate is essential for any society to move forward. It’s not always pretty, but airing thoughts in public helps to drive discussion around different ideas and points of view. Societies which promote this type of openness promote innovation. And yet we’re not benefiting.
Don’t take it from me. Read below the tweet of the UAE’s Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla about why this discussion should be had. I hope we’ll be able to do that, not on social media or on a blog from an institution thousands of miles away. But rather here on the ground, where it matters most. Let’s hope a push from more of us will give the region’s editors the bravery to run more pieces like Mira’s.
I’m going to start this blog by saying what is happening in Afghanistan is truly heartbreaking. The Afghan people deserve better, especially when it comes to our support.
With that, one country has very much been top of mind when it comes to supporting the efforts to get people out of Afghanistan. And that is Qatar. In part it’s good fortune: the country is a couple of hours flight from Kabul; Qatar has the largest US airbase in the region, at Al Udeid, and it also has relations with both the Taliban and NATO (Qatar has been hosting the US-Taliban talks for several years).
But this is only part of the story. Qatar’s Foreign Ministry’s communications team has been exceptional. They’ve done a number of things very well. And they’re an example of how government should be engaging with the media and on social media.
Spell out the story in numbers
Media like numbers. They want to see the full extent of what you’ve done. And every step of the way, the team at Qatar’s Foreign Ministry have been sharing updates on how many people have come through or are being hosted by Qatar. That number is now exceeding 40,000 people.
Make the story personal
There have been so many stories of sorrow, but also hope. Two really stand out for me. The first is how Qatar helped to get out the Afghan female robotics team from Kabul, rushing through paperwork and getting them and their families onto flights. Have a look at the NBC interview conducted with two of the young ladies, who are truly inspiring. Another story which sticks in my mind is how Qatar’s ambassador to Afghanistan and embassy staff in Kabul have been driving people to the airport, going through Taliban checkpoints and using their relations with the Taliban to ensure people safe passage.
Always be Ready to Engage
The final piece of the puzzle has been the willingness of the Foreign Ministry’s team to engage with the media. The Ministry’s spokesperson is Lolwah AlKhater, and she’s been formidable, reacting online and hosting people on the ground.
There have been physical checkpoints on the Abu Dhabi-Dubai for over a year, ostensibly to check for any Covid-19 infections from the Northern Emirates. The border may seem strange to those from outside of the country, but you have to remember that the UAE is made up of seven Emirates, each of which effectively controls its own borders. And so Abu Dhabi decided on these checkpoints and they’re still going strong in 2021. They were recently upgraded on the main entry point into the Emirate, on Sheikh Zayed Road. Entry doesn’t take too long, as long as you know what you’re doing.
And that’s the issue, as it’s very hard to find one place to find information on what to do. First of all, I want to say I cannot believe I’m writing this. There should be a simple website with all the details needed to know how to get into Abu Dhabi from the Northern Emirates (basically Dubai). But there isn’t, as no one has taken it upon themselves to do this (no government organization, medical facility or the like) rather than posting stuff on every single social media platform out there. The best options to look at for updated information are the airlines (either Emirates or Etihad).
Still, given the issues of getting in, especially for people who aren’t resident in the country, I thought I’d share some do’s and don’ts. At least until someone in government comes up with the idea of a website explaining what to do.
The First Step – the AlHosn App
Let’s start with the most basic step. You have to have the AlHosn app on your smart phone. You cannot enter Abu Dhabi without this. For anyone based in the UAE, it’s pretty easy to install. You can find the app on both Apple’s and Google’s app stores. Download it, and you’ll be asked to add your Emirates ID number as well as a phone number. The app will download all of your vaccination and testing information, which is why it’s essential for entering Abu Dhabi (the border doesn’t accept any other documentation).
Now, the app isn’t always easy to use. If you’re locally based and you have issues with the AlHosn app, it may be because your Emirates ID doesn’t have the right phone number linked to it. You will need to update your phone number on the Federal Authority for Identity’s website – you can do this here. You can also try calling the AlHosn team on 8004676, but they take an age to pick up (if they do at all), and they’re not that helpful.
Now, if you’re coming from abroad it’s more complex. You will need a UAE phone number, as well as your Emirate Unified Number. You can ask for this from passport control, or you can also try the same website. You’ll also need to put in your UAE phone number via this website. You will need to be patient as it’s not always easy to link the app to your Unified Number. When we had family over, it worked for some of them but not for others. And we had to keep trying over a number of days.
Testing to Enter
Ok, once you have AlHosn sorted, you will need to get a test to enter Abu Dhabi. You can do a PCR nose test and these are now valid for seven day entry for those who are vaccinated or 48 hours if you aren’t vaccinated (getting the results usually takes a day), or a DPI blood test at a site close to the border (you’ll need to take a left at Ghantoot before the border). The DPI test will be with you in a matter of minutes, but it’s only valid for 24 hours and you must do a PCR test the next time you try to enter Abu Dhabi. And once you’re in, if you are staying you need to take more PCR tests if you are not vaccinated.If you’ve entered with a negative PCR result and are not vaccinated you must take additional PCR tests on days four and eight after entry if you are still in Abu Dhabi. If you have entered on a DPI test and you aren’t vaccinated, you must take PCR tests on days three and seven. A DPI test cannot be used to enter Abu Dhabi consecutive times.
Now, this is where it gets fun. If you’re looking to come into Abu Dhabi from Dubai and you’ve just come into the UAE, you’re going to have a challenge. If you’ve entered the country and you’ve spent less than ten/twelve days in the country (I’ve been told both numbers), you will need to visit the International Travelers tent on the right, before the border crossing. They’ll ask for your passport and travelers ticket (even if you’re a resident). You will have to quarantine at a fixed address, and you’ll have to wear a watch that’ll give your location at all times. Given that AlHosn shows when you’ve entered the UAE, there’s no way around this. And you’ll also need to do a PCR as well before you try to enter (you will not be allowed to do a DPI blood test).
Your best bet is to wait out the first ten/twelve days of your trip in Dubai, then do a PCR test and enter Abu Dhabi. Or if you have to enter Abu Dhabi, fly into the airport. The last time I tried to come in with visitors from outside the country (ironically from Bahrain, which has a travel corridor and no quarantine for vaccinated Bahraini nationals and residents), I was told three different ways to enter by officers at the border. There’s clearly confusion even among staff who are posted on the checkpoints.
Update for Travel Corridor Countries
Here’s one useful input from Oisin. If you’re coming from a Travel Corridor country which has an agreement with Abu Dhabi (currently there are four – Bahrain, Greece, Serbia and the Seychelles) and you haven’t been in the UAE for more than six days, you can go to the International Travelers tent and get a one-day pass to enter Abu Dhabi. You must have done a PCR test beforehand (valid for 48 hours). Once you hit day six of your stay in the country, you can travel as per the above.
That’s it for now. Best of luck coming in, and if I’ve missed anything out do let me out.
Who likes to be confused? Who loves to act when so much is uncertain, or unknown? And to quote the infamous Donald Rumsfeld, what do you do when there are so many known unknowns? Not me. But I’m ok with uncertainty. Maybe it’s because of the region I’m in (try getting details on how to travel in the Middle East during Covid, seriously), or maybe it’s because I understand that things evolve, and it’s not always easy to find every single piece of information from the get-go. Things evolve, and we must understand that.
Sometimes, I feel as if I’m in a minority when it comes to being comfortable with uncertainty. I used to work with a firm where everything had to be understood, every fact and detail presented to management. I’d chase and chase and chase, and spend both time and energy to do this. And I’d do this knowing that I wouldn’t be able to get everything asked of me, especially if it was related to government. Either the people I would be asking didn’t have the full picture, they didn’t care (yes, it happens), or they’d be too busy to respond.
In this situation, I’d have to make an educated guess, based on my thoughts and experiences. It’s not perfect, but how many times in our life are we certain of everything? It’s understandable that we crave the safety of certainty. As Author David Rock writes in his book Your Brain at Work, “The brain craves certainty. A sense of uncertainty about the future and feeling out of control both generate strong limbic system responses.”
And that for me is the rub. To paraphrase Eckhart Tolle, “When you become comfortable with uncertainty, Infinite Possibilities open up for communications.”
Those that are uncomfortable with uncertainty are missing out on opportunities to communicate better. And we also become open to trying new things, to experimenting and taking risks. Even though I’ve worked in the industry for two decades, I can never be sure of any outcome. But it doesn’t mean that I won’t try. And that’s because I’m ok with uncertainty, and not knowing all possible factors and outcomes. I’ll collect enough information and look to make a judgement on what I have in front of me.
It’ll do us all good to be ok with uncertainty, and this must be one of the lessons of the past two years (who hasn’t been faced with uncertainty in 2020 and 2021?). Let’s collect and analyze data, and make a judgement. But let’s do it quickly, without excess resources being spent on chasing data or information which we often can’t get or doesn’t exist. The most exciting opportunities often lie beyond the initial uncertainty. Go on, take a risk. It’ll make you a better communicator.
Whoever is in charge of bringing more media investments to Dubai, may luck be on their side. It’s drier out there than a summer spent in the Sahara. The media is suffering. I’ve had some brilliant journalists approach me recently asking about a move to public relations (and even cynical old me has been taken aback by these asks), as they’re under so much pressure from others, be it sales or management, that they feel they can’t do their jobs. And then there’s the difficulty in getting a good story published; more and more, if you’re not advertising, you’re not getting coverage (unless you’re the government).
I truly get this; media outlets need to make money and I have countless conversations with marketing teams as to why this matters and why they should put money into local publications (often the response is, we’re paying the PR agency and so we should get coverage – this drives me nuts and reflects one of the many misunderstandings of how PR and media works).
Let’s be straight. The number of media outlets reporting straight news is dropping. And those working in communications for brands need to have a Plan B. So, what’s your Plan B? How are you getting out your message?
We all know about social media, and there’s always the option to boost messaging using advertising (especially on the social media sites). But I’m still surprised by how few organizations here, especially local brands, are using their owned media to get out their messaging.
I’m not going to go into too much detail, but there’s so many audio choices – think podcasts and audio chat rooms like Clubhouse and TwitterSpaces – and there’s the “traditional” option of a blog page. Blogs like this one can be done for next to no costs and technical expertise, and they can be used to build up a long-term audience through email signups and social media. If you want to, you can start off by posting articles to LinkedIn (though I’d always recommend your own site for SEO purposes). And there’s also vlogs, video blogs, which is how many “social media influencers” started out.
And then there’s your own influencers, namely your employees. I’ve often found them to be brilliant at pushing out your company’s news on their own social media feeds. There are tools to push out content to them, such as LinkedIn Pulse or Sprinklr. But you don’t need an app – you could even push to them content via email and incentivize their posting.
Technology is making it much, much easier for organizations to create their own channels to push out content. Yes, the media matters a great deal. But smart communicators need to think about what they can do to create new channels for pushing out good messaging and content. What I’ve listed above is just a sampling of what you can do with the owned media element of the PESO model. And I can’t wait to see what you come up with. As always, please do share ideas. The more we share, the better we all get.
The past couple of weeks have been remarkable; we’ve seen many across the world voice their opinion on events in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. What’s been marked is how support for Palestinian rights is growing, especially in the United States. We’ve had voices in Congress stand up and argue that how Palestinian citizens are treated is akin to apartheid. That would have been unthinkable even a decade back.
What’s also been fascinating to see is how local populations in the Gulf, most especially in the UAE and Saudi, have spoken with anger and emotion about what Israel has done, both in Gaza and in Jerusalem. Only last year, the UAE and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords with Israel, formally establishing ties between the three countries (they were followed by Sudan and Morocco).
At the time there was an outpouring of support in the UAE among nationals for the agreement, and little in the way of pushback (there was noticeable pushback in Bahrain). It’s rare for nationals to actively voice their own views online, if those views go against governmental policy. To quote a recent piece by the Associated Press, “No matter what your national priorities are at the moment or regional priorities are at the moment, when stuff like this happens, the Palestinian issue comes back and hits you,” Emirati political analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla told the AP’s Aya Batrawy.
So, what can these two points teach us? Firstly, global events have never been more interrelated, thanks to the raw filter of social media. And second, raw emotions can still overcome national considerations, especially when it’s a religious issue.
As communicators, we’ve got to be able to understand the implications of these issues for our audiences. We keep talking about reading the room, and being the link between the outside and the inside. Which is true. But how many brands are proactive on these social issues, rather than reactive?
On that note, I did wonder about the timing of an award by the local public relations association last week. They gave out two fellowships, recognising people for their service to the industry. One is the head of communications for the UAE’s foreign ministry, who’s greatest success to date has been communicating the Abraham Accords.
While this person is a fine communicator, couldn’t the association have delayed giving this award? Would it have been more sensitive to do this, in light of people’s feelings about the conflict?
As always, am happy to hear your views. Let me know via the comments or on social media.
I’m excited. And I’ll tell you why. We’re launching the Asia-Pacific Association of Communication Directors in the Gulf. This matters to me, and should matter to us all. And here’s why. Many of us have looked to the West for instruction on communications. But I believe we need to look towards Asia. And here’s the simple reasons why.
In many respects, our cultures are very similar. The Middle East is a blend of high context cultures, with many things left unsaid. That’s the same for much of Asia, where cultural awareness is key to communicating. We share religious similarities, and common linguistic traits. Our governance structures could also be described as similar, with a certain opaqueness when it comes to public lobbying. And then there’s the growth of regional hubs such as Singapore, which resemble Dubai in many ways.
What’s fascinating is our shared experiences. Asia’s communicators have dealt with a myriad of challenging issues, such as the Asian Financial Crisis, the SARS and H1N1 pandemics, and a host of political crises. What’s also fascinating to look at is how many communicators in the Middle East hail from Asia. There’s more Asian expats in the Gulf working in communications than from any other region. And we have much to learn from them and from communicators across Asia-Pacific.
I believe that the APACD can be a bridge to gap the Gulf and Asia-Pacific. And as the co-chair, alongside my good friend Saba Al-Busaidi, we’re going to work with the APACD to bring their activities to the Gulf, so that we can learn from our colleagues in Asia-Pacific, as well as share our own experiences and abilities with them. That’s why I’m excited. If you want to know more, go and visit their website (click on the below) or reach out to me to know more.