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.
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.
This is the second part of a blog I’m writing based on research undertaken by PR agency Cicero & Bernay and YouGov into the state of CSR in the Gulf, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. Yesterday I looked at the first half of the report. Today, I’m going to share the results on employer branding, on the impact of CSR on business, and also of the pandemic on CSR. To reiterate, this is a quantitative survey, and I do have reservations on the views shared. Let’s begin!
The Impact of CSR on Employer Branding
Let’s start with the simple view shared by the majority of executives surveyed – brands/organizations that are seen as more socially responsible find it easier to both attract and retain staff. The first statement, that of “A company’s CSR activities are an important consideration for job seekers,” was agreed with by at least 60% of executives from each region. The second statement, that of “A socially responsible company is deliberately sought out by job seekers,” was also agreed to by the majority of executives (the lowest score was for the Gulf excluding Saudi and the UAE, where only 49% of executives agreed to the statement. The most interesting statement put to those surveyed was, “Employees working in a socially responsible company are more motivated than those working for other companies.” Again, the majority of executives agreed or strongly agreed with this statement. It’s clear that being a socially responsible company is seen as an advantage when it comes to employees.
CSR Impact on Business
There were two statements on how CSR relates to business. The first was, “How do you think adopting CSR affects a company’s business overall?” The overall sentiment was agree/strongly agree, with the lowest score being 80% in the Levant (Jordan and Lebanon). The highest scores were in Saudi (92% agreed or strongly agreed) and the UAE (95% agreed or strongly agreed). The second statement put to those surveyed was, “How important is it for a company to adopt CSR into its business practices?” The response was again overwhelmingly positive, with 92% agreeing or strongly agreeing that adopting CSR positively impacts a company’s business.
CSR in Practice Across MENA
We now get to the why and how. Those surveyed were asked, “Why do you think it’s important for a company to adopt CSR into its business practices?” The primary response, with the exception of the Levant, was to improve the reputation of a company/brand (the Levant response was to secure a company’s future over the long-term, which may be a nod towards Lebanon’s economic distress) . The second isn’t so clear-cut; in Egypt, the Levant and the GCC excluding KSA and the UAE the purpose is to give back to society. In Saudi it is to get free publicity via word-of-mouth advertising. And in the UAE there’s a host of reasons.
When asked if they have a CSR programme in place, the majority of executives either said no or that they didn’t know. The UAE had the highest response rate, at 46%, followed by Egypt at 43%. The Levant was lowest at 20%. What is confusing here is all of the positive messaging shared by those interviewed beforehand – CSR supposedly helps with brand perception, with fending off competition, and with attracting and retaining talent. And yet why are there so few companies with CSR programmes? And why do so few executives know of their programmes (this also calls into doubt what they say throughout the survey)? The survey did ask why CSR programmes weren’t in place, but as there are no solid numbers to this, only percentages, it’s hard to gauge the reasons why.
There’s questions on how companies benchmark, as well as the importance of CSR to the company and the impact of CSR on the business overall. There’s also questions asked about consumer trust and CSR, supply chains and whether they’d stop doing business with companies that aren’t socially responsible. I’m going to skip these, and head to the last part, which is about CSR and that other C-word, Covid-19.
The Pandemic and CSR
This is the big topic for me, namely what impact has the pandemic had on CSR. The first question was, “How has the pandemic affected your CSR efforts?” For me, this could have been phrased better, as it doesn’t explicitly say if activities have gone up, or if they’re seen as more important by the organization. The Levant fares worst, which isn’t surprising given the freefall being experienced by Lebanon’s economy. The UAE fares best, with 53% saying somewhat/very positively. I find this fascinating, as I know many friends who’ve left CSR roles over the past year in the UAE as well as many charities who are suffering from a lack of cash flow. I’m just not so sure how this relates to reality on the ground.
Executives were also asked if CSR has become important (no surprises here, it has), as well as if they intend to keep up their CSR activities in 2022 – Egyptian, Saudi and the UAE executives said they would do more, while Levant and GCC executives said they’d do the same.
When asked what they’d focus on moving forward, there was no one big issue which stood out (I’m not sure why building company reputation is here, seeing as it’s an outcome and not an output). The most common area of focus was employees, which makes sense given mental wellbeing issues faced in 2020 and 2021.
Let’s lots more which could be said about CSR in the region, and I hope any subsequent reports will be both qualitative as well as quantitative (certain responses need much more validation given they don’t fully match up to my own experiences, and those of others I know working in CSR in the region). I’m going to end here for now. If you’d like to see the full report, you can download it from here – https://www.cbpr.me/mena-csr-survey-report-2020/
Corporate Social Responsibility… What is it exactly, and what are organizations doing about it? The UAE-based PR agency Cicero & Bernay Public Relations teamed up with research firm YouGov to understand opinions about the subject across the Gulf, in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.
The methodology was simple. The research team surveyed 219 C-suite executives from the UAE, KSA, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt. The respondents included decision-makers in key sectors, including aviation, automotive, banking and finance, construction and real estate, healthcare, and transport (importantly, it doesn’t mention if companies were private or semi-government). Data was collected online. The survey was 16 questions long, and the survey was undertaken in either English or Arabic. The pie charts below detail the industry type and country.
Now, let’s start with the big question. How many executives understand what CSR is? The picture here is mixed, with executives in the UAE claiming they know what CSR is, and those in the Gulf outside of the UAE and Saudi Arabia saying they don’t know what CSR is. I’m always a little wary of do you/don’t you questions, as people will often claim knowledge they don’t have (for example, ask anyone if they recycle – no one will say no). What would be fascinating is to compare these sample numbers with global samples, to contrast awareness levels with other regions.
Do Executives Understand CSR?
Moving on, the survey asks how well do you understand CSR. Most respondents say they understand the concept fairly well, with only the UAE having a majority saying they understand CSR very well. There may be a couple of reasons for this. The most obvious may be the number of multinationals (MNCs) based in the UAE. The survey doesn’t mention if executives are from MNCs, but even if they’re not, it may be the influence of MNCs on the regional landscape. It could also be executives overplaying how much they really know.
Defining What CSR Is, And Isn’t
The third question refers to statements to help define what CSR is that respondents either agree or disagree with. CSR is defined here is a traditional sense, in terms of donations (this would fit into what happens on the ground). However, executives don’t feel that CSR should involve companies “making some sacrifices”, and CSR may not have any link to good moral values. The majority of executives also believe that CSR is part of a reputation-building strategy, and that companies should get involved in specific issues (I rarely see this happening). Executives mainly believe that they should be CSR-certified (this is an interesting response, as there’s so few CSR certifications locally). Statement seven is a bizarre one, about CSR being a trade barrier enacted by Western companies – while the majority seem to say they believe this here, country breakdown percentages are much lower, so I assume there’s some data error here. And finally, most executives believe that the primary social responsibility is to make as much profit as possible – I bet their shareholders are proud of this.
Trust and Organizations
The fourth area of focus is on the trust bump a brand can get from engaging in CSR. There’s a general consensus that socially responsible brands are much more trusted than those that are not.
Likewise, there’s a belief among the majority of those surveyed that socially responsible companies can charge a premium for their products or services. And 55 percent said they would not buy a product from a socially irresponsible company. The same sentiments are also reflected in a further question about choosing socially responsible brands over others – the majority of respondents in every country said they’d do this. Finally, most executives said they’d advise friends or family to buy products and services from a socially responsible company. While this information is eye-opening, it begs the question as to why more companies aren’t more engaged in CSR if they see it as a major reputational benefit for their brands that both allows for increased profits and growth with socially-conscious consumers (we’ll get onto that later on, in section two).
Who Is Doing What Regarding CSR?
Now we move on what what people know about who is doing CSR, and where. In the UAE at least, there seems to be an awareness of which countries and which companies are doing CSR (as a country, the UAE has been especially active in developing national CSR programs). In Saudi there’s a higher awareness of which companies are active in CSR. The UAE is seen as the most active country, with 53% of respondents saying the country is the most active in CSR, followed by Saudi at 17% and Egypt at 10%.
That’s it for this post. I’ll write more tomorrow, including on employer branding and also the pandemic’s impact on CSR.