The Six-Day Working Week, Russian and HK PR people in the UAE

I feel for anyone who works in the service industry. Ever since the UAE moved from a Sunday-Thursday week to Monday-Friday, the sense I’ve gotten is that those working in the service industry have had to work out how to cater to both local/global and regional clients. For many, the answer has been simple – agencies are having to work out rosters of people working over the six days, from Sunday to Friday.

I don’t know how sustainable this is. Dubai is the hub for the region’s creative agencies, many of whom don’t have offices outside of the Emirate. Will clients across the Middle East accommodate the change in the working week? Or will agencies look to open offices (or move/hire people) in countries which still follow the Sunday-Thursday routine?

For those working with clients across the region, I’m curious to know how you are managing. Is there anything that can be done to make the workload easier, and/or redress the work-life balance? Or has the change in the UAE’s working week not had an impact?

Another observation over the past couple of months is the number of Russians and Hong Kongers moving to the UAE, particularly in the communications industry. More talent is always a good thing; let’s hope our new arrivals find their feet in the region and get acquainted with its cultures and languages.

Am always happy to hear your views. Please do share them in the comments section below.

A Tale of Two Brand Reputations – MNCs in Russia and P&O’s Sacking of 800 UK Workers

What will the impact of the past couple of weeks be on global brands in Russia? And will P&O Ferries and its parent company DP World come to regret the overnight firing of 800 UK employees? Image by vectorpouch

Reputations are funny things. They take years to build, and can be lost in a moment. In many ways, the past month will become a period of intense research for those wanting to know more about corporate actions and their impact on reputations.

First up, we have the tragedy of the war in the Ukraine. Responding to both public and political pressure, over 400 global brands have pledged to suspend, pull back or stop operations in Russia, according to the Financial Times. For multinationals to move at this speed is unprecedented. What is most striking is the decisions many have come to, namely to risk not being able to do business in what is a sizable market (Russia’s population is over 144 million) for the short to medium term. While sanctions have pushed them in a certain direction, many are also weighing up public sentiment in the West regarding how they respond (some such as McDonalds aren’t just closing stores, but they’re continuing to pay their Russian staff).

Second, we have another crisis. This time the crisis seems to be more of the company’s own doing. P&O Ferries laid off 800 crew from its ships last week. The news was delivered via a pre-recorded video message, and guards were hired to escort staff off the ships. The firm claimed it had to replace British staff with cheaper labor to save the company and make it viable. All this despite the parent company DP World making record revenues of US$10.8 billion in 2021. The saga, which includes political intrigue (Ministers were told the night before about the mass firings and the government did not vote for a bill to protect workers from mass layoffs the previous year) and the inevitable debate about the legacy of Brexit, has seen both P&O Ferries and DP World being hammered in the UK media (there’s no mention I have seen of this story in the UAE’s press).

Both scenarios highlight the challenges facing businesses. The former is forcing firms to take a stance on a conflict, in what could be a precedent for future wars. And the latter is a self-inflicted reputational crisis that P&O Ferries and DP World could have arguably avoided with better judgement (other ferry companies employ foreign labor at a fraction of the cost of UK nationals, the difference is the number of layoffs and how they were conducted). Either way, firms must think about the reputational impact of their actions, especially in a digital world where anyone and everyone can comment in an instant. Just ask DP World’s Chairman and Group CEO about the response to his tweet about speaking with Emirati youth as P&O Ferries security staff were escorting fired workers off the ships… (the responses have been hidden; you can still see quote tweets).

Zayed University and its Importance to the National Communications Industry

Zayed University has graduated thousands of communications graduates. The current College of Communication and Media Sciences is headed up by Dean Dwight Brooks (left)

If I was to name one university I’d want to study communications at, it would be Zayed University. For sure, the media landscape is not as free or as mature as what you would find in the UK or the USA. And there are issues you cannot touch upon. What makes Zayed University’s College of Communication and Media Sciences so special is its people, in particular the faculty.

For the past couple of years I had the honor of supporting the College as a member of and chair its National Advisory Council. I saw first hand how passionate the faculty were, the quality of their research, and how they kept at their mission of ensuring that every student had the opportunity to learn what communications was, how it should be practiced, and the difference that the function has on an organization and its people.

During that time the College graduated thousands of graduates; the University also began to offer post-graduate courses for communications professionals in the country, with an excellent set of courses for young people, mainly Emiratis, to learn advanced communications theories, so they’d be ready to become industry leaders. If you look around the government communications sector, where many ZU graduates end up, and often those who have the best understanding of communications and are able to execute on plans have been to the College of Communication and Media Sciences.

I won’t stop there. Many ZU CCMS faculty members have contributed significantly to the industry. Take for example the first UAE edition of the Global Capability Framework, which was led by Professors Gaelle Duthler and Ganga Dhanesh. Or the research on gender perceptions, which was undertaken by Dr Zoe Hurley for the Advertising Business Group. We literally have a research gem in our midst, which the industry does not tap into enough.

The Future of CCMS

I have seen all the good that the College of Communication and Media Sciences has done. I am less certain about its future. The University’s leadership is embarking on a program with an organization called Minerva, which is “aimed at ensuring students have cross-disciplinary skills that are relevant in a fast-changing global job market”. This agreement will impact the entire university, including CCMS, and this is despite Minerva not having any prior experience in teaching communications.

While there is not too much I can say about the tie-up, I will say this – I have spent two decades in communications, and I have seen the function evolve at a frantic pace. And the CCMS Faculty can both understand and explain these changes in a way that best prepares their students for success. I’d argue that the greatest barrier to success is not listening to the CCMS faculty and leadership – they know teaching, they know the subject, and they know the industry. They should be the ones who are able to shape the future of the college in a way that will both improve learning and ensure that students remain passionate about a subject which means such much to the country and the region.

Communicators aren’t just people who write notes, take pictures, or create videos. We tell stories, we tap into people’s emotions and we shape reputations. The country needs that, more than ever, if it is to be seen in the way that the country’s leadership desire. And I hope that Zayed University continues to lead the way here, thanks to the people at the College of Communication and Media Sciences.

What’s in a word? The difference between Gaming and Gambling…

While many expats will get the meaning of the word gaming in this context, the meaning may not be so clear in Arabic and to local audiences

What is the importance of a word? As Shakespeare said, a rose is but a rose no matter what it may be called. However, words can have a great deal of meaning, especially when they refer to a subject that can be controversial. Take for example an announcement made yesterday by the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority. The statement reads as below:

Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA) has announced the formation of a new division focused on the regulation of integrated resorts. These include hotel operations, convention space, entertainment, restaurants and lounges, spa, retail and gaming facilities.

Following global best practices in the regulation of gaming that operate as part of integrated resorts across various jurisdictions worldwide, the Department of Entertainment and Gaming Regulation within RAKTDA will consider the social, cultural, and environmental landscape of the Emirate and cover licensing, taxation, operational procedures, and consumer safeguards. The foremost priority of this new division is to create a robust framework that will ensure responsible gaming at all levels.

The regulatory structure will address the entire gaming enterprise within integrated resorts, requiring compliance with all applicable laws and regulations (including financial crime laws) from operators, suppliers and employees. Additionally, the regulations will cover marketing, advertising, and financial transactions, ensuring that these areas comply with the Department of Entertainment and Gaming Regulation.

The question is what is “gaming”? There’s context here. US casino chain Wynn Resorts filed a regulatory note on Tuesday in the United States to announce plans to enter an agreement with the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah for “the development and subsequent management of an integrated resort.” The phrase, first coined in Singapore, refers to a hotel that includes a casino and other amenities and services.

Now, why does this matter you ask? Gambling is forbidden in Islam. And the issue is particularly sensitive in the peninsula of the Arabian Gulf, which is home to the religion’s two most sacred sites. There is no casino in the Gulf, despite the size of the tourism sector in a country like the UAE. And there are other casino operators in the country too; there is a Caesars Palace off of Dubai’s coastline (this property does not offer gambling and operates solely as a hotel, despite allegedly being designed like a casino). And yet, there are no operating casinos, as gambling is illegal onshore. The wording may also be a nod to Islamic religious sensitivities (the closest casinos to the region are in Lebanon and Egypt).

The gambling industry is massive – the casino and online gambling sector is worth over US$230 billion. And the industry is fast growing, at a double-digit annual compound growth rate over the past decade. Given that gambling markets tie into key geographic markets (think America, Europe, China, India and Israel), it would make economic sense for any hotel operator in the region to look at this area. And yet, the issue is the religious taboo, and the concern of what gambling may mean for the region’s young people especially; there’s little mention of the Arabic word for gambling in the local press (the exception being Arabic translations on international news sites and news wires).

And this is why the word “gaming” was used, rather than gambling. The meaning is understood in English, and the avoidance of the meaning is also clear to see in Arabic. Regardless of the wording being used and its obfuscation, the end result will be the same. Unless, Wynn will be truly opening the world’s first hotel resort fully equipped with PS5s and Xboxes. Now, that would be a sight to behold.

The Need for Debate in the Gulf’s Media

There’s nothing people love more than a good debate. But good luck finding this in regional media (image source: Wired)

There was a great article written by Dr Mira Al Hussein where she addresses the duality of the university system in the UAE. She talks about the difference between those who go to public universities, and those who study in private establishments. She shares her insights on how this impacts the country, and what the government can do to address the issue of a future-ready workforce for nationals.

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.

How to get into Abu Dhabi from Dubai with the Covid Checkpoint

The border has been upgraded over the summer, making it look more permanent (picture from Nilanjana Gupta)

Updated as of the 21st August.

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.

For Travelers

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.

Culture, Empathy and Changing Views – Why Communicators Must Be Aware Of How Global Trends Can Impact Local Populations

Have global movements such as Black Lives Matter shifted views on Israel and the Palestinians?

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 indisputable is that civil debate and activism around race in the US and Europe, from causes such as Black Lives Matter (BLM) to colonial historical legacies, is pushing many people to rethink how they view conflicts in the Middle East. There’s been lots of good writing on this recently, such as this piece in the Washington Post on BLM and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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.

The Influencer Podcast with Fiona Robertson

When it comes to media law, Fiona is your go-to lawyer (image source: Gala Law Twitter account)

This week, I’m doing something a little different. I had the pleasure of being joined by the Middle East’s leading legal light (try saying that ten times) on all things media related. Fiona Robertson speaks about influencers, media laws, what some hotel brands were doing during 2020, and why communicators should be vetting what goes online. Have a listen, and follow Fiona on her Linkedin page.

It’s the media’s job to ask hard questions. And we should listen.

For anyone who has any sense of perspective and basic awareness about what we’ve lived through over the preceding 10 months, it was pretty clear what would happen to Covid cases over the holiday period. Increased social activity, inbound tourism and generally more latitude to enable both led to an increase in positive cases. It was entirely predictable.

And yet, I’m genuinely confused. There have been very few voices criticising social media “influencers” for their behaviour while on their “essential business” trips to the country. For me, there hasn’t been enough focus on the messaging that we are “all in it together” and should, as a result, take the necessary precautions to safeguard one another. And there’s been precious little commentary on lessons learned.

Instead, as the numbers continued to climb, we all looked towards the media and their “irresponsible wording”.

I’m just as critical as anyone of the media; that’s the legacy of my journalistic past – to criticise what others write far too freely. However, it’s folly to lay the blame at the feet of the witness.

I’ve read so many hot takes this week about what has been reported on Dubai and the UAE by the international media: the foreign journalists don’t know us (despite many of them having lived for years here and writing some of the best reporting on the country); we’re doing better than others (I’m sorry, but we’re not New Zealand or South Korea), and “we know best”, which is the new “if you don’t like it, you can leave” argument.

Can anyone say, with any sense of self-respect, that the foreign media is to blame for what’s going on? If they’re not, why do we then attack them for what they write about what has happened over the end-of-year period? Which is, in effect, what all of us saw, either face-to-face or on our social media timelines? And, for those accusing them of this, where were you a month ago when all of this was unfolding?

The value of hard truths

I believe that hard truths are often better for us than being told what we want to hear. The reporting about the case numbers and the reasons behind their rise has acted as a wake-up call for many. It’s focused us all on what we need to do to keep people safe and led the authorities to take steps that’ll stop the spread of the disease. And for that, I’m thankful.

Instead of attacking some media outlets for asking difficult questions – which is, in fact, their job – why aren’t we asking ourselves about the importance of both accountability and tolerance? Across the world over, the media have done some of their most important work in asking why we have responded the way we have. They’ve spoken to the medical experts and they’ve communicated in plain language what we all need to understand, often better than others.

I’d go even farther and say that the best media has helped to save lives. I for one am grateful for the media’s work in 2020, for the reporting and coverage that have helped people truly understand what we are up against. And I expect the same of them in 2021.

For all of our sakes, they should keep on asking hard questions.

Dubai, the UK Travel Ban and Influencers – would a Diverse Comms team have helped?

Countless UK influencers have flown over to Dubai over Christmas, and it’s fair to say that the British public has noticed. With public perception influencing policy, why didn’t the communications team notice this sentiment and flag up the issue to superiors?

If you’re in the UAE, you’ll probably have already seen the news about the UK banning direct flights from the country. If you’re in the UK, you’ll probably be asking yourself how all the influencers who are apparently over in Dubai are now going to get back.

This decision isn’t good for the UAE. But could it have been avoided through better communications? Let’s first look at how both are faring? The UAE’s cases are increasing, but haven’t crossed 4,000 a day. In contrast, the UK is registering over 28,000 a day as I write this. And the UAE is second worldwide for vaccinations of its population, behind Israel. The UAE is targeting half of its population being vaccinated by the end of March.

So what’s prompted this decision by the UK? The UK government says the decision to add the UAE to its red list, alongside Rwanda and Burundi, is in response to new evidence showing the likely spread of a coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa. But does this hold weight? Denmark took a similar step a couple of weeks back, after discovering one passenger on a Dubai-Copenhagen flight who had the new strain.

Any good communicator knows that perception is reality. Dubai and the Northern Emirates were open for business over Christmas, with no lockdown rules in place, unlike most of Northern Europe, meaning that many have traveled to the country for vacations. Sports starts and social media influencers flocked over to Dubai, despite the UK government urging people to travel only for exceptional reasons. And they’ve made headlines; one Celtic player being Covid-19 on return to Scotland and countless influencers being castigated online for enjoying their time in the UAE whilst the UK’s general population was having to follow new, more stringent lockdown rules over Christmas (the below video is especially cringeworthy).

It seems that the UK’s policy has been headline driven. There’s no doubting that. But should the communications teams working for the government have spotted these sentiments earlier and understood what the headlines would mean for policy regarding travel between the two countries?

Simply put, yes. And this is why a lack of diversity works against good communications. Any person familiar with the UK press and the British sentiment/mentality would understand how the overall negative sentiment towards those Brits in Dubai would shape government policy. And they should have flagged this as early as possible to the UAE’s own policymakers, with suggestions on how to counter this perception of the UAE being a place where people could escape to and avoid Covid-19 restrictions.

Over the past decade, there’s been a standing policy in much of the Gulf to localize government communications. The crisis we’ve all faced over the past year underlines why a best practice approach to communications must include employment practices that help the communications function’s diversity mirror the diversity of the overall population.

I hope that one lesson we learn from the past year and the past month is the need to embrace diversity in communications, in all its forms. We should help develop and include more local communicators in the industry, but there’s got to be an understanding that this must be done alongside promoting diversity. Otherwise, we’re going to find ourselves in more avoidable crises as the one we’re facing today.