What’s the Middle East’s biggest communications issue? It’s the Arabic language

Arabic is a beautiful, rich language. And yet the communications industry is struggling to attract good Arabic language writers. How can we correct this? (image source: Arab America)

I feel like I’m writing something Kafka-esque. In in the Middle East, a geography of 200 million souls who read and write essentially the same language (I’m going to side-step the awkward question of how Arabic is spoken), and I’m working in communications. And yet, the industry is dominated by non-Arabic language speakers, at least in cities such as Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Dubai.

This isn’t just anecdotal. Overall, just 32% of respondents to PRCA MENA’s inaugural Middle East PR and Communications Census 2019 were nationals of countries in the region. Overall, a fifth of the region’s PR professionals are British, 18% come from India, and the range of other nationalities represented are indicative of the Middle East PR corps having a richly-varied culture mix.

Diversity matters, of course. But I don’t think we even have that when it comes to engagement, given that so much of the content being produced is in English (the most widely spoken language in the UAE isn’t even English, it’s Hindi).

There’s been a concerted push by governments to promote the Arabic language. Friday the 18th of December is the UN Arabic language day. And Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum launched Madrasa, an online initiative with over a thousand videos to help promote learning of the Arabic language.

The communications industry has to play its part too. There’s obvious benefits to improving our ability to communicate in and create Arabic language content. We’ll be reaching a much wider audience in their language. In addition, understanding a language is one step to understanding a culture and its traditions. And by strengthening our Arabic language capabilities, we’ll be able to put Arabic first and create content that’s not translated (any Arabic language native speaker can spot translated content a mile off).

This isn’t going to be a short-term fix. Many of the Arabic-language experts working on the agency side are from countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria. Given politics in their own countries, it’s much harder to come across visas for them. We’ve got to do more with the Arab nationals who are already in the Gulf region.

So, what role can we play to change?

Develop Arabic Talent

First of all, we’ve got to foster stronger connections with universities across the
region, and better educate Arab youth on the opportunities that a career in public relations and communications will provide. And we have to do this as an industry. It’s something I hope that the PRCA will continue to work on.

Support Arabic Leadership

Part of the lack of appreciation for the Arabic language is that there aren’t enough Arab nationals in leadership roles, both on the agency side and with clients. Global agencies especially must prioritize fast-tracking Arab talent into leadership roles.

Arabic first

Most of the Arabic content put out by communicators is actually translated from English. We’ve got to turn this around, and start prioritizing Arabic content production, both in the written word, with audio and video. Arabic is such a rich, descriptive language, and so much is lost when content is merely translated.

There’s no better place to start than with myself, and I’m going to commit to writing more myself in Arabic. If you have any suggestions on this subject, please do share them.

Lessons in cultural misunderstandings from the Gulf

Are we more a melting pot or a basket-case of cultural groups? (picture source: http://kidspartyheaven.wordpress.com)


The Arabian Gulf is often called a melting pot of cultures, where diverse groups and nationalities meet, work and live together and understand one another. Every now and then, there are moments when a different reality comes to light, when it’s blindingly obvious that we still have a long way to go.

I had the pleasure of having two of those ‘cultural moments’ last Wednesday. The first was with Emirates, the national airline of Dubai. Emirates is an interesting organization, in that it’s one of the most profitable airlines in the world, is owned by the Government of Dubai, and yet most of its senior management is not from the Gulf region.

I enjoy flying Emirates, and I often receive a great service from the airline. I had to rebook both my and my wife’s ticket and pay for the difference over the phone. All went smoothly, until it came to the issue of payment. You see, the habit in the most of the Arab world, and particularly in the Gulf, is for the wife not to take her husband’s name for religious reasons. And yet, I couldn’t pay for her ticket over the phone because my surname obviously is different. The lady on the other end of the phone wasn’t an Arab, but she wasn’t the person who drew up the rules at an airline owned by an Arab government.

Cultural misunderstanding one was resolved not through explaining why my and my wife’s names were different – I did try my best – but for other reasons (I’m a Skywards airline rewards member, which solves everything over the phone). The second cultural crossed-wires was much more fun and less painful but just as much an eye-opener.

I received a message from a friend asking for information about a company I know. Here I was naively thinking he was looking for a job. Instead, he’d been asked by a parent to check up on a person at the company whom a family member had received a proposal of marriage from.

While I’m never averse to providing a job reference or to help someone in their search for the right role, I explained that I may have to draw the line on background checking someone I didn’t know to help facilitate (or not) a marriage request.

We often talk about melting pots, about coming together and living alongside others in harmony et cetera. But how much do we really know about the other? And how often does our lack of cultural awareness catch us out? With Ramadan only a few days away maybe it’s time we did more to understand each other and our diverse backgrounds?