Our inability to speak openly, and what this means for progress

More and more people are feeling the need to self-censor. And it’s not a good sign of where we are headed as a region (image source: Pinterest)

It’s been a funny couple of days (I know, it’s 2020). Over the past week, I’ve had two people reach out to me, basically telling me to be careful of what I post. The first was for a piece I wrote mentioning another place and its work on promoting education across the world (which I hope all of us would support). The second was a post mentioning a piece of bread and how much it cost (I’m serious). It goes without saying, more and more of us are self-censoring. And on every issue out there. And that worries me.

Why are they doing it? Partly due to politics, to laws, and to the overall cultural climate around us. We live in an increasingly divided world, where many believe that their viewpoint is the only one that matters. And increasingly, these people are in positions of power. Given the potential reach of social media, where one person can engage with millions, far too many believe that we should only write and share things that agree with them. Ironically, those that break the law whilst agreeing with those in power are not punished. And laws are used to hold others to account for the flimsiest of reasons.

Not knowing where the line is any more, people are remaining silent. Or they’re saying things they don’t believe it. That makes my job as a communicator much harder, as I don’t know if what I’m hearing is true or not. And even if my engagement online is making a difference, how would I know this if people aren’t saying or writing what they feel?

The issue is bigger than this. My belief is that, given enough time and reinforcement, self-censorship extends to our behavior in a number of settings, including our workplaces. We’re less likely to speak up with a new idea, to point out when something isn’t working, or when someone does something wrong. Freedom matters, for our personal lives and for our economies too. I will leave the last word to the American economist Milton Friedman, who was writing about the US, but could have been talking about any place on earth:

I know of no example in time or place of a society that has been marked by a
large measure of political freedom, and that has not also used something
comparable to a free market to organize the bulk of economic activity

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.

Huawei, Boeing and McKinsey – When Internal Cultures Cause Reputational Crises

How much are reputational crises related to internal cultures, and an ability (or inability) to take into account a variety of diverse viewpoints?

I’ve watched over the past couple of weeks as the crisis around the Boeing 737 MAX has grown. Before that, it was Huawei and the suspicion in many Western capitals that the Chinese telecommunications firm was in a position to either spy on or act in favor of the Chinese government through sharing data collected through its network equipment. Before that, there was the McKinsey sagas in South Africa and Saudi Arabia respectively.

As a communications professional, it’s been fascinating (and painful) to watch events unfold. But one thought is stuck in my mind – is there a common thread to all of these events? And is that common thread an internal culture which is neither diverse or inclusive enough to understand and tackle issues before they become crises?

Let’s take Huawei, whose story has been covered in depth by a number of exceptional writers and features (check out Arun Sudhaman’s 4,000 word piece on the Holmes Report website). Huawei is a typical Chinese-headquartered multinational, with senior management being predominantly Chinese nationals. This has proved problematic for Huawei’s understanding of markets such as the US.

“There was always a fundamental lack of trust in non-Chinese. You offer guidance, and are regularly second-guessed,” Huawei’s former US public and government relations department, William Plummer, told the Financial Times. Plummer published a book last September in which he explained how senior local staff in foreign markets were regularly excluded from key decisions whilst Chinese executives second-guessed senior management in local markets out of fear of the company’s founder, throwing into turmoil into the company’s handling of PR and lobbying outside of China.

While McKinsey’s management is more diverse in nature, it could be argued that a an over-aggressive culture and a lack of local understanding resulted in the consultancy giant making one of its biggest ever mistakes. To quote from the New York Times:

McKinsey admits errors in judgment while denying any illegality. Two senior partners, the firm says, bear most of the blame for what went wrong. But an investigation by The New York Times, including interviews with 16 current and former partners, found that the roots of the problem go deeper — to a changing corporate culture that opened the way for an aggressive push into more government consulting, as well as new methods of compensation. While the changes helped McKinsey nearly double in size over the last decade, they introduced more reputational risk.


The firm also missed warning signs about the possible involvement of the Guptas, and only belatedly realized the insufficiency of its risk management for state-owned companies. Supervisors who might have vetoed or modified the contract were not South African and lacked the local knowledge to sense trouble ahead. And having poorly vetted its subcontractor, McKinsey was less than forthcoming when asked to explain its role in the emerging scandal.

McKinsey’s former managing partner told the New York Times that the firm had a “bit of a tin ear” when it came to the initial response. David Lewis, executive director of Corruption Watch, a South African advocacy group, told the NYT that: “For the scale of the fee, they were prepared to throw caution to the wind, and maybe because they thought they couldn’t be touched.” For me, there’s the feeling that the internal culture led McKinsey to make the wrong decision and down a path that would become the biggest crisis in the firm’s history.

Finally, there’s Boeing. The airline manufacturer is struggling with a crisis that has grounded worldwide its latest jet, the 737 MAX, after two crashes which share a number of similarities. The first crash happened in Indonesia last October, with the loss of 189 passengers. Following the second crash, this time in Ethiopia in March, Boeing was asked why more wasn’t done to fix the faults found to be responsible for the first crash?

In crisis communications, the most important action is post-crisis, and communicators are told to work with the organization to ensure that lessons are learned, solutions are found, and trust is re-built. This didn’t happen with Boeing – the software fix for the plane’s flight system has yet to be completed, and relatives of those who died in the first accident have questioned Boeing’s response.

Vini Wulandari, sister of one of the ill-fated Lion Air flight’s co-pilots, said that the Ethiopian crash confirmed the suspicions that she and many of the victims’ relatives had about the MAX 8 being a “defective product”.

“The [Ethiopian] crash shows that 737 MAX 8 is a manufacturing fail from the beginning,” Vini Wulandari, sister of one of the ill-fated Indonesian airline Lion Air flight’s co-pilots, told the South China Morning Post. “When I first heard about [the Ethiopian crash] I was sad because I am familiar with the sadness that the victims’ families must feel and I was also sad because the 737 MAX 8 should have been grounded after the Lion Air crash. Maybe because it was only one accident, so a lot of people thought there was no need for immediate [action].”

Was Boeing’s internal culture to blame, in particular Boeing’s urgent desire to come up with a new airplane that would compete head on with rival Airbus’ new models? It’s hard not to be convinced that Boeing rushed the 737 MAX’s design after reading a bombshell report in the New York Times.

It’s hard not to be swayed by the argument that uncompromising internal cultures are to blame for poor decision-making; too many similar voices, too few diverse views and an inability to listen have been a cause in each of these crises. That’s why proper inclusion matters, at all levels, as well as an ability to seek out differing viewpoints, especially from outside the organization. As communicators, we have to play a role in promoting both in our workplaces.

I’d love to hear your views on these crises. What’s your view? Message me, or leave a comment.


What does Authenticity mean in the Gulf?

Are you being authentic? And what does authenticity mean to us in the Gulf?

Are you being authentic? And what does authenticity mean to us in the Gulf?

The notion of authenticity, that feeling of genuineness, has long been an issue to us communicators. The theory goes that the more authentic we (or our clients) are, the more people will believe us and like us. Even the use of the word authentic has grown; in the US, the word’s use has grown 74.5% since 2012 according to the Holmes Report, to 8,069 press releases and 20,471 media stories.

Well, you’d think that being in a world where everything is online it’d be harder than ever to fake it. Well, an Australian teen with over half a million followers on Instagram has put the sword to that theory. Here’s an excerpt from The Guardian on Essena O’Neill and how she strived to be perfect online:

An Australian teenager with more than half a million followers on Instagram has quit the platform, describing it as “contrived perfection made to get attention”, and called for others to quit social media – perhaps with help from her new website.

Essena O’Neill, 18, said she was able to make an income from marketing products to her 612,000 followers on Instagram – “$2000AUD a post EASY”. But her dramatic rejection of social media celebrity has won her praise.

On 27 October she deleted more than 2,000 pictures “that served no real purpose other than self-promotion”, and dramatically edited the captions to the remaining 96 posts in a bid to to reveal the manipulation, mundanity, and even insecurity behind them.

At a recent event I was chairing, one of the speakers told an anecdote about a Saudi youngster who claimed to be an entrepreneur, partly because it is the popular thing to do and also because he was unemployed. The experience also reminded me of comments left on a popular website about two local entrepreneurs who have set up their own business. Three of the comments were negative, and called into question the ‘authenticity’ of the two young gentlemen. One person wrote, “I have also noticed many so called ‘Entrepreneurs’ are only ‘Instagram-perneurs'”.

The question then comes to mind – who is being genuine and how can we tell if they’re genuine? Will the media challenge people on their achievements? Will the public call out these people? We live in a region where social media is all pervasive and yet, due to various barriers such as culture, language and traditions, it can be truly difficult to know if someone is being genuine or not. For me, the best way to understand the true meaning of authenticity is to grasp its meaning – one who does things himself/herself.

What are your thoughts on authenticity and the Gulf? Do people live to a certain image, or are they true to themselves? And what does this mean for how we communicate? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the issue.

A hijab, bacon and McDonalds’ breakfasts – the wonderful world of Ramadan advertising

Ramadan is a wonderful month, a time of spirituality for the world’s Muslims. It’s also the time of year when the advertising rules change as Muslims fast during the daylight hours and look to spend their nights either with family or in prayer.

In keeping with reaching out to Muslims, advertisers need to be ever-aware of religious sensitivities. Brands often feel the need to make a change to their ads. One such change, which was spotted by Dubai-based communications professional Mohammed Kharroubi (Twitter handle @mkdubai), involved the retailer Carrefour. Spot the change below.

Brands sometimes get things horrendously wrong. Another retailer, the UK retailer Tesco, made a huge faux-pas, when they promoted smokey bacon-flavor Pringles as part of a Ramadan promotion. For those who don’t know, any pork-related products are considered haraam in Islam and are not consumed by Muslims. The below image went viral and has resulted in masses of media coverage in the UK.

Tesco has been pilloried on social media for selling smokey bacon-flavoured Pringles as part of a Ramadan promotion

Tesco has been pilloried on social media for selling smokey bacon-flavoured Pringles as part of a Ramadan promotion

And then, there’s the bizarre. According to Dubai-based marketing consultant Hussein Dajani, McDonalds has been running advertising for its breakfasts this month on the radio on Dubai. Unfortunately, Muslims fast during the day, and most of the McDonalds restaurants serving breakfast will be closed.

With Ramadan, it really does seem that while some brands are able to adapt and thrive, others need to do their homework. What are your thoughts? And do you have your own examples of successful and unsuccessful Ramadan advertising?

Learning about a local community – Humans of Bahrain

We’re bombarded by adverts on a daily basis, and unfortunately it seems that social media may be going the same way. What with all of the selfies, the food pictures and the holiday snaps it could be argued that there’s little in the way of meaningful insights into wider social communities. However, every now and then you come across a gem that’s worth shouting about.

My wife was the person who first told me about this one Instagram account. Humans of Bahrain aims to tell the story of people living in Bahrain, both local and expatriate. It’s an account that is frank and candid, and shares a personal view of each and every one of the people being profiled by the account (it’s similar to sites found in the US and Asia which profile local communities).

Each picture on the account includes a story told in text below the image, both in English and Arabic. Subjects covered include education, marriage, careers and employment, and good old-fashioned feelings and emotions.

So far, the account has posted 169 images and it has just over three and a half thousand followers. If you’re looking to learn more about culture and the people that make up Bahrain, this is an amazing site to follow. I wish more people would focus on what is around them to tell the story of their community and their home rather than simply themselves.

Educating the Gulf on our humanity through social video – examples from Bahrain, Saudi and the UAE

Here in the Gulf region we’re increasingly seeing the use of online video content, particularly to tackle issues that are both social and controversial. This week there have been media stories on three examples from three different countries.

The first video has been produced by the Saudi Human Rights Commission to Saudi nationals to be kinder to their domestic workers, most of whom have to leave behind a family of their own to earn a living and support them. The video is well shot, and aims to give humanity back to domestic workers, especially those from South East Asia, through concepts such as motherhood.

The second is from Bahrain, but shot by one social media influencer called Yousef Al Madani. The clip focuses on the treatment of white-collar workers in Bahrain, most of whom come from the Asian subcontinent. Yousef looks to take the place of one of these workers at a local grocery store, where they often have to rush out to take orders from customers who sit in their cars and wait for the items to be brought to them. The clip, which has been talked about in the media, has been viewed over half a million times. This video is dubbed into English as well.

The third and final clip is from a corporate, Cola Cola to be exact. To quote the National:

An online advertising campaign by Coca-Cola showing the company handing out excess baggage tags at the airport to travellers has been viewed almost one million times on YouTube.

The clip “Coca-Cola –Taking Home Happiness” begins by showing passengers checking in at Dubai International Airport to head off to various destinations to see family. By Thursday, the video had generated more than 987,000 hits since it was uploaded a month ago. According to the website for Campaign Middle East magazine, Coco-Cola shot the video on December 22 with the cooperation of the airport.

The campaign – which is available only in the UAE and Oman – is expected to expand with additional prizes like flight vouchers, TVs and mobile phones, the company said. The video follows a similar online campaign last year which showed labour camps with Coca-Cola phone booths, into which bottle tops rather than coins could be fed to pay for international calls.

The video, which is probably the best shot out of the three (this is Coca Cola after all), is also dubbed.

What are your thoughts on the above? Are these videos effective? Would they have been more effective on television as well, or less effective? And is one more effective than the other, possibly due to its topic, its producer, its intent as well as its authenticity? Do let me know your thoughts.

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?

How much variety and discrimination is there in the Gulf?

The GCC is as diverse and complicated as any other part of the globe (credit: rasheedsworld.com)


Looking on in from the outside, most expatriates see the Arabian Peninsula as one monotonous geography. The women wear black (unless they’re Kuwaiti) and the mean wear white. The language is the same, and everyone is a Muslim. And that’s the Gulf.

Well, hardly. Each country is unique, and offers a wealth of diversity in terms of culture, history and opinions. The range of accents in Bahrain is so prominent that a local will be able to tell where a compatriot may be from how the greeting alone.

Saudi is the most diverse country in the region. Its twenty million nationals come from all four corners of the world, and don’t be surprised to meet a Saudi whose roots trace back to Indonesia, China, or Western Africa. The Kingdom’s Western Region is the richest melting pot you’ll come across, thanks to hundreds of years of pilgrimage to the two holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. Often foreigners think that Dubai or Doha are the two cities that offer the greatest contrast of cultures and groups, but they don’t come close to what Jeddah has to offer.

And Christians in Kuwait and Bahrain? And a Jewish community in Manama? Yes, they’re locals (but there’s not many of them).

And of course, with variety comes discrimination. There’s a good deal of nepotism across the Gulf mainly due to the tribal, bedouin nature. It’s not uncommon to find a certain group dominating in one company – it’s not so much where a person is from as often as what their tribal name is. Many Saudis don’t use their tribal names any more. And there’s also discrimination based on region (Jeddah versus Riyadh, Dubai versus Abu Dhabi etc), on the history behind the family name (in other words how far back can the family’s genealogy be traced), and on religion (which mathab or religious affiliation a person adheres to).

While this isn’t unique to the Gulf (tell me a place where there isn’t any discrimination) what I do find interesting is the institutionalized discrimination in certain parts of the GCC. Some states, most notably Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman count GCC nationals as locals when it comes to hiring and nationalization quotas. The UAE and Qatar do not – when they say local they mean local. For a European the difference in policy between the two groups is hard to fathom (especially when considering the relatively small populations of both Qatar and the UAE when compared to Saudi Arabia).

So, the next time you’re sitting in the coffee ship and sipping on your coffee do remember to ask yourself where the gentleman in white is from. You may be surprised at how much you can learn about a region that is full of culture and contrast.

Are Saudis the most open nation in the Gulf?

Saudi Arabia’s society is changing at a much faster rate than many of its neighbours

Hands up all those people who’ve heard of or been to the cosmopolitan Dubai. I’m sure that you’ll know about Qatar, the country that has made a name for itself by investing all over Europe and for winning the 2022 World Cup. And there’s Kuwait, probably best known for its role in the first and second Gulf wars. One of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever visited, one could say that Oman unfortunately isn’t as well known abroad as it should be.

And then there’s Saudi Arabia, a mysterious land which up until recently was spoken of in Chinese whispers. The Magic Kingdom was a country that was known for oil, religious and cultural conservatism. Despite the spread of the internet and the ensuing countless videos and other types of multimedia information hosted online Saudi Arabia is still an unknown to most people.

The country’s reputation, image and visa regime doesn’t help to educate foreigners, but I’ve been struck recently on a number of occasions how open today’s Saudis are. This is especially true of the younger generation. Many of the Saudis I know who are under the age of 40 will talk about anything and everything, especially in a closed environment. They’re knowledgeable, they’ll know much more about the workings of the country and national government than is written about or published in the news. And they’re not afraid to be blunt about what is right and what is wrong when it comes to public policy.

Having lived in Saudi for a fair few years I’ve always been fascinated by how Saudis are becoming ever more open to sharing their views with people they know and trust, especially in the setting of the Majlis where the men traditionally gather in the evening to discuss both personal and business issues.

The difference in openness between Saudis and other GCC nationals is becoming ever more noticeable. While traditionally the most open society in the Gulf, Bahrain has been transformed due to the events of the past two years. Both Qataris and Emiratis are very welcoming, but they’re less inclined than Saudis to talk at length with foreigners on the issues that are shaping their respective countries.

And then there’s the Kuwaitis, who are probably definitely the most outspoken people in the Gulf. But for me, today’s Saudis are more open because many will acknowledge both the positives and negatives of their country.

I’m not suggesting that the country is a bastion of diverse views which are aired in public by all and sundry. There are still many subjects that are taboo, but many barriers have been broken over the past two years partly thanks to the widespread adoption of social media by many young Saudis. Just think of any controversial topic in the Gulf, and you’re going to find it being discussed in Saudi by bloggers, on Twitter and Facebook.

Looking forward, I can only hope that this openness will be a blessing to the Kingdom as it looks to tackle issues such as unemployment, the changing role of women in the society, graft and governance. These subjects will be better dealt with if there’s an open dialogue between the country’s nationals. As always, I’m optimistic about where Saudi Arabia is headed and would like to hear if you agree with me or not about my thoughts.