Competing Media Motivations in the UAE’s Press (and what this means for communicators)

Communicators need to understand the competing agendas in the UAE’s press scene (image source:

I was once told, “to really understand a thing, you must know the reason for its purpose.” I don’t usually begin my posts so philosophically, but this quote seemed a fitting place to start when writing about the media in the United Arab Emirates.

An event caught my eye last month. The UAE’s National Media Council held a one day seminar, primarily for Emirati media professionals and communicators in the government sector. The event was entitled “The Future of Emirati Media”, and the below tweet from the National Media Council’s Chairman summarized a distinctly national view of the UAE media.

I’ve paraphrased below the key points from the above Arabic-language tweets and other material shared on the day:

  1. Work through the media to promote the national agenda.
  2. The media has a shared responsibility to work alongside state institutions and those present on social media to develop the sector.
  3. The media will contribute to the strengthening of the State’s leadership of the regional and global information sector.

The Foreign Perspective

In much of the West and East, the media is called the “fourth estate”, a group that is independent from government and which wields influence over society. Media seeks to report on issues of interest to its stakeholders (readers as well as owners), and will hold individuals, organizations and governments to account.

Essentially, the media has a number of roles, including to inform and by extension educate citizens on issues of importance, to act as a platform for different viewpoints and societal groups to share their own viewpoints and narratives, and to hold those in power to account.

In a country like the UAE, much of the English-language media consists of foreigners who have worked in other countries. Their view-point on what constitutes the media is often different to the national perspective.

What this means for Communicators

It goes without saying that for those working in communications, understanding both perspectives is vital for us to be able to engage effectively with different stakeholders. Media which are aligned with the first viewpoint are focused on the national perspective, especially as it relates to development and leadership. The media which is aligned to the second perspective is focused on sharing news that seeks to inform without the national development frame of reference.

These two viewpoints are also influencing where people work; many UAE nationals will explain that they’ve chosen to work in government communications as they believe it’s part of their contribution to the country’s development. Many foreigners in the media, particularly foreign outlets based in the UAE, will argue that sharing an independent perspective is important to truly understand what is happening in the country (and the wider region).

As always, context is key. Communicators and media need to understand each other’s motivations if we are to be in a position to engage and inform. Communicators and media need to understand these two basic perspectives and what it means for our work, be it talking within a national framework or sharing unique insights that are set within a governmental context. What’s essential here is that communicators appreciate both motivations, and they’re able to adapt as necessary to be able to interact with both media groups (and their respective audiences).

As always, I love to hear your inputs. Please do share!

The silent expatriate guests – should we raise our voices or remain quiet on sensitive subjects?

Should we as expatriates remain silent or speak up about issues which we feel are contrary to our beliefs? (image source:

The past week has been an interesting one for foreign media junkies who follow affairs in the Gulf. Two articles were published in the English-speaking press which have proved to be controversial. The first was a damning piece in the New York Times on labor rights for workers hired from the Asian sub-continent to build the New York University Abu Dhabi. The second was a fine piece of investigative journalism from the Sydney Morning Herald on the subject of government subsidies for Etihad, the Abu Dhabi-owned airline.

The above criticisms in the foreign media shouldn’t surprise experienced communications professionals. Etihad is becoming a global brand with stakes in a number of airlines across Europe and Australia. Similarly, the report about labour issues relates to an American institution, New York University, and its Abu Dhabi campus. Qatar has similarly experienced negative publicity from abroad relating to the country’s labour practices following its winning of the rights to host the 2022 World Cup.

Recently, I attended a conference on the subject of corporate social responsibility. When asked about whether expatriates should tackle these issues with both governments and the national population, one of the most senior communications professionals in the region responded by saying ‘we’re the guests and so we shouldn’t tackle these issues.’

Unfortunately, the most common refrain to any comment which can be taken in a negative light is, ‘if you don’t like it, then leave.’ There’s a lack of moral courage shown by many expatriates to talk about issues which may offend, or which may get them into the bad books. Similarly, are many nationals willing to listen to the opinions of others? The concept of traditional Arabian hospitality is often talked about, a tradition that requires the host to listen to and honour the guest, but the reality on the ground is often different.

Modern societies are mature enough to take on board different voices, to learn from the opinions of others. As a person who has tried to do his part for the rights of others, I do find it embarrassing that as the people who live here in the region, we’re unable to raise these issues with our hosts in a civilized dialogue (and for those who say I’m looking to impose foreign, western standards there are many hadiths or sayings of the Prophet pbuh on issues such as workers’ rights).

Should we have the moral courage to speak on these issues, to benefit the communities and the countries with which and in which we live? Or should we remain silent? The answer, to me at least, is obvious. What do you say?

Reputational Issues and the Pressure from Outside to Change – Will the Gulf’s Firms Be Forced to Adopt More Worker-Friendly Policies

Smile for the media! Will Gulf-based airlines be forced to change their employment practices or will they risk possible reputational damage in the face of criticism from the foreign press? (image source:

First there was Qatar and now the UAE. I’m not talking GDPs, economic growth or any other metric that a government may promote in the public spotlight. Rather, I’m talking about media criticism, notably international media criticism of worker rights.

Over the past couple of weeks a series of articles have been written, mainly by the European media, critiquing the lack of rights for employees of Qatar Airways and Emirates. The pieces, in particular a lengthy series of allegations in Swedish newspaper Expressen, have shone a light on employment practices, many of which appear distasteful to those not used to working or living in the Gulf.

The article in Expressen entitled the Truth About the Luxury of Qatar Airways details the conditions under which Qatar Airways employees have to live. The report, which can be read here, tells of strict curfew times for air hostesses and pilots, constant surveillance, and instant terminations.

Others have run similar allegations. Even locally, we’re beginning to see these articles appear in the press; Arabian Business recently ran two pieces on the HR practices of both Qatar Airways and Emirates.

With a global presence comes greater media scrutiny. Similarly, global events on your doorstep can attract negative headlines (look no further than Brazil in the run up to this year’s World Cup or even Qatar, the 2022 World Cup andthe country’s labor camps).

In a sense, I’m surprised that this hasn’t happened sooner. The region’s three big airlines are global players who aim to capture transit traffic which they shuttle through their hubs in the Gulf. Similarly, the region’s sovereign wealth funds have been snapping up brands globally for some time now, but especially in Europe where trophy assets have become a staple for SWFs in Doha and Abu Dhabi.

So, how do the airlines react? Never one to be outdone for a quote, Qatar Airways’ CEO has furiously denied all of the allegations and has instead railed at the newspapers printing the articles and called them, in effect, racist. To quote from Arabian Business:

“Like any other organisation, we terminate nonperforming employees and these are allegations made by ex-QA staff.”

“This is not against Qatar Airways but against my home country. They are throwing stones at my country for no reason at all.”

Emirates has been more low-key in their response on the claim that they mistreat female employees by firing female cabin crew who become pregnant during the first three years of their employment.

In the long-term how should the airlines respond? If they continue to deny or ignore the allegations, will they face a backlash from consumers concerned about the airlines’ reputation? What’s certain is that the headlines are not going to go away; to the contrary, the deeper you dig, the more bodies you will find. It’s going to be fascinating to see if the negative media coverage from outside the region eventually forces a change in worker policies.

This is one theme I’m going to be following with increasing interest.