Expats, Localization and the Need for Balance

The marcomms industry can and should benefit from both local talent as well as foreign expertise (image source: The Daily Telegraph)

There are some places that are so inspiring, they fill me with passion and energy. I just love working with colleagues and friends in London and New York. Their creativity and insights are exceptional. What strikes me most about these places is their ability to absorb talent from abroad, to the extent that you can’t even tell who is the native and who is the immigrant.

Whilst there’s much to admire about how the region’s marcomms industry has developed, there’s still much work to do when it comes to marrying local insights and talent with foreign know-how. For years there’s been a divide between the Gulf’s public and private sectors: the public was staffed by nationals, and the private by expats. Whilst there were exceptions, this was the norm.

There have been changes, both good and bad. The economic changes in countries such as Bahrain, Oman and Saudi, combined with the increasing number of local marketing and communications graduates, have helped to increase the number of nationals working in the private sector. An insistence on hiring nationals in both government and semi government organizations have led to there being fewer expats in comms and marketing roles in both Abu Dhabi and Doha. For many multinationals, there’s still an over reliance on expat communicators, many of whom don’t know or try to learn about either the local language or culture.

I’ve always believed that there should be more locals in marcomms in the Gulf (one such person who is an inspiration to me and who I will always be proud of is my wife, who is both a local and who heads up marcomms for a multinational across the Middle East region). However, we need to place people based on merit, and we need to have structured succession planning in place. Both are missing today, across the public and private sectors.

Let me highlight my point. I live in a city which wants to be a global hub, attracting investment and tourism from abroad. That city’s government has been prioritizing national hiring to such an extent that it’s rare to find a foreigner in a mid or senior level comms post today in either a government or semi government role. What has happened is young nationals who don’t have the necessary experience or knowledge have been brought in (or roles have been left open), and as a result the work done and respect given to the function has dropped. There’s less diversity and inclusion in these government organizations, leading to a lack of understanding of foreign audiences and stakeholders.

I’ve also come across countless multinational executives who don’t understand the importance of hiring local knowledge. To them, global strategy only needs to be translated. There’s no understanding of local insights, and an inability to communicate with local audiences because of the lack of any marketing or communications people who are from or connected to the local population. I’ve known regional comms people in the private sector who’ve never even gone to Saudi, despite it being the biggest market in the Gulf. It’s all too easy to manage issues remotely, and let the agency deal with an issue.

We’ve got to change these two approaches in the region. There needs to be a balance, an understanding that foreign expertise is often needed whilst initiatives are created to support knowledge transfer to capable locals. Rather than replacing foreign expertise overnight (which has happened in some places), let’s get these professionals to pass on their expertise through job shadow programs, teaching and mentoring. In one of my previous roles I was asked to do this, and I considered it part of my role in developing the local profession. Others should do the same.

Our region can be as diverse and as exciting as London and New York, and I don’t see why the marcomms industry should be any different. Let’s start making use of both local insights and foreign experience, and combining them to create better work. We need balance in approaching this issue. As always, I’d appreciate your thoughts on this issue.

The Gulf’s push to improve its image – why actions speak louder than words

The Gulf's foreign ministers have worked hard to change perceptions of the region abroad. But is there a simpler solution?

The Gulf’s foreign ministers have worked hard to change perceptions of the region abroad. But is there a simpler solution?

I love a good read, especially fiction. But when living in the Gulf, fact can often feel more surreal than fiction. Last week the UAE’s English language daily Gulf News reported on efforts by the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council to improve its image abroad, most notably in Europe and the US. To quote from the newspaper:

Foreign media officials in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have stressed the need to formulate a common media strategy that will reflect the positive image of the six member countries abroad.

The officials, who were holding a meeting in the Qatari capital Doha, reviewed plans and suggestions for future actions in their communication drive with the international community.

The GCC, established in 1981, comprises Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“The participants discussed several issues related to the progress of their work, including a common strategy to rectify the distorted image that some Western media have about the countries in the region,” Ahmad Al Buainain, the head of the foreign media department at Qatar News Agency (QNA) said.

“The meeting also discussed several papers and new ideas regarding the way forward for the GCC foreign media in European and Asian countries in order to convey the realities on the ground, he said, quoted by QNA.

Plans include holding seminars and meetings with research centres or organizing events at international functions in Europe and in which the GCC countries are participating, he added.

“This new drive is a continuation of the activities conducted by the foreign media officials at past events,” he said.

Ahmed Mussa Al Dhabyan, the head of media cooperation at the GCC Secretariat General, said that the GCC foreign media officials sought to build on their successful experience and formulate a new strategy that matched the latest developments in the communication field.

“The world has gone beyond the global village concept and has now become a single house,” he said. “The GCC has a significant political and economic weight and it has a special standing internationally, and therefore it needs to have a foreign media presence that matches its stature,” he said.

Earlier this month, reports surfaced from Washington D.C. that Saudi was hiring a variety of lobbying groups to bolster its public image in the US. Clearly, the Gulf cares about its reputation abroad, especially when the region’s governments see what they feel to be negative coverage.

On his Facebook account, political commentator (and Sharjah royal family member) Sultan Al-Qassemi gave his take on the article in the Gulf news with a list of suggestions to improve the Gulf’s image abroad.

1- Release activists.
2- Suspend capital punishment.
3- Allow political participation.
4- Eliminate Kafeel (sponsorship) system
5- Expand women’s rights.
6- Enact environmental protection.
7- Broaden citizen’s rights.
8- Bolster freedom of expression (yes within “limits”)

I’d make it even simpler. As any good and ethical public relations practitioner will tell you, your actions speak louder than your words. If the region is serious about tackling any negative perceptions or reputation issues abroad, then behaviour which is contradictory to accepted human norms in regions outside of the Gulf (read the West) must be tackled, and free(r) access should be given to the media. With social media and the internet, it is so much harder to hide anything or to spin information or events. Take for example the leaking of documents from Saudi’s Foreign Ministry recently.

The best way to been seen in a positive light is not more seminars or meetings in European capitals with research centers. Instead, one must behave in a positive light, followed by encouraging the media, both local and international, to report without bias.

While I’ve been in this region long enough to know better, I am still an optimist at heart. And I still believe we are capable of change for the better, as this region is magical in so many ways. However, a word of note. If my face turns shades of blue or purple, do please remind me to breathe.

Me, my wife and our baby – a personal story of how the Gulf is letting down its women by denying their children the right to nationality

 

The children of Gulf women married to foreigners are not automatically granted nationality, unlike their male counterparts (image source http://www.flight965.com)

 
I promised I’d write on my experiences as a father and I’m having to start things off on a serious note. As some of you may know, my wife is from this region but I am not. We welcomed into our lives a little princess earlier this year.

The sad story is that in the Gulf region children born to Gulf women, in other words women with a nationality from the six GCC states, who are married to foreign men do not receive their mother’s nationality. This is in contrast to Gulf men who are married to foreign women. Their children do receive their father’s nationality.

It’s important to us that our little one cherishes both her cultures and that she’s recognized as both. She’s fortunate to have a European nationality through me, but, try as we might with visits to interior ministry offices and other government bodies, we realized that there is no formal process for our daughter to become a Gulf national like her mother. This is the same all over the Gulf, despite sporadic exemptions to the contrary.

I’ve heard countless reasons for this, such as the need for Gulf women to marry Gulf men, and the legal requirement that a Gulf national should have only one passport. To me, any discussion is bogus. If I was a Gulf male and my wife was a European foreigner our daughter would have qualified automatically for both nationalities.

I hear lots of news about progress being made it terms of women’s rights in the Gulf, which I applaud. However, until Gulf women are able to give their children everything that their male counterparts can, I cannot contend that women here are anywhere near to being equal to the men.

I hope for change, if not for my wife’s generation, then at least for my daughters. I hope you will join me in calling for a change to how Gulf women and their children are treated in the Gulf.

First the Kama Sutra pictures, and then the 2022 GCC media resolution – what is happening to Qatar’s media scene?

It’s not been the best of summers for Qatar’s media scene. First, there was a slip at the Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq. It wasn’t so much a slip-up as a huge !@#$-up. The paper’s long-time editor-in-chief Jaber Al Harmi was forced to resign after the publication of a photograph depicting sex scenes from the Kama Sutra. The story was best told by the Associated Press. But before that, the offending image is below.

Al Sharq's choice of imagery  for henna tattoos really couldn't have been worse. But where did they find the image?

Al Sharq’s choice of imagery for henna tattoos really couldn’t have been worse. But where did they find the image?

The image showed the woman’s palms decorated in numerous tiny tattoos showing a couple engaged in sexual intercourse.

Harmi took to the paper’s website to describe the incident as “a completely unintended mistake” and the “worst” he had known in his 25-year career in journalism and said he took full responsibility for what happened.

He said he “offered my resignation out of moral responsibility”.

It is not yet known if the resignation has been accepted by the paper’s bosses.

“All apologies are not enough for such a serious mistake, which occurred by publishing morally inappropriate images,” wrote Harmi.

“Our values and principles provide a red line that cannot be breached and so I presented my resignation to the board.”

He added: “This tragic incident revealed to us the extent of the adherence of our community to religion, values and morals.”

On Twitter, he wrote that “all those behind this mistake” have been fired.

But it got better. Following on from the unfolding crisis at FIFA, Qatar has been looking to tackle the corruption allegations surrounding its winning of the 2022 World Cup. As part of this plan, Qatar lobbied the Gulf to request media support. What they got was a call by the Gulf’s governments for all regional media to support Qatar. More from the Doha News website.

In an effort to “counter” media criticism of Qatar’s preparations for the 2022 World Cup, the GCC is calling on journalists in the Gulf to publish stories that support the country’s right to host the international football tournament.

The directive was released following a meeting of GCC information ministers in Doha this week. In a joint statement carried by state news agency QNA late last night, they said:

“GCC information ministers renewed their call for the media to counter all those who seek to question the right of the State of Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, stressing GCC states full solidarity with the State of Qatar and encouraged media in the GCC to continue countering these campaigns at home and abroad.”

As we say, the media should report the news and not make the news. However, with all that is happening in Qatar, expect more media machinations soon.

The Middle East and its addiction to Facebook – 2013 stats and figures

Yes, we Arabs have adopted Facebook as our own (image source: muslimscrisisgroup.wordpress.com)

Most of us in the region already know how effective and powerful Facebook is. The social media site played a prominent role in the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt, and its popularity has endured in the face of challenges from other services such as Twitter and YouTube (I’m not even going to mention Google+ in the same sentence).

Facebook released some figures this week about the site’s usage in the Middle East. According to Facebook’s head of MENA Jonathan Labin over twenty eight million people in the Middle East and North Africa are using Facebook every day. Fifty six million use the site every month and of those thirty three use a phone or tablet device to check their profile. Fifteen million people access the site on a daily basis from their mobiles.

I’m going to give you a little more insight into a couple of different regions: Saudi Arabia; Egypt; the GCC; North Africa, and the Levant. The below figures, which were compiled last month, give a good deal of insight into gender split, age, marriage status, number of friends and page likes, access methods, and interface usage. If you’re a marketer in this region and you’re not using or leveraging Facebook (especially on mobile) then start rethinking your advertising and communications approach.

Will there be more Farsi-language newspapers? On its 35th birthday Al-Sharq Al-Awsat goes Iranian

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat in Farsi? It’s going to happen, and most likely soon.


There’s few pan-Arab newspapers of note. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, or AAA as I and others so lazily call it, is one of those papers that is everywhere and which demands respect. The green-tinted paper, which only this week celebrated its 35th anniversary and which was one of the first to be printed offshore in London, is a must-read for anyone looking to understand politics in the Gulf and between the Gulf states and the rest of the Middle East.

Owned by the Saudi Research and Marketing Group, the paper is set to again make history by being the first tier-one newspaper in the region to publish in Farsi. While I don’t have the full details on when or how (I’m assuming that the focus will be more on online rather than an actual print version simply to reach as many Farsi speakers inside and outside Iran), the move may mark the beginning of an effort by Saudi Arabia – the Saudi Research and Marketing Group is run and majority owned by the Saudi Royal family – to proactively communicate with Iran’s people directly in their own language.

The timing is also fascinating, coming as it does after the conclusion of Iran’s former President Ahmadinejad’s time in office and the election of the new President-elect Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani has been described as a moderate and one of his many tasks may include reducing the amount of censorship imposed on Iranians living in their own country; Iran has one of the most sophisticated web filter systems active globally today allowing the Government to block any external site at will.

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat’s Farsi move may be long overdue. There’s been concerted efforts by the Iranian Government for some time to speak directly to an Arab audience, most noticeably through its television station Press TV. Will other Gulf governments follow Al-Sharq Al-Awsat’s lead and print their own Farsi language paper or launch more Farsi-language websites?

Is too much government intervention good or bad for innovation in the Gulf?

Is the Gulf’s innovation being hindered by too much government intervention? (credit: techpionions.com)

There’s been a couple of news stories recently that caught my eye. One was an interview on Kipp Report with the managing director of an online website called Tejuri.com. The article, which you can reach here, focuses on how Tejuri.com positions itself as the official online distribution channel for retailers registered with the Emirate’s Department of Economic Development.

Aside from the wisdom of launching an online distribution channel that is government-supported in the year 2013, the piece got me thinking about other areas. One example is non-governmental work, which (surprise, surprise) is often not only regulated but led by government-related bodies. And then you’ve got the ultimate example of government intervention, which is the ownership of the upstream and downstream oil and petrochemical sectors, numerous financial institutions and other businesses. And then there’s the sovereign wealth funds.

My question to these and other government interventions is how much do these activities stunt growth and disrupt innovation? Here I’m going to refer to United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization and Insead that ranks the top ten most innovative countries. The original piece from Bloomberg is here.

Switzerland, Sweden and Singapore are the most innovative countries in the world, according to a study by the United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization and Insead that found a wide gap between rich and poor nations.

Innovation is an important engine of growth and new jobs, the Global Innovation Index 2012, which ranked 141 economies, showed. The index considered institutions, human capital and research, infrastructure and market and business sophistication as well as as the results of innovation such as patents and software in determining how countries fared.

Finland ranked fourth, followed by the U.K., the Netherlands, Denmark, Hong Kong, Ireland and the U.S.

Numerous surveys such as the above and this research one by the United Nations University show that governments help foster innovation most through investing in social capital (read education) and through financial funding – the irony in some parts of the Gulf is that education is in the hands of the private sector rather than the government. Governments then have to step back and then let individuals and businesses get on with it. The same can be said of the non-governmental sector, which, pretty obviously, works best without governmental support s groups and communities work to best pinpoint social issues and tackle them.

The argument often goes that entrepreneurs drive innovation and that governments need to reduce their interventions, reduce bureaucracy and increase financial support for small to medium sized firms to drive growth. However, is that what we are seeing in the Gulf? Or are we still not fulfilling our potential due to too much, rather than too little, government intervention?