The End of the Fattah Era at Abu Dhabi’s The National

How will The National change following Fattah’s departure to the world of Public Relations? (image source:

As they say, all things must come to an end. This month in the United Arab Emirates we witnessed a rare occurrence, the departure of an editor-in-chief at one of the national newspapers. After five years Hassan Fattah stepped down. The news wasn’t surprising to most of us media watchers when it was officially announced by The National on the 2nd of October. The news had been unofficially published by Capital New York on the 19th of September after personal emails had been leaked to The National staffers (one email apparently contained an employment contract from Fattah’s new employers).

Fattah’s time at The National hasn’t been without controversy. The paper, which was once dubbed “The New York Times of the Middle East”, once held aloft the ideals of freedom of the press and professional journalism in a region that suffers from a lack of both. Today, while The National is a quality read it hasn’t lived up to the goals that its founders and editorial team strived for at the paper’s launch.

Instead, judging by the number of pieces that have been written about The National by blogs and other online news outlets the paper has been riven by leadership issues at the top by people who have had to juggle the demands of producing good quality editorial alongside keeping the newspaper’s owners, Abu Dhabi Media Company, happy. The nadir was reached when disgruntled employees started a Facebook site with the aim of highlighting their unhappiness at how the newspaper was run.

Fattah has moved on to the dark side, to the world of public relations. He’ll be heading up communications for a company that is not much loved in the UAE – GEMS, the ‘world’s largest private education company’. It’ll be interesting to see how he copes with the move; public relations isn’t the easiest profession at the best of times but trying to prove that paying more per year for a child’s education than one would pay for an MBA in a top UK University is good value for money would be a stretch for even the most experienced communications spin doctor. How will Fattah cope with keeping his employer happy and the press onside whilst trying to convince a skeptical public about GEMS’ altruism and the value for money provided by its services for example?

However, my gaze will remain firmly on The National. The paper is still one of my favourites and I believe that despite all of the events of the last couple of years there remains the promise of a publication which can raise journalistic standards in the Gulf. Call me naive, simple or whatever else you want, but I’d rather live in hope that The National can return to the vision spelt out by Abu Dhabi Media chairman Mohamed Khalaf Al Mazrouei on the eve of its inauguration, of “a free, professional and enlightened press” that will play a key role in the development of the country. Am I asking too much? Let’s hope not.

GEMS foot-in-mouth syndrome and the curious case of the disappearing comments

Please don’t put your foot in your mouth. If you have to say something do mutter the words when the room is empty, or when you’re in the middle of the ocean. And it’s also advisable to stay away from media (image credit:

There’s a condition that I like to name foot-in-mouth syndrome. Basically, foot-in-mouth happens when an executive talks to a journalist and doesn’t think before they speak. This results in classic ‘how did they say that’ quotes which often whip up a storm of protests from all and sundry.

This week we had one of the best foot-in-mouth moments I’ve read for some time. The chairman of GEMS Education, the UAE’s largest provider of primary and secondary education, gave an interview to Gulf Business. The story was rapidly picked up by Arabian Business and has provoked hundreds of comments from some very angry parents. The quotes which did the (most) damage were below.

Parents have no right to complain about fees if they choose a high school they cannot afford, GEMS Education chairman said of “grumbling” parents in an interview with Gulf Business.

“If you put your children in a school that you can’t afford then you can’t grumble,” Sunny Varkey said.
“You understand what I’m saying? You must choose a school that you can afford.

“It’s normal human behaviour [for parents] to defend fees. But parents can very well see which are the schools that are good, outstanding, fair, or not good. And, accordingly, they can choose a school.”

I love media sites on the internet, partly because of the ability to leave comments and the inevitable pearls of wisdom that readers leave. Varkey’s foot-in-mouth (and if you can’t see why this is a disaster of an interview for Varkey, you’re beyond the pale) was attacked from all sides by parents. Comments included such wonders as ‘It’s no wonder GEMS and HSBC (?) are the two most hated firms in the UAE’, and ‘If graduates from your schools are as arrogant as you are then your schools are definitely not worth the tuition. I would highly recommend getting media training before giving out interviews.’

I wish I could show you more comments; the last time I saw the piece with the comments section still live there were 98 printed which must be a record for the site. However, Arabian Business’ publisher ITP has taken off comments for this piece, either due to the severity of the comments or, more likely, someone possibly threatening legal action.

What happened to the comments on Sunny Varkey’s case of foot-in-mouth? I don’t know. But I can at least leave you this cached screen shot to show you that what goes on the internet can always be found!

Where did the comments go? Only ITP and GEMS will know!

Where did the comments go? Only ITP and GEMS will know!

Mission Impossible? Rehabilitating the image of the UAE’s expat education system…

The question used to be who’d be a teacher. Today it’s more likely be to who’d be a school owner in the UAE? The country’s private education system has been under attack recently for the cost of educating (mainly) expatriate children. There was a wonderful article written by Arabian Business Editor Courtney Trenwith about the issue of high school fees in the UAE, and an apt comparison was made between secondary education in the UAE and tertiary education back in the United Kingdom.

An Arabian Business investigation last month revealed the startling fact that it costs more to send a child to some Dubai schools than a British university.

Fees for a three-year old are as high as AED55,000 (US$15,000) per year, while they escalate to AED69,283 for a typical child aged six to nine, to AED79,733 for many ten to 13-year olds and as much as AED96,140 for the most expensive secondary schools.

Meanwhile, a year’s tuition at universities such as Cambridge and Oxford is less than AED53,000. Until recently, UK university fees were even cheaper.

One of the largest private education firms is GEMS, which claims to educate over 110,000 children and be the leading Kindergarten to Grade 12 private education operator in the world. In December of 2012 GEMS announced that it would close Westminster School in Dubai, which caters to 4,800 pupils from ages five to 18-years old.

The issue which has been covered extensively by the online portal and business publication Arabian Business has caused an uproar with parents who are naturally concerned about the disruption to their children’s education. In a letter sent to parents which was published by Arabian Business, GEMS said the Westminster School would shut in June 2014 with students being given priority placement in other GEMS institutions.

“In recent times our ability to invest the resources required to produce the improvements needed, both educationally and in infrastructure, have been severely restricted because of the current fee structure… We simply cannot offer a high quality education at this level that we see as our duty to provide. Indeed, salary increases during the same period have been at a level higher than any fee awards,” wrote GEMS executive director Dino Varkey to parents.

And now we come to the issue of communications. There are few subjects as sensitive as education, especially when it is for your own children. As the largest company in the industry and one which seems to be making the most headlines, GEMS should realize it needs to do more in terms of its messaging. The company is currently looking to hire a PR and communications manager in Dubai through LinkedIn (if you’re interested in Mission Impossible do click through here).

The question I’d pose to GEMS is how can anyone justify charging more for a year in high school than for a year in university? As there’s little to no public schooling system here for expatriates (in theory an expatriate child can go to a government school but fees will still apply) what are parents to do apart from swallow the bitter pill? But will that help GEMS and the other companies in the long-run? Isn’t the issue more than simply looking at how to spin the company line on high educational costs and school closures? Isn’t this more about the fundamentals of the business, which need reassessing?

The very same Dino Varkey told Arabian Business editor Anil Bhoyrul in an interview in March 2011 that:

“The ambition that we work towards is five million students by 2024. If we got to the five million number as a conservative [estimate] we would be a $60bn company; we would be employing 450,000 teachers, 55,000 senior leaders – that’s the size of organisation that we are trying to build. ”

In the meantime I spotted this recently in a book store in Dubai. As always, if you don’t keep the customer happy someone else will muscle in and try to offer a better service at the same or a lower cost regardless of your communications strategy.

There's always an alternative but would your child be happier and better off boarding in the UK than going to school in Dubai? And would it be cheaper?

There’s always an alternative but would your child be happier and better off boarding in the UK than going to school in Dubai? And would it be cheaper?