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.

How to destroy a brand through poor communications – the Nakheel example

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I’ll admit it. Every now and then I do get pangs of schadenfreude when I see brands being pulled up online by the media and the public. However, seeing a brand destroy itself is a different proposition.

I’ve been watching Nakheel for some time, and I’ve written about the company and its bad media habits before. The Dubai government-owned real-estate developer is responsible for some of the Emirate’s most iconic projects, including the Palm Jumeirah and The World. However, its customer service is, unfortunately, just as infamous as its successes are famous.

Last week, Sarah Townsend of Arabian Business wrote a scathing piece on Nakheel. Entitled ‘Nakheel PR: The toughest job in Dubai?’, she took a sledgehammer to Nakheel’s reputation The article is well worth a read, especially for those of us whom have spent long enough in the region to forget what quality journalism looks like.

If it were just one person taking aim at Nakheel, the issue would be manageable. However, due to our digital world reputation-bashing is a team sport. The article has gathered seventeen comments, all negative and some from disgruntled Nakheel owners. My favorite is the below.

A comment from a not-very-happy Nakheel property resident on the Palm

A comment from a not-very-happy Nakheel property resident on the Palm

On top of this, Nakheel is facing additional issues regarding its stalled Palm Jebel Ali project. However, it’s not the media which is causing trouble for Nakheel, but rather angry investors who have yet to see their properties take shape after years of delay. To quote from The National.

Hundreds of investors on Dubai’s Palm Jebel Ali have called on developer Nakheel to restart the project.

An estimated 400 to 450 people, most of whom made down payments during Dubai’s boom years between 2004 and 2008, find themselves in financial limbo.

All the units under the Palm Jebel Ali project, including its signature and garden villas and water homes, are “under cancellation”, according to Dubai’s Land Department.

In November, 74 homeowners wrote to Mohammed Al Shaibani, the head of the Ruler’s Court and Dubai Investment Authority, to look into the matter.

“The lack of certainty as to when our homes will be built has caused, and is causing, tremendous financial and emotional suffering for us and our families, and many of us continue to endure ongoing mortgage and rental costs while we are waiting,” the letter says. “Many of us have invested our life savings into the Palm Jebel Ali.”

Over a 100 Palm Jebel Ali owners have set up a group on Twitter with the handle @PJAOwners to lobby the government on their issue (bizarrely Nakheel doesn’t have an account on Twitter and there are several Facebook accounts, none of which seem to be legitimate).

For an organization which claims to be one of the largest and most successful property developers in the world, the media issues that Nakheel has gotten itself into are unforgivable (blacklisting the media doesn’t help). Having said that, many of the company’s issues are rather to do with how they operate. Public relations can never be used as a figleaf for unpopular or damaging actions. As Mark Twain said, “The public is the only critic whose opinion is worth anything at all.”

At the end of her article Townsend stated that Nakheel are looking for a PR exec to join their ranks. I could be even bolder and suggest that they look at how they do business and rebuild their reputation first. Anything else would be putting the cart before the horse and will continue to destroy what is left of Nakheel’s brand. I’m betting things will get worse for Nakheel in terms of its brand image and reputation. But I won’t take any pleasure from watching this sorry story of a brand being destroyed from within.

The Sheikh Mohammed School of Communication

I’m no posterboy for Dubai I’ll admit. But I do admire how the Emirate’s ruler communicates with the media. The BBC aired an interview with Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum this week and the piece made headlines the world over. Sheikh Mo as he’s known here shared his thoughts on everything from Iran, Syria and Egypt to horse doping and human rights in the UAE. Sheikh Mohammed talks plainly, he gets to the point, and he admits when things go wrong; asked about the jailing of a number of young men for a spoof video Sheikh Mohammed says:

“We try to change it. We are not perfect and we try to change it. Any mistakes, we go in and try to change it. We’re not perfect, but we are doing our best.”

What’s fascinated me the most has been how the media industry has taken its pick of quotes to build headlines around. For the UAE’s media the key talking points were Sheikh Mohammed’s call to lift sanctions on Iran and his views on Syria and the need for Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad to step down. His views on Egypt’s General El-Sisi dominated the Egyptian papers.

If you want to watch and learn from Sheikh Mohammed School of Communication and see a leader who is unique in terms of how he interacts with the media then watch the interview on the BBC on the 17 January at 04:30 GMT & 09:30 GMT and read the article by the BBC’s Jon Sopel here. You can watch a teaser below from the original airing of the interview yesterday.

I wish there were more leaders in the Gulf who’d talk to and with the media.

Getting the communications balance right – Ras al-Khaimah, beaches and modesty

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I do feel for anyone who has to communicate on behalf of a government body in the Gulf. That’s especially so in places where there’s conflicting, divergent views resulting from a strong cultural diversity and significant business interests with the outside world. I remember the late Yasser Arafat often getting away with making one point in Arabic and then saying the exact opposite in English (there’s many other examples out there too). With the advent of the internet, social media, and a horde of citizen journalists out there in cyberspace it’s no longer possible to say explicitly different things to different constituents.

In this week’s The National newspaper in the UAE there was a great example of the above. On the 22nd of April police from the Emirate of Ras al-Khaimah announced a bikini ban for the area’s beaches. Ras al-Khaimah is a beautiful part of the United Arab Emirates. With a population of just over a quarter of a million people Ras al-Khaimah is known for its pristine beaches, and also for its rapidly growing tourism sector and free trade zone. However, the Emirate is also conservative. Trying to balance the two interests, tourism and tradition, isn’t easy as the below quotes from The National’s article on the 22nd April illustrates.

Bikinis have been banned from public beaches in the emirate as police urge residents to “use common sense” and dress modestly.

The municipality and police have put up signs on public beaches that state: “All coastgoers should commit to public morality and modest clothing”.

Offenders will be given a warning and after a second warning, they could face an unspecified fine.

The two most popular beaches in Ras Al Khaimah are located next to hotels where swimmers sunbathe in thong bikinis or trunks alongside women in burkinis, a modest full-body swimsuit designed for Muslim women.

On weekends and at sunsets, RAK’s public beaches fill with women in full hijab, who come with their families. Women in swimwear are a rare sight at these beaches and there are no women-only beaches in RAK.

In a plea to the public, police urged beachgoers to comply with “public morality and dressing modestly” to respect the country’s traditions and culture.

The move followed complaints by families about tourists who attended public beaches wearing indecent clothing.

The public have greeted the ban in Ras Al Khaimah, a conservative emirate with a large Emirati population. In RAK, it is common for women to dress for the beach by putting on more clothing so that they do not attract attention from men.

“I totally agree with that [ban] for us because it’s not a respectful thing to have on our beaches,” said Hessa Ahmed, a 31-year-old Emirati mother-of-two.

Many people, like Ms Ahmed, would like tourists to cover up but are too shy or polite to approach them. Her last visit to the beach ended abruptly when a man and woman in revealing swimwear sat near her family.

“I wasn’t sure about what she was going to do,” said Ms Ahmed. “I was afraid she would take off her top. So I preferred just to drive away just in case anything was going to happen, so I would just be away and my kids wouldn’t see them.

“There was no sign or board to inform these people you shouldn’t wear this, you shouldn’t wear that.”

Ras Al Khaimah has adopted a lenient approach to public dress in hotels but customs remains overwhelmingly conservative in public spaces, such as shopping malls.

The above was a great piece and insight into the challenges facing a country that is looking to adapt culture with business. And then came the follow-up article the next day in The National.

Police have backtracked over their statement that bikinis and tight trunks are banned from public beaches.

Revealing swimwear is not officially outlawed but strongly discouraged because of cultural sensitivities, police clarified.

“We respect the rights for people. We follow UAE law,” said Maj Marwan Al Mansoori, the head of public relations and moral guidance for RAK Police.

“Our campaign is not about catching people. We just want to tell people about our culture and our community.”

“You should respect our culture and our community rights but you have your rights,” said Maj Al Mansoori. “If it is under our law, you can do it.

“We wanted to tell people what we are thinking. It is communication between cultures. We want to explain this to people.”

It’s worth reading both articles in full, and to put this in its full context few Westerners will use a public beach in Ras al-Khaimah; all the hotels have private beaches which are fully equipped and only for the use of guests. However, such communications outreach isn’t going to help draw foreigners to a part of the country and world that has everything to offer. Perception is everything, especially online when social media is involved. The more people who talk about an issue, the more that issue or perspective is believed no matter its veracity.

This is a reminder about the challenges of trying to get the communications balance right in today’s connected world, where a tourism can view such news pieces while booking their vacation just as easily as a local sitting for a tea and reading the morning newspaper. Media relations is a tough job and I do hope that lessons are learned from this and that the right balance is found, both in terms of educating foreigners coming in (can you really tell someone what to wear after they’ve seen the glossy brochure/website, booked, traveled and arrived) and in preserving local cultural norms. And remember, if nothing else works there’s always the burkini!

The burkini! Foot flicking and hands on hips are optional (credit alrasub.com)