Local talent

A brilliant opinion piece in Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper by one of my favourite Middle East commentators, Sultan Al Qassemi (who blogs at Felix Arabia), remarking on how the United Arab Emirates – despite its name – lacks a unified identity, either in corporate branding or in many of the practical aspects of government.

There is, for example, no UAE Ministry of Tourism. Instead, each individual emirate – Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah – handles its own promotion, often without regard to what their near-neighbours are doing.

Al Qassemi draws comparison with the spectacularly successful ‘Incredible India‘ and ‘Malaysia: Truly Asia‘ campaigns, within which individual regions are free to market themselves, but always under the banner of the global tagline.

This raises interesting questions. The US is another federal country without a national tourism promotion strategy. The big names, such as Florida, New York and California, have massive tourism budgets, and therefore dominate the inbound industry – whereas the likes of Nebraska, Idaho and Oklahoma don’t, and so often miss out. Would a US Tourism Office even out the numbers and spread tourism more widely – or is it just that more people find California interesting than Oklahoma? Tough call.

In the UAE, though, it’s pretty clear to me that there is huge benefit to be gained from devising a promotional brand which encompasses the whole country. Sharjah, Fujairah and – as I’ve blogged previously – Ras Al-Khaimah have a huge amount to offer in terms of landscapes, culture and diversity that could significantly boost the rather monolithic concept of tourism currently put forward by Dubai and Abu Dhabi. There’s no logical reason why they should be denied a slice of that pie.

But the most interesting line in Al Qassemi’s piece is this: “Frankly, I have no doubt that if Emiratis were responsible for the UAE’s tourism campaigns we see on television, the name of the country would have appeared.”

Al Qassemi has a track record of saying the unsayable – his piece from 2008 “Welcome back our long-gone neighbours“, to name just one, knocked me (and lots of people I know) sideways – and this fits that bill perfectly. It’s hard to gainsay it.

To English ears, the UAE is the country with perhaps the world’s most unwieldy name, as well as its least memorable acronym: you can imagine teams of expat marketing and PR consultants, brought in to advise Dubai and Abu Dhabi on tourism strategy, tutting and shaking their heads and then saying ‘let’s just forget about the whole UAE thing, eh?’.

Those chickens have come home to roost, with a vengeance. The name Dubai – though not quite a laughing-stock – has lost much of its shine… and, without a national identity to back it up, there is no safety-net. Hence Sheikh Mohammed’s ‘Vision 2021‘ idea to develop a unified identity for the whole country.

Yet to Emiratis, of course, their nationality is a key determinant of identity, along with family, tribe and a host of others – much like the multiple layers of identity in apparently unified Western countries (I’m thinking, in the UK, not just of English/Scottish/Welsh identity, but northern/southern, urban/rural, middle/working class, and so on). It seems those expat consultants conveniently forgot about that.

When it comes to tourism promotion, local knowledge and local perspectives matter. Can you imagine the UK bringing in a team of, say, Korean media specialists to advise on 2012 Olympics promotion? Not a chance: marketing and PR to aid specific markets can help, but the overall strategy would always be home-grown.

So should it be in the Emirates. After a chaotic generation of transition, which has left the country wildly unbalanced in terms of economy, politics, culture and demography, it’s time to do some nation-building. That means easing citizenship laws, building railways and working out what it really means to be Emirati. Interesting years ahead.