Fifteen Harvard students arrived in Dubai last month with a set of opinions and preconceptions about the city and its people. They left a changed group after an eight-day conference on marketing and communications.

The group had been invited by the American University in Dubai for a conference titled Marketing Communications in the Middle East: Mirror for the Region - Window on the World. The students are part of the Harvard College in Asia Programme (HCAP), which formed a partnership with AUD earlier this year.

In February, 10 AUD students visited Harvard for a conference on urban planning and sustainable development. For the marketing conference in Dubai, they once again represented their university.

"I had heard about Dubai but now I have the chance to see it," said Robert Niles, Harvard literature major, on his first day in the city. His colleague Meel Rai, a Harvard physics major, said he was most excited about meeting other people and the cultural exchange experience. "I am looking forward to the academic and social activities," he said.

Dubai - home to advertising

On the opening day visitors were given a general idea about the university and the theme of the conference. Lance de Masi, president of AUD, spoke about the progress the university had made since its inception in 1995.

Paul Sutphin, US Consul General, spoke on the relationship between the US and the UAE. "There is an impression that the US does not want students from the Middle East, but that's not true," said Sutphin, emphasising that exchange is important for both cultures.

Sami Raffoul, general manager of the Pan Arab Research Centre (PARC) provided an overview of the marketing and media market in the UAE and the Arab world.

"Dubai is ranked 23rd in the world in terms of total advertising expenditure per capita," he said.

Niles said he was impressed by the lectures. "What's happening here is incredible, the growth of the market is unparalleled anywhere else," he said.

Aisha Abbasi, marketing student at AUD, said: "Dubai is the home of advertising in the Middle East, and it is important for them to have a better understanding of the Arab world."

Marketing - various angles

On the last day of the conference, the students were asked to present a marketing case study. The group was divided into two teams and asked to devise a complete marketing strategy.

"AUD students helped us with marketing terms and concepts as we had some difficulties," said Asli Bashir, history and literature major at Harvard. "There were times when we agreed and other times when we disagreed."

Her colleague, a social studies major, said that the Americans often differed from the AUD group in the way they approached a subject. "I love that AUD teaches skills that help in the outside world. They actually learn the marketing, instead of theory," said Lin Li, president of HCAP.

"We usually focus on our argument and coming from a liberal arts programme, we don't use specific terms. [Here] we learned how to be very structured and strategic," she said.

AUD's students seemed equally enthusiastic about partnering with their fellow students from Harvard. "It's a lot of fun and demands creativity.

They were a bit hesitant at first because they are not familiar with this subject, but when we were finalising it before making the presentation, they got even more involved.

It turned out to be great," said Tamara Azab, marketing and communication major at AUD.

Cultural interaction

As for culture, there is not much difference, Azab said. "We both value education, family and friendship. We all watch TV and like good films," she said. However, some ideas did change. "Dubai is more cosmopolitan than I thought," said Lin Li.

There was a change in perceptions and preconceived notions on both sides. Azab said: "I had thought they see us as terrorists, but when I visited the US and interacted with the students, my ideas changed.

I thought they were similar to what was depicted in American movies on ‘chicks and flicks' but I learned that they are actually smart.

I expected Harvard students to be rich and arrogant but most of them are down-to-earth and very interested in the Arab world."

Discovering Dubai

Outside the college campus, the students from Harvard roamed the streets of Dubai, getting to know the city, its history and culture. They visited so many places. However, the highlight was a trip to the desert.

"I'm from Michigan; I've never seen anything like Dubai," said Asli Bashir. "It's very new, a sensory and fun experience."

Lin Li said she enjoyed the dune-bashing and desert safari the most. "All the events were fun, and we got to see belly-dancing," she said.

There was considerable cultural interaction between the visitors and their colleagues from the American University in Dubai (AUD). "We asked them what they think of us and they asked us about religion, relationships between men and women, how Arabs view the West, etc," said Tamara Azab from AUD.

Aliah Saleh, business management student at AUD, said that meeting people from different cultures is an enriching experience. "The topics that we discussed here and in the US were very exciting.

I learned so much from that one lecture on marketing," she said. "I am so proud that AUD participated in such a conference."