In the Q&A session of Jim Crane's talk titled ‘Perceptions of Dubai in the western media' at the Dubai School of Government (DSG), many Dubai affiliated attendees questioned the genuineness and aim of the coverage of the western media. Words such as ‘cultural imperialism' and ‘celebrity journalism' were associated with the Anglo Saxon coverage of Dubai.
Some good but not new points were made on the value of analysis made by 48-hour Dubai-transiting journalists from London and New York.
What is worth noting here is that many journalists covered Dubai in exactly that way during the boom years as well; no Dubai affiliate ever criticised the approach then.
Following comments by attendees from the media that it is hard for them to get a statement from Dubai, someone said that the recently established Dubai Government Media Office, a streamlined combination of Brand Dubai, Falcon and associates and the Dubai Press Club, would be operational by March 1.
I resisted commenting on that statement then but I will do so now.
March 2010 is exactly 18 months from Ramadan 2008, the month when the real estate market began to severely decline. I find it incredibly inefficient and alarming that there still is no sense of understanding of the gravity of the situation that Dubai faces by all that is Dubai Inc.
It is not a crisis of property valuation (that's a global problem!) but rather a crisis of value addition which the property's revaluation has uncovered.
We, in Dubai, have actively and very consciously put ourselves out there. There where? The world. We went to the travel markets, the property fair and the expos. We spent much time and money telling the world our story.
How we were possibly the first city in both the Arab and Muslim world in hundreds of years that was making great strides towards the transformation to not only an international hub of trade and tourism but one for education and health care too; we developed the ‘Knowledge Village' and the ‘Healthcare City' which have received mixed views so far when comparing their visions to their methods of execution.
We spoke of the importance of civil debate and the civic development of the modern Arab public office and formed the DSG which up to date has pushed the ceiling of tolerated public debate beyond what has been previously possible; we continue to expect more of the DSG because we believe in its capacity for so much more.
Land of opportunity
We spoke of the importance of elevating poverty and successfully executed Dubai Cares; we continue to be proud of it. For many Dubai personified Veni Vidi Vici; for many Dubai said: ‘I came, I saw, I conquered'. And so the combination of an arrival of global hard times to a city that pretty much marketed itself as all of the above and its year and half long silence would naturally spark reactions ranging from mockery to fury.
As one prominent Emirati businessman told senior government officials in private council: "There was paralysis from the government". The statement was made back in March 2009 (six months into the crisis), when there appeared to besome sort of realisation that Dubai needed to develop a communication strategy and ‘Brand Dubai' was launched three months later.
Nothing material came out of it beyond an attempt to mobilise local media and counter the points. Direct communication with western media never occurred; it still does not.
The world is run by those who show up: what we need is an office of communication and information. An office of communication provides feedback, validation and refutation of statements made in relation to Dubai.
An office of information, on the other hand, provides much needed data which so far has been a victim of speculation, on the western media's end, and conflicting statements, on varying government officials' end . Availability of information is just as important because it sets the record straight on various questions such as debt levels, inflation adjusted growth numbers, population and demographics and business activity.
Whether it is called Brand Dubai, Dubai Media Office or the International Communications Office (I made up that last one) it is absolutely imperative that this office takes charge of the conversation and it must do the following:
- Set the record straight: so much of this ‘Dubai Bashing' is due to our continued silence.
- Acknowledge previous errors of judgment: There is much goodwill for Dubai and we are losing it by our silent arrogance. Contrary to a worryingly growing xenophobic view of some, the world continues to have a vested interested in Dubai's success. It just needs to know that we understand where things went wrong.
- Communicate Dubai's future economic model: Beyond vague references to the superior state of infrastructure and the renewed importance of tourism, no government official has shed light on what a post property driven Dubai will look like.
- Consistent message with a face: Dubai needs to clearly say where it stands on a number of issues and it must appoint a spokesperson that articulates these views and contexualises their consistency with reference to good and bad coverage of Dubai.
- Liberate the local media: One of the main reasons why the foreign bashing is prevalent is because our local media is so overly censored, which in turn makes Dubai a sitting duck for foreign media's onslaught. There is much to be said for the benefits that Dubai and its government would reap from a free and critical local media, enough to fill a whole article probably.
We are no longer a back water trading port. With the up comes the down and it is how we glide the down, not how we taxi the up that defines our propensity for metropolitan prominence. We have been to the trade fairs of Frankfurt, Cannes and Shanghai. More than ever, It is now time for us to match up to our image and bite the bullet, not the dust.
Mishaal Al Gergawi is an Emirati commentator on socio-economic and cultural affairs in the UAE.