Trophy Money
Image Credit: Gulf News

Dubai: Who doesn’t like winning an award? It acknowledges achievement, garners respect of peers and is an excellent way to build credibility. Right? Well, not quite.

A Gulf News investigation into some mega award galas held in the UAE lately show that a majority of them are fake and the so-called winners are victims of scams run by crooks preying on people’s vanity and, at times, gullibility.

For the organisers of these dubious events, the objective has never been to recognise excellence but to coax entrants or winners into forking out money.

Spray-and-pray approach

Typical spray-and-pray spam tactics are employed to create a false sense of urgency among companies and get them excited about the awards.

An agent persuaded me to enter the awards. He gave me the names of three Lucknow businessmen who had
signed up with him. I didn’t want to be left out. The organisers flew me to Dubai and put me up in a nice hotel.

- Vanity awardee, Bakery owner, Lucknow, India

“Hurry, nominations close any minute ...” “Don’t delay, deadline for nominations is fast approaching ...” “Last chance to submit your entry,” are some of the familiar ruses used while contacting them.

The truth is that there is no real contest or judging process. The meaningless awards are simply handed out to anyone prepared to pay. The asking price ranges from Dh5,000 to Dh30,000 with some individuals and companies admitting they paid up for fear of their competitors bagging the award instead.

That’s precisely what happened at a star-studded awards gala held at a five-star hotel in Dubai last month to “celebrate and reward the achievements of the Indian community”

Rewarding experience

Not the ones to miss out on the opportunity of receiving shining plaques from Bollywood stars, several business owners from India and the UAE threw their hat in the ring by paying between Dh15,000 and Dh25,000 to a hitherto unknown organisation that was behind the event.

Dh 1,799

early-bird offer for aspiring judges for a fake award

An awardee who runs a bakery in the Indian city of Lucknow said he shelled out Rs300,000 (Dh15,658) for an excellence award. “An agent persuaded me to enter the awards. He gave me the names of three Lucknow businessmen who had signed up with him. I didn’t want to be left out. The organisers flew me to Dubai and put me up in a nice hotel near Burj Khalifa. I also got a trophy and a picture of me being felicitated by a Bollywood actor. It was a good deal. Yes, I haven’t done anything prize-worthy, but by that token neither have any of the other recipients,” he reasoned.

A UAE-based businessman is rumoured to have paid Dh35,000 for another category of the same award. It is now being used as a ‘badge of honour’ in his company’s marketing material.

Awards gala held by convicted fraudster

Despite the dubious provenance of these award galas, companies continue to fall for them. Like they did in 2017 when convicted international fraudster Russell Stephen King launched a bogus edition of the reputed Financial Times newspaper and raked in millions of dollars in advertising revenue and barter deals from luxury retail brands and top hospitality groups in the UAE.

Tricked into believing that they were dealing with a sister publication of the reputed 130-year-old daily, a luxury hotel in Dubai held a mega hospitality industry awards night for Food and Travel Arabia, an equally shady magazine run by King, who was then holed up in Bahrain.

$ 80,000

value of deliverables that were part of a barter agreement signed between a hotel and Russell Stephen King’s company

The hotel signed a barter agreement with King’s company for deliverables worth nearly $80,000 (Dh294,240). In exchange of glowing reviews and a full-page advertisement in the launch edition of the bogus FT Business Arabia, the hotel bore all expenses of the awards night besides paying for many VIP hotel rooms. For good measure, it was conferred the ‘Best Destination Hotel’ and ‘Best Casual Chic Restaurant’ awards at the gala hosted by King’s wife.

Buoyed by the windfall, Food and Travel Arabia partnered with the unsuspecting Global Restaurant Investment Forum (GRIF) for yet another awards night at the same hotel in March 2018. However, an expose by a sister publication of Gulf News, put paid to his plans. Within days of our report, GRIF snapped ties with the magazine and the hotel slammed its doors on the face of the organisers who were subsequently forced to cancel the event.

Earlier this year, King, 60, was extradited from Bahrain to Jersey where he was sentenced to six years in prison for another crime — laundering £671,000 (Dh3.18 million) from the now defunct Belgravia Financial Services Group — where he was a shadow director.

Hollow commodity

Like a degree bought from the internet, vanity awards undermine and devalue the efforts of genuine achievers. They may make recipients feel good, but at the end of the day they remain a hollow commodity.

Trophies come cheap

If you lust for an award plaque, any trophy shop in Karama will make one for you for less than Dh200, and you can have them engrave anything you want.

You don’t have to get nominated for an award by organisations like the Qatar-based Asian Arab Chamber of Commerce (AACC) co-chaired by the self-proclaimed Her Royal Highness Princess Fay Jahan Ara.

Rs 300,000

amount shelled out by the owner of a bakery company in Lucknow, India, for an excellence award

In 2009, the American woman of Iranian origin and Indian links flew to Dubai from her home in France along with her German husband to seek funds for her charity. But Fay Jahan Ara, who claims to be the widow of the grandson of a 18th century Indian king, was neither able to answer queries about her disputed royal descent nor explain what charitable projects the foundation would launch in India from the millions of dirhams she intended to raise at a Dubai fund-raiser.

In March this year, ACCC hosted an awards night in Hyderabad where several individuals and companies from the GCC were felicitated. What these awards are worth is anybody’s guess.

Dangling the bait

A representative of another organisation that hosts annual industry awards said his job is to trawl the internet and contact company owners in real estate, hospitality and retail sectors.

“I was told to target small and medium size business owners in the Middle East,” he said. “I would send them bulk emails asking if they would want to be nominated for our award. Those who responded were asked to pay a fee to attend the ceremony or sponsor the event,” he added. The claims are not unfounded.

Awards for sale for $8,000

A major retail firm in the UAE said it was offered an award at a regional award ceremony in Dubai provided it coughed up $8,000 in sponsorships.

“We nominated ourselves for two separate awards — Best Employer and Best Talent,” the company’s HR manager recalled. “However, days before the event, the organisers called us saying we would be assured a place for ‘Best Employer’ and would figure in the top five shortlist for Managing Talent’ if we paid $8,000 towards sponsorship. Later we found out that all those who walked away with the awards were sponsors,” he said.

A Dubai-based Lebanese woman said she has been offered ten minutes on stage to be named one of the UAE best marketers if she paid $2,000. “The event is in December. I was approached on LinkedIn then called from a number routed through California,” she said.

The director of public relations at a resort in Dubai said she was inundated by emails from a Mumbai-based agency asking her to enter their awards.

“All emails come from the same office in Mumbai, India, where they have hundreds and hundreds of awards listed across various sectors. Among the many awards pitched to us are awards for Global Giving, Middle East Marketing, Leadership and something called Spa Leadership. Sadly, many hotel groups fall for them,” she said.

One of their awards is called the Global Mice Congress Awards. At first blush, everything on its website appears legitimate. But when you scratch the surface, the veneer falls off. We found out that the organisations ‘endorsing’ Global Mice Congress Awards are owned by the same group with the same Santa cruz Mumbai office address and phone number as those of people operating the awards. On October 9, the dodgy agency hosted an awards gala in Dubai where each awardee was charged a delegate fee.

Pay and judge

Just as easily as you can buy an award, you could also buy a place on the jury panel. An organisation hosting an excellence award in 2020 even has an early bird offer for aspiring judges with prices starting from Dh1,799!

“Being a judge enables you to enhance your credibility and network with business leaders,” boasts the website of another organisation that took $425 from people who judged a real estate awards in January this year.