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Communications life beyond Dubai

Alex Malouf looks at why Dubai is a hub, and why communicators should remember there are other markets. That's why the IABC is having its Emenacom 19 event in Bahrain


By Alex Malouf, past-chair, International Association of Business Communicators, Europe, Middle East and North Africa

Is it time we look beyond Dubai if we’re going to promote and develop the communications function?

I’m going to show my age from the get-go, with a recollection of how Lebanon and then Bahrain were the centers for marketing and communications in the Levant and Gulf respectively. These were the days before Dubai became the place to be, before any self-respecting agency had to have Dubai on its website, business cards and letterhead.

The focus on Dubai is understandable. Dubai is a wonderful place to live, with large expat communities where everyone can find a place they fit in. Dubai offers easy access, and it’s convenient to get to. Dubai is also the place where training and development is focused; every other day there’ll be a conference or event in Dubai.

While Dubai offers many of us a home away from home, and an exciting work environment, is it time for the communications industry to look beyond Dubai, to set up and hire or base staff in-country? The best communicators intimately understand their audiences, through understanding local cultures and languages. The more time we spend with our clients, the better able we are to comprehend not just what they say, but also what they want. In a region such as the Middle East, personal relationships can take time to build, and trust is developed through face-to-face interactions.

The communications discipline has transformed rapidly in the region; every single sizeable brand and organisation I know here now has a communications leader. Many of those comms heads aren’t expats, but rather nationals. And more often than not, they’re seeking out agencies and consultancies based where they are. Many are also looking for the best communications counsel on topics such as internal communications, crisis management, and reputational affairs.

As part of my contribution back to the industry, I’ve been working on EMENAComm, an annual event held by the International Association of Business Communicators. This year, the event is being held in the Gulf. After thinking through a number of locations, we decided to base it in Bahrain. It seemed the right fit; we’d be able to reach out to communicators in the northern Gulf, as well as those based in Saudi. It will also allow us to get more local organisations and Gulf nationals involved. Bahrain would also give our speakers the opportunity to explore Bahrain’s heritage and get a feel for Khaleeji culture.

Our choice has elicited two responses. The first was a question. We were asked: “But why Bahrain, and why not Dubai?” The second was pleasant surprise. “We haven’t had an international event here for communicators in so long,” I was told by one senior communicator in a Bahraini bank. “We’re so happy to see something big happening locally, and benefit from the experience of these global speakers.” This is borne out by our attendee list – we have delegates from Kuwait, Oman and Saudi. The majority of them are nationals, and they’re leading communications for national or regional brands.

We’re living through a period of time where communications roles are being localised – there’s more Bahraini, Emirati, Kuwaiti, Omani and Saudi communicators than I’ve seen in my two decades of being in the Gulf’s PR industry. And yet, there’s still a reluctance for many to look seriously beyond Dubai, to operating in-country.

Dubai may feel as it’s the heart of the region in terms of its diversity, but the Middle East isn’t Dubai. We’ve got to do more to engage where our clients and audiences are, and become immersed in the region we’re serving. One place to start may well be EMENAComm in Bahrain this February.