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Dubai, reputation management and the power of sorry

Dubai's image

Recent news and the resulting coverage do little to paint Dubai as the tolerant, multi-cultural place that it is.

July 25, 2013 9:36 by

Dubai is a remarkable place. Over 200 nationalities live together in a city that has literally risen from the desert in the space of less than fifty years. The Emirate has become a landmark worldwide, and it’s no surprise that Dubai is talked about as a global venue.

A case in point is the Expo 2020 bid. Would Dubai have been in a position to bid on an Expo, an event that is billed as the world’s largest fair, ten years back? Perhaps not. Fast forward to today and I would have Dubai down as a slam-dunk to win the Expo 2020 bid against some pretty stiff competition – Russia’s Yekaterinburg, Brazil’s Sao Paulo, and Turkey’s Izmir.

If Dubai wins the Expo 2020 bid, we’ll be welcoming over 30 million visitors from all over the world for at least six months. But such opportunities also come with challenges. Just ask Qatar. Our neighbour has faced a series of questions, since it won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup, on issues, such as, human rights, exploitation of low-wage workers and, even if Doha would arrest fans of a specific sexual orientation.

Initially, I thought Dubai would face many of the same questions if it won the Expo 2020 bid. While the Expo may not be as high profile as the World Cup, any global event will attract a diverse array of media attention.

While I thought Dubai would be well prepared for such questions after winning the bid, I was wrong. Rather than facing such questions after securing Expo 2020, Dubai has been in front of such a scenario even before the first votes were cast. Two news stories over the past two weeks have made headlines globally. The first was a case of the alleged road-rage. Road-rage in itself isn’t anything new. Similarly, the fact that the incident was captured on camera and then uploaded to YouTube doesn’t naturally make a global news story in itself.

However, the revelation that the person who filmed the incident could be jailed for twice the time of the person who was accused of assault on a charge of defamation shocked many both, inside and outside of the country. The news ran on channels, such as CNN, the BBC and other global news sites. The coverage did much to tarnish our justice system.

The second unfortunate incident followed shortly after. An allegation of rape by a single Norwegian lady resulted in her being charged with a number of offenses. Much of the resulting media outrage was from Europe, where rape laws are drastically different to what is practiced here.

While I’m not here to talk about the above events, what we have to bear in mind is the reputation and reputational management. Such news and the resulting coverage do little to paint Dubai as the tolerant, multi-cultural place that it is. The adage that it takes years to build a reputation and moments to damage it is very apt, and as a global city that is so reliant on trade and tourism, Dubai must understand how sensitive it is to such reputational damage.

A piece written by the Financial Times’ Simeon Kerr lists Dubai’s struggle between its attempts to protect its international profile while maintaining its legal and cultural traditions. However, should Dubai’s officials go beyond public relations, embrace contrition for such events and begin to debate the need for judicial changes?

Let’s put this in a different context relative to Expo 2020. Will such incidents hurt Dubai’s chances of winning the Expo? The event’s judges are mainly European and how will they react to arguments that women who submit a rape allegation may be subject to prosecution themselves? I could imagine the lobbyists for Expo 2020 pushing the argument that such a scenario would be much less likely to happen in Brazil or Russia, so why hold the event in a place where tourists may be put at risk.

Dubai’s image isn’t that of Saudi Arabia’s. To any visitor, the Emirate looks cosmopolitan, open and liberal. However, there are tensions underneath the surface, between tradition and modernity, local culture and foreign influences.

Dubai, however, cannot afford to not debate on these issues, especially as it looks to welcome 30 million foreigners in 2020. Isn’t it time that we better understand the other, learn and admit that there needs to be change where necessary and adapt? Or is the brand Dubai strong enough to weather the reputational damage and loss of businesses that these events and future incidents will inflict?


A British national with Arabic roots, Alex has spent ten years in the Gulf and has lived in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the United Arab Emirates. Alex lost his heart to journalism years ago, but he has worked with a range of multinational companies in the technology, energy and financial sector to develop marketing and communications approach to the region. He’s currently based in Dubai but calls Bahrain home.

1 Comment

  1. alex malouf on July 25, 2013 8:11 pm

    I wrote this stupid article to score some expo2020 keyword points.


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