“Business is ruthless, it’s dirty, it’s hard work. When I stared this, I didn’t expect to get a head start just because I’m an Emirati,” says Abdullatif Alsayegh.
The “this” he refers to Alsayegh Media (AM), one of the fastest growing communications businesses in the region and one of the few independent consultancies owned and built from the ground up by a UAE national.
Launched in 2010, just as the country was beginning to recover from the global financial crisis, it has mirrored the UAE’s recuperation from those dark days, as has Mr Alsayegh’s response to the issues they presented.
He has never been reluctant to face challenges. Education in America, and a stint as a local radio DJ in Florida, exposed him to the media bug, and he was fast-tracked by the Dubai business establishment to run a big part of its media business.
Already in the early 2000s, in his early thirties, he was a serial launcher, with radio stations, newspapers, TV channels, events companies all brought into the world with his trademark whirlwind enthusiasm.
By 2007 he was chief executive of Arab Media Group, a growing part of the Dubai Holding government conglomerate, and was named chief executive of the year at that year’s World CEO Forum in Dubai.
The financial crisis caused the emirate to rethink its media priorities, and gave Mr Alsayegh the opportunity to branch out on his own with AM. “The plan always was to develop a full integrated, ‘smart’ media group. That had been the base plan at Arab Media Group too, but the journey didn’t continue there,” he says.
The business model at the new enterprise was radically different from the long lines of executive responsibility at the government-owned operation. “At AM I am the sole shareholder. There is a governance structure, and I sit with the team and listen to their views, but in the end I’m the boss. It makes it easier to adapt to changing circumstances,” he adds.
That freedom has enabled him to build a communications business that spans the spectrum of modern media, from public relations and media buying to social and digital media, and a lot of other activities in between.
It is run from AM’s very funky offices in Dubai’s International Media Production Zone, where most of its 124 staff work. A smaller office in the capital handles the growing business there.
The customer base is spread across government clients, government-related enterprises and the private sector. Abu Dhabi tourism, the UAE foreign ministry, and the AD police force sit alongside Dubai Properties, Dubai Islamic Bank and the Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi. Recent examples of work Mr Alsayegh is especially proud of include the Sheikh Zayed Heritage Festival and Qasr Al Hosn Festival events.
He admits that this year “there has been a bit of panic” as the oil price and economic conditions have fluctuated, but is very confident of his ability to respond. “You control business and growth, they do not control you. You have to adapt to the environment and if you can only be successful in a good environment, then you shouldn’t be in business,” he says, explaining how AM manages demand to suit the firm’s capacity.
The situation is not the same as in 2008-09, he believes. “That took us by surprise, and this is not as bad. It’s more of a perception than actual real economic problems. The levels of economic activity in the UAE – the airports, the malls, other events – are still buzzing,” he suggests.
In any case, Mr Alsayegh’s business is not confined to the UAE. He has just come back from the Barcelona telecoms conference and has obviously had his global horizons reinforced, and his confidence in the future of the media business. “By 2020, there will be billions of devices connected in the world. All economies will be smarter, and the smarter they are, the happier we become,” he says.
Mr Alsayegh then embarks on a figurative world tour of where he sees growth and opportunity in the near future. “Saudi Arabia is a major market and we’d like to expand there. There is a new generation that’s super-talented, especially at communications and media. We have representatives there at the moment, but would like to do more.”
He is aware of the potential of Iran, but believes any future operations there would depend on UAE government blessing. Kuwait and Qatar are “good markets” he is exploring further, in North Africa he sees Morocco as a “gateway to Europe”.
The glittering prize is in London he believes, the “No 1 digital market” where he is determined to expand either via existing partnerships or on his own, with an imminent exploratory visit lined up. Scandinavia is also an expanding market he is interested in.
In the US, New York also beckons eventually, but he says “you need to have an established reputation in your home market to succeed in America”. AM is well down the road to achieving that. Mr Alsayegh has very firm views on the UAE media market. “A lot of people in media get trapped in what I call the Sheikh Zayed corridor – the bit of road between Dubai Media City and the Trade Centre roundabout. They spend their whole life there, but there’s a lot more to UAE media than that. There’s the capital of course, a huge market in its own right, but also the northern emirates. To understand the UAE you have to understand RAK, Sharjah and Fujairah as well,” he says.
He warms to the themes of the uniqueness of the UAE media business. “For example, advertising copy that’s been written for the Egyptian or Lebanese market should not be used in the UAE. It will not work, and the advertisers will take a hit. They will not thank you,” he insists.
Will this problem be solved by employing more Emiratis in the media industry? “I firmly believe private enterprise will be the wealth generator for the UAE in the future. It has to happen because the government will not be able to find jobs for all the Emirati graduates we are producing.
“We are a financially well-off people, so we need to inject some drive into the mentality. We have to move beyond just having a job to the dream of creating jobs for other people, without the support of government. We need to cut the chain of dependence and stand on our own feet.”
That is a big challenge. But as his career to date has shown, Abdullatif Alsayegh relishes challenge.
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