Learning the fundamentals of protocol in Dubai
You are hosting a formal event with royalty, ministers of state, ambassadors, chief executives and other VIPs attending along with the general public. So what are the correct rules for treating your guests? And who should be considered the most important?
Six years ago, Ahmad Ali Binsalem Alzaabi, assistant director general of the Protocol Department Dubai, realised few people in the UAE and Arabian Gulf understood protocol — the art and science of facilitating events. And with the UAE increasingly a hub for diplomatic, trade and business relations, it seemed a wise idea to address this knowledge gap.
After scouring the globe for an organisation that could provide training, he came across the Protocol School of Washington and forged a long-term agreement with its president, Pamela Eyring. The first International Protocol Manager Training (IPMT) programme was conducted in Dubai in 2009 and since then more than 300 students representing government, business and academia have graduated from the initiative.
“Having 300 ambassadors for protocol is a great opportunity for us,” Mr Alzaabi says.
When the programme first launched, the participants were mostly Emirati government employees. At last week’s five-day course in Dubai, however, there were students from Singapore, Russia and Bahrain as well as from the UAE, and companies and organisations including the Russian oil giant Lukoil, Dubal, DP World and the Dubai Sports Council.
The course is not cheap — more than US$6,000 for the week. But Mr Alzaabi organises an annual refresher workshop for graduates, will happily reply to their protocol queries, and keeps everyone in touch via Facebook. The careers of many former participants have also really taken off, propelling some to vice ministerial positions, he adds.
One of the biggest changes has been in the local hospitality industry. Previously the head receptionist or PR officer would deal with protocol issues, but hotels are increasingly creating new positions for protocol managers.
One IPMT graduate is now protocol manager at the Marriott Marquis hotel in Dubai, where the training was held. He convinced the hotel to create the position, arguing it was necessary because of the frequency with which Dubai royalty dropped in for lunch and the number of official functions held there.
“It was very smart for the Marriott to invest and create a position of protocol so that they can take care of those people in a format that is professional,” says Ms Eyring.
The IPMT course has the advantage of being accredited by the US department of education; it is the only accredited protocol programme in the States.
Protocol, it seems, is not a career that people tend to start out in: it is a career they fall into.
“Many of us are put into it because of maybe [our] personalities,” Ms Eyring explains. “We are good with people; maybe we have service hearts where we are very good at saying: ‘Let me get that for you, let me help you’; we are very good at finding solutions.”
As well as having the organisational skills to make sure events run smoothly and to budget, protocol officers must also have vision to create magical, unforgettable events.
“Most events are very similar: they have a beginning, a middle and an end,” says Robert Hickey, the school’s deputy. “And people are not there because they have nothing else to do. They are there because they have a strategic objective, a common purpose, a desire to work on sensitive issues. Your job is to create relationships while they are there and create a memory of a lifetime so that when they walk away they say: ‘I love those people’.”
Neither is protocol a career for clock-watchers. It demands commitment and dedication.
“If you are going to be a protocol manager you really have to dedicate your life to it at least for a time,” Ms Eyring says. “If you work for His Highness, the Ruler of Dubai, you’ve got to be committed. You can’t say: ‘Well, I’ve got a wedding, I can’t come.’ It’s not optional. Nights, weekends, early mornings, holidays, missing your family; that’s what we do.”
Afra Al Kaabi, 27, who has worked in protocol coordination at the executive council in Abu Dhabi for the last year, agrees.
“Protocol is not easy,” she says. “There are lots of memories but I can go home crying because a small mistake is a disaster.”
However, the Emirati also has a talent for problem-solving.
She recalls one near-calamity when she chose a brightly coloured flower arrangement as opposed to a more subtle, official-looking one.
“On that day we had a guest and there was no time to do another arrangement,” she remembers. “That was a disaster for me. I felt really bad — but we worked it out.”
What did Ms Al Kaabi do? She found a real-looking artificial arrangement in more suitable colour.
“It looked real and it looked official so we put that in place for the photo,” she adds.
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Published: March 16, 2014 04:00 AM