Where are the Emiratis living in tents? This is the question I have heard numerous times from visiting journalists and dignitaries who arrive in the UAE, all searching for authentic traditional homes and families. With their backpacks ready and cameras locked and loaded, they drift through the streets of Abu Dhabi tirelessly seeking out a taste of the Bedouins of old but are sadly rewarded with malls and skyscrapers, not unlike the ones they left behind in their home countries.
So at the end of the Emirates’ international branding efforts and countless projects that have received international recognition, we are still struggling to educate the world on how far we have come as a nation and as a society.
It would be acceptable if Emiratis were recognised only for our history as Bedouins, a proud history that is worthy of a retelling. But unfortunately, when travelling to countries beyond the Arab World I still find myself having to explain that I am from a city next to Saudi Arabia or in the Middle East which is immediately followed by the question: Is it safe to walk the streets in your city?
My absolute favourite response is one I heard from a young woman in Mumbai: Are your women allowed to talk back to you when you speak to them? If only she knew.
Some could argue that many of the projects that have received international accolades and recognition are doing much to brand the Abu Dhabi name across the world. But while people around the world are now familiar with Emirates Palace, in many minds, the hotel is surrounded by Emiratis in tents, herding their sheep and camels.
Advertising campaigns can put the spotlight on faraway places, but care must be given to create messages that are accurate. For instance, I was thrilled recently to see Abu Dhabi advertisements on black cabs in London. However, the ad’s portrayal of Emirati men sitting around a fire doesn’t accurately depict everyday life in the city. And quite frankly, the ad might turn some people away.
Marketing of the Emirates should also take into consideration the target audience. The UAE must look deep into each culture to understand what type of marketing is needed, and not apply one that fit all strategies. Abu Dhabi must be clear on what message we want to send out to the world and leave little to assumption.
One way to do that is through video, the most popular form of media which has educated many about different cultures, customs and traditions. Yet, again, no matter how many times we show that young Emirati boy running through the desert waving the Emirati flag, we still are not communicating who we are, what our goals and ambitions are, how much we have achieved as a people and as a nation in such a short period of time and the wonders our country has to offer.
Not long ago, I was in a meeting where I heard an unforgettable comment by a young Emirati girl from Dubai. When asked about how to promote Abu Dhabi, she responded: “Abu Dhabi is boring. There is nothing to do.” Of course, those who led the meeting – and I – were quick to defend the capital but the comment stayed with me. If we have failed to educate and promote Abu Dhabi to our brothers and sisters from across the way, how can we expect to do it on an international level?
The voice of the people can be just as powerful as the media. If we succeed in communicating the treasures of Abu Dhabi within our borders, they will eventually seep into the consciousness of world travellers. Word of mouth may be one of the most important factors in promoting Abu Dhabi to the world.
One of the most unique aspects of Abu Dhabi, many who visit say, is that we are city with an old soul, where the hospitality and friendliness of the people are a result of old customs and traditions that have survived through the centuries.
This is what the world must understand: we not only have much to offer in terms of business and leisure, but we also have a history and a soul that has brought us to where we are today. It does not need to be found in the desert in tents but lives within the people of the UAE.
Taryam Al Subaihi is a social and political commentator specialising in corporate communications