Marketing culture for global export

Parts of Emirati culture could be as internationally exportable as sushi or hip hop, according to the man behind a new advertising campaign.

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Parts of Emirati culture could be as internationally exportable as sushi or hip hop, according to the man behind a new advertising campaign. Watani, the organisation created in 2005 to promote the UAE's national identity, is running several public service advertisements on local television stations to encourage Emiratis to share their cultural heritage with others. "UAE national identity has got international properties if we know how to present it right," said Mohamed Baharoon, the deputy director of Watani. "We shouldn't be thinking of national identity as pure heritage, something of the past, elements that need to be kept in a museum. No, it's a practice. Something like drinking Arabic coffee or Arabic hospitality is a living thing." One of the commercials shows a man in a kandura being served Arabic coffee at a cafe. As the camera pulls back, it reveals that the man is sitting in a French cafe, surrounded by customers from all around the world being entertained by accordion-playing street musicians. Everyone turns out to be drinking Arabic coffee. "It's like sushi being served in Dubai or Finland," Mr Baharoon said. "These are culturally specific elements that could have international proportions." Another clip features a group of boys dancing the Al Youla, the rifle-twirling traditional dance of the Emirates. When the camera zooms out this time, the boys turn out to be in a village in Brazil, where the Arabian music's exuberant rhythms do not seem out of place. The ads, which were actually filmed in Hungary, have no dialogue so as to be accessible to all viewers, although the background music is in Arabic. They were conceived by Watani and produced by Blink Studios, a television and film production company based in Dubai Studio City, for a budget of around Dh150,000 (US$40,000), according to Mr Baharoon. They are the first of nearly 20 advertising campaigns to be shot outside the country by Watani, which receives the bulk of its funding from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

Since its inception, the organisation has embraced the television commercial as a way of conveying social messages. Mr Baharoon refers to the 30 to 45-second clips as "haiku". "We have seen other people start to use the same thing, now with TV," he said. "You can now see commercials that have to do with Islamic values for young people. This is something that you didn't used to see. We had messages that said please put your safety belt on because it could save your life, but people didn't talk about social values using this TV format. I think that's one of the things that we take pride in using effectively." The Gulf has recently seen a surge in the number of public service advertisements, most visibly with MBC's campaigns promoting prayer and the fair treatment of workers. The Watani ads began running at the end of November and will continue so long as the channels that show them for free consider them relevant. Mr Baharoon said similar previous campaigns had run for about six months.

He views television stations as partners who run the commercials because they believe in spreading awareness about national heritage. "For people to respect you, they have to understand you," he said. "If you cannot communicate yourself to other people there will always be a misunderstanding of the culture."