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Letter from Saudi Arabia

by Lina Tayara

Most people think you cannot get a Saudi visa, women are unwelcome, it is a hostile work environment. I had an exceptional opportunity to spend three months between the lovely red sea cities of Jeddah and Thuwal as Saudi Arabia has serious ambitions to communicate progress in education, science and technology.

My concerns were how to tackle the perceptions and misconceptions, internal and external? How to structure messaging that is understood internationally and accepted locally? How can we impart new knowledge about Saudi Arabia so we can get to know it and understand it? After all it is the largest regional market and strongest Gulf economy.

Saudi executives understand this quagmire better than anyone else. Having a Saudi public affairs counsellor on the communications team makes a difference between a poor and a well informed strategy. I was fortunate to have had the chance to collaborate with such a rare high calibre associate, well versed in political and religious affairs, with a realistic understanding of the Kingdom's 'reputation deficit' as well as stakeholder and public expectations. It was a valuable association that helped better navigate problematic issues and manage crisis with the best possible outcome.

With regard to dress, I wore an ankle length black abaya outdoors, my head was not covered. I eventually found abayas by creative designers with colourful linings, embroideries and motifs. It felt like wearing a glamorous feminine long dress, it's a state of mind after all. But then again I am from the Middle East. Developing a rapport with colleagues was somewhat harder for me in New York then it was in Jeddah!

It is important to default to a formal mode of behaviour until such time you feel there is room to be more informal.

Another important element to bear in mind is that Saudi Arabia is steeped in the custom of majlis (endemic to consultative assemblies). Debate is an accepted and widely spread practice across the social and corporate strata as well. PROs looking to better their game should consider an approach that appears to have gone through the hoops and obtain a wider buy in.

It is hence necessary for PR companies wishing to acquire Saudi accounts to also acquire local knowledge to deal with fine cultural, social and language nuances. The majority of the population is young and online, mostly on Arabic sites.

One size does not fit all

Great effort has been made by graphic designers to integrate Arabic fonts and calligraphy into logos. The choice of words and tone also have to find a similar synergy of appeal to local and international audiences. It is after all a strong 'word' culture with a history of hakawatis (story tellers), poetry, journalism and literature.

The Middle East is still a growth market for PR agencies and strong international agencies are sought after and desired. It is vital to demonstrate the ability to understand the business and social environment, political sensitivities and to produce bespoke products. However people there are not that much different from people here or anywhere.

There are a lot of interesting stories to come out of Saudi Arabia. PROs help is needed to structure communications and encourage factual reporting.

Saudi Arabia is in need to address its reputation and communications deficit in tandem with the sustainable business model it is building and this entails a long term commitment.

Handle with care

Managing media relations and the damage/benefits equation is a challenge for PROs aiming to acquire accounts there. Media is often hostile and suffers from 'spin fatigue'.

Understanding the complex environment and issues planning, being able to understand and influence client, mitigating against bad stories in future are key to a prosperous communications year in the Kingdom!

Lina Tayara manages Orient Consulting Services, a London based communications and PR consultancy. She is a British Lebanese and fluent Arabic speaker. She was part of the PR team for the launch of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).