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Letter from the Middle East

by Louay Al Samarrai, MCIPR

I represent what can only be described as the typical profile of many of the residents of the UAE and the wider Middle East and of the team that work with me at Active PR, a business-to-business consultancy. I am half Iraqi and half English; I speak both languages as well as passable French and have lived here in the region for over 30 years. 

Although I am – like many of the marketers and communications consultants - based in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, my team and I cover the whole region, including markets like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait as well as Lebanon, Jordan and through partners, Egypt and North Africa.

In the region, the public relations sector is still very 'generalist' in its structure and approach, unlike in more developed markets where PR has tended towards specialisations like Healthcare, Financial and Analyst Relations as well as Public Affairs.

A region rich in differences

As a regional PR consultant rather than one confined to just the UAE, I can say that the issues that face the PR industry today vary widely across the different markets – from basic issues in some of the key markets to more complex ones.

The common mistake that people tend to make when working with this region or entering it is to see the UAE and specifically Dubai as the 'typical'environment for PR as a practice and as a marketing tool and that what works here and in Europe or the US will work in Saudi or Kuwait or Lebanon.

In addition, whilst the understanding of the region in markets like Europe and the US is improving, the area is still seen as one homogenous region called the Middle East rather than a diverse range of different countries and markets with widely differing views and cultures – and thus different methods of communication.

Critical success factors

To work in PR in the Middle East one has to have the ability to be patient, flexible, creative and be able to think on one's feet. In many instances it is also helpful to know when you are dealing with a serious prospect or a time-waster (one of the most useful skills that has taken me some 20 years to perfect in this region).

In addition, there is still quite a remarkable difference in the understanding and use of PR when dealing with marketing and communications teams based in the Middle East as opposed to international client contacts outside of the region. This illustrates that education on the effective use of PR is still very much needed across the Middle East.

Regional media

The media landscape is varied and in some cases a little different to Europe and the US. In the Middle East, mass media is divided into Pan-Arab media (TV, print and online) that have a footprint that covers multiple countries in both English and Arabic, and specific in-country media which typically include dailies and local TV stations.

The media on the whole are both professional and ethical, however, there are some areas within the region where this is not the case, and, where when contacting some media outlets, one ends up speaking to the advertising team……not unusual in other parts of the world as we all know! Some of the most challenging markets for media relations are Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but, again, experience and regular contact to journalists can help to achieve results for clients. At Active PR we have been talking to these media for over 10 years and this does help along with having presence on the ground there too.

Social media is still growing and is seen as effective in areas like consumer/fashion and lifestyle PR but is still sorely lacking in the business-to-business arena, especially technology and finance. Nevertheless, we are confident that social media will slowly evolve and we see many clients starting to allocate small amounts of their budgets to this element of the PR and marketing toolbox.

In conclusion, the Middle East is 'buzzing' once again and the signs of recovery and stronger economic growth make this region a lucrative set of markets for companies and organisations to focus on. For us in the PR industry – and at Active PR specifically – the signs are healthy and good. From a personal perspective, this region is exciting, challenging, diverse and sometimes frustrating, but, ultimately, rewarding. I have learnt so much that is useful especially when dealing with other regions, cultures and mentalities and that's a credit to the extremely cosmopolitan nature of the region, of the United Arab Emirates and of Dubai itself and I would not change it for the world.

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