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Working in the Middle East

Due to the multi-cultural nature of the region, the importance of international trade and the significant difference in education levels - many of the ethical issues presented in the CIPR Code of Conduct can be closely linked to local laws. In fact if you are in breach of one, in some cases you are almost certainly in breach of the other…

This makes sense to have everything laid out in black and white if you consider that two people from different cultures may be conducting business in a third nation.

Accordingly, when you are coming to the region to live and work, the first thing to appreciate is there are some extremely serious implications for ‘mistakes’ including significant fines, jail and eventual deportation.

Taking publicity photography without the subject’s express approval for example, may be an ethical problem in the UK. In some GCC countries it is a crime.

Potentially this can result in a GBP100,000 fine, six months in jail and deportation - even should the subject decide to remove their case at a later stage.Merely taking or storing the image could be sufficient cause for a case to be filed.

Anyone entering the region with a sincere intention to work or do business must therefore take time to study the various press and privacy laws that apply and vary from country to country, as well as labour and trade licensing regulations.

One of the most common ethical problems not explicitly covered by law is the issue of gift-giving for influencers. This is a complex issue and there is a strong tradition in the Middle East - and other developing parts of the world - to offer gifts as part of etiquette.

It must also be noted that given the five to seven star status of so many properties and activities, it’s practically impossible not to offer an item or experience that would not generate a chorus of ‘tut-tuts’ elsewhere.

One argument which I’ve frequently heard is that the host can offer any gift they like, and the recipient can always refuse or return it privately at the end of the event. Some press will donate valuable gifts to charity and in at least one publishing house there is a box for unwanted gifts which everyone can drop off or take from depending on their need, including office staff and cleaners.

In my experience hosts quickly realise that their hospitality is being abused when expensive gifts are taken by ‘non-influencers’ and that multiple packs are collected by guests who are taking one or more back to their friend/publisher/editor in chief in the office who sadly couldn’t attend.

Also, whereas it is almost impossible to determine the effect of the gift-giving on the coverage (if that was the intention) - the process of damage control from offending someone who didn’t attend and receive their gift will begin even before the press briefing has started. In fact some highly influential people will contact your speaker directly, potentially distracting them at a critical stage.

To test the intentions of your client, you may wish to develop a strategy that goes far beyond the value of the gifts initially proposed. You can recommend a private jet to take media representatives to one of the local desert island resorts, an UBER helicopter pick-up to the press conference or something equally as extravagant.

No-one has ever taken one of these ideas up (at least from me) but it does allow you to raise important questions such as the objective of the gift-giving - is it for influence or is it sincerely for cultural reasons.

Giving expensive gifts is steeped in rich culture and it might be impossible to divert your client from this course. Taking a pragmatic approach and letting things roll can be a necessary education.

After you have been here a few months and got to grips with what you can and can’t do or challenge, you will be ready to continue developing your skills. And one of the best things about the Middle East is that you can benefit from a wealth of knowledge transfer and receive real rewards for advancing your abilities.

There is a genuine thirst for knowledge in the region and a respect for true experts. There are also very attractive financial incentives from employers who seek qualified practitioners. A recognised Master's degree automatically confers a higher salary in many government positions for example.

Multinational networks regularly hold training events for their staff, clients and for the wider industry. And even the smaller boutique agencies are happy to engage and share knowledge as part of their marketing activities.

Labour laws are another attraction for expatriates coming to work here. They convey a number of rights and benefits with the employer assuming many expenses including eventual repatriation expenses, visas, medical fees and health insurance. In my experience officials at all levels are extremely vigilant and will proactively offer advice or highlight a possible breach of rights.

These laws benefit both parties and are meant to reward the individual for loyalty and the employer for developing talent.

There are also some significant legal issues to consider when contemplating a change of workplace after you have arrived.

When moving jobs it may be necessary to request a No-Objection Certificate from your current employer. There are also provisions within labour laws that may prevent you from working with competitors for several months. In theory this prevents staff from job-hopping or from walking out and taking client lists or other confidential information with them.

It is also common for people to wear “multiple hats” and in some countries it’s legal to hold second jobs, or even to own your own company whilst sitting in another office 9-5. You must obtain a No Objection Certificate from your employer first and permission from the appropriate Ministry.

Accordingly it’s very unusual for a conflict of interest to cause an offence that could breach any of the relevant elements of CIPR’s Code.

The strength of the legal process in the region makes ethics in many cases an issue for the Courts. Accordingly the CIPR Code of Conduct provides an excellent resource to turn to in the first instance and can prevent you from making some very serious and life-changing mistakes.

In the areas that aren’t covered, ethics becomes more difficult as you are potentially facing cultural issues that have been in place for centuries. In which case it’s generally best to take a really deep breath, bite your tongue and reflect deeply before questioning someone else’s heritage and view of the world - especially when you are a guest in their country.

By Steve King.


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