Kate Delahunty, Capital MS&L: New age, new openness

Transparent communication is helping the Middle East financial sector sustain its prowess.

Just a short time ago, with oil approaching US$200 a barrel, the world's tallest tower going up in Dubai and sovereign wealth funds seemingly approaching all of the West's finest financial institutions, the Middle East was where every ambitious banker seemed intent on heading.

Now headlines focus on plunging oil prices, a sharp correction of the Dubai property market, struggling local banks, and just how burnt the fingers of the sovereign wealth funds have become from their dalliance with the world's financial services industry.

The reality, of course, is different. Significant parts of the Middle East will undoubtedly suffer a correction in line with the current economic crisis, and for many countries in the region, the short-term future looks tough. However, in many ways this reflects just how integrated into the global economy the region has become. Focusing on short-term consequences ignores the fact the Middle East is very different from what it was a few years ago. The major economies of the region are much more sustainable than they ever were.

Perhaps the biggest legacy of recent years is the significant increase in the quality of human capital as well as the widespread increase in professionalism throughout the economy. Certainly the boom has attracted the best talent from abroad, but it has meant that the best local talent has stayed in the region, creating a generation of businesspeople, entrepreneurs and leaders that will ensure sustainability for years to come.

This is particularly obvious to those of us working in the financial communications industry. As needs and expectations of businesses - local and international - have developed dramatically in the past few years, with them has come a significant improvement in the way firms communicate with their employees, the financial community, the media and other stakeholders.

Encouragingly, the response of firms to the current global crisis has been to step up the drive to improve communications standards. Increasingly, the region's leaders, as well as the burgeoning local and international business community, are recognising the value of open, transparent communications. With valuations at all-time lows, firms in the region understand the need to stand out, to portray their strong fundamental, competitive strengths to those brave enough to start investing again.

In terms of deal communications, 2004 was a turning point for the Middle East. The privatisation of Saudi Telecom was the first time the UK share offer marketing model was employed for a transaction of this sort. The past two years, however, have seen a significant increase in transactions using international standards of communications. For instance, when two major UAE banks merged in mid-2007, the comms programme was international in execution and standard, and was shortlisted for an international financial PR award.

Not so long ago, the region's sovereign wealth funds were seen as shrouded in secrecy: shadowy figures preying on Western institutions. Yet even they have embraced a policy of greater openness by developing a voluntary framework known as the Generally Accepted Principles and Practices for Sovereign Wealth Funds to improve transparency and guide appropriate governance and accountability arrangements.

As an economic and financial power the Middle East is here to stay, bolstered by levels of professionalism, transparency and communication never before seen. All this will ensure cheaper access to capital, a steady inflow of business across the economic spectrum and, crucially, a sustainable future.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

- Which Middle East brand will have global recognition in five years?

Damas, the international jewellery and watch retailer, could achieve global recognition in five years. It is well on its way, operating 450 stores in 18 countries.

- Who is the in-house comms person to watch?

Luma Jasim, senior director, PR & media relations at du, the integrated telecom service provider in the UAE. She is respected by management and has just been promoted to oversee events and sponsorships as well as all PR for du.

- Where in the Middle East do you go to relax?

Musandam Peninsula, Oman.

Kate Delahunty is managing director of Capital MS&L Middle East.

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