Middle East - After the rollercoaster

PR people in the Middle East faced a perfect storm in 2009. But, says Claire Murphy, it has not all been bad news.

Dubai: down but not out?
Dubai: down but not out?

At the first Abu Dhabi Grand Prix a few weeks ago, people partied like it was 2008. Sir Richard Branson took over the celebrated Etoiles nightclub, parking one of his aeroplanes and a model of a Virgin Galactic spaceship outside, as stars such as Janet Jackson and Virgin-sponsored driver Jenson Button mingled inside. For all who worked through this year's sharp dose of economic reality, it was a reminder that the Middle East may be down but it is very far from out.

Abu Dhabi's glitzy United Arab Emirates (UAE) neighbour Dubai may have suffered a more public fall from grace, but the cranes on its skyline are starting to move again. The Dubai Metro was opened to great fanfare in September; the Burj Tower, set to be the highest tower in the world, is due to open officially on 4 January, and the airport is under development.

The impact of 2009 on the PR community in the Middle East has been marked, if hard to generalise, says Rebecca Hill, executive director at the Middle East Public Relations Association (Mepra). A few organisations responded to the downturn by sacking their entire comms departments and firmly drawing down the PR shutters. Others slashed agency fees or cancelled contracts.

But some PROs have striven to keep talking to stakeholders, a route that has made them targets for media coverage in the short term and may be paying dividends in terms of long-term trust.

Tim Harrison, HSBC's head of communications, global banking and markets, says when the 'six-year bull run on oil prices' came to an abrupt halt in the fourth quarter of 2008, it 'took everyone by surprise'.

He believes that, although the downturn has been painful for the region, positives have emerged from it, because it has forced communicators to sharpen their skills and gather some hard-earned experience in handling bad news. 'Before the bubble burst we'd all only been dealing in optimistic statements,' he says.

At hotel group Jumeirah, director of internal communications Lynn Parker was appointed to the company's board, recognition that the firm intended to continue keeping its employees in the loop. But sources suggest this strategy was relatively rare.

Skewed views

The experience of Oliver Schutzmann, chief comms officer at Shuaa Capital, the UAE's largest investment bank, illustrates the challenge many have faced this year. From a height of Dh8.82 in June 2008, Shuaa's share price plummeted to Dh0.85 earlier this year as the bank battled the fallout from accusations of share manipulation, and a dispute with Dubai Group, one of its shareholders, over the terms of its bond purchase. Shuaa's CEO was replaced in August.

Schutzmann has tried to remain as open as possible with journalists and the investment community throughout, both on company developments and by supplying more general 'barometer' reports on the region's level of investor confidence. But he admits to frustration when journalists have overplayed stories.

At one point, because Shuaa's capitalisation fell below a certain floor level, the firm was forced by law to ask shareholders at the AGM if they wanted management to remain running the company.

'It was a formality,' recalls Schutzmann, 'but the news wires blew it out of all proportion. One headline read "Shuaa asked to shut down by regulator".'

Schutzmann also believes the media, especially internationally, seized so keenly on the story of the 'fall' of Dubai that it created a skewed picture of the region. 'Dubai attracts 90 per cent of the coverage of the Gulf, but its share of GCC GDP is much smaller,' he says.

As Dubai's star has waned this year, other regions - chiefly Abu Dhabi (with its ambitious Masdar alternative energy project), Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain - have taken up the mantle of growth. This is reflected in the latest figures on salaries from recruitment agency PRJS, which show that agency people in Abu Dhabi now command the largest salaries in the region (see table above). Part of this new regional pattern in salaries can be attributed to the fact that, despite the downturn, some agencies have been expanding their networks, particularly in Abu Dhabi and Qatar.

Across the region, high-quality financial communications have become highly sought after. The Abu Dhabi Investment Company, rebranded as Invest AD, is on the verge of appointing an agency to help boost its funds, and Brunswick was brought in to work with Dubai's Department of Finance.

In common with the development of the PR profession in the rest of the world, the demands of digital are providing both opportunities and threats in the region. Energised media in the region have been accompanied by a growth in social media, which has led to Middle Eastern PROs rushing to train themselves. Mepra has run workshops on this subject for more than 200 people in the past three months alone.

Certainly, it has been a rollercoaster year for Middle Eastern PROs. But, as our essay writers point out in the rest of this supplement, 2010 seems poised to bring many opportunities for growth.

AVERAGE MIDDLE EAST PR SALARIES*

AGENCY

Abu Dhabi AED(k) pounds (k)
Account director 24-31 48-61
Director 34-41 68-82

Dubai AED(k) pounds (k)
Account director 22-30 44-60
Director 34-41 68-82

Bahrain BD pounds (k)
Account director 2,200-2,700 42-51
Director 3,400-4,100 65-78

Qatar QAR(k) pounds (k)
Account director 23-33 46-66
Director 37-51 74-102

Saudi Arabia SAR(k) pounds (k)
Account director 19-25 38-50
Director 34-78 68-156

IN-HOUSE

Abu Dhabi AED(k) pounds (k)
PR manager 22-36 44-72
PR director 35-79 70-158

Dubai AED(k) pounds (k)
PR manager 18-29 36-58
PR director 31-57 62-114

Bahrain BD pounds (k)
PR manager 1,600-2,900 30-55
PR director 2,900-6,000 88-115

Qatar QAR(k) pounds (k)
PR manager 22-28 44-56
PR director 34-72 68-144

Saudi Arabia SAR(k) pounds (k)
PR manager 16-27 32-54
PR director 33-83 66-166

*Sterling salaries are per annum. All others are per month, as is the
norm in the Middle East.
Source: PRJS
For the full report, go to bit.ly/3BtRzy

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