New territories: What the big changes over the decade in the Middle East tell us about 2020 and beyond

Camilla d'Abo, MD of APCO Worldwide Dubai, provides a retrospective look over the past 10 years as we head into a new decade.

Camilla d'Abo is MD of APCO Worldwide Dubai
Camilla d'Abo is MD of APCO Worldwide Dubai

Before we step through the looking glass of 2020, I believe that a retrospective may be in order. In the Middle East, our arrival at this significant and symmetrical year comes on the back of a decade of unprecedented change and unexpected transformations across the region.

A look back at the years between 2010 to 2019 is revealing and necessary as we plan our next steps, for times are most certainly changing.

On January 3, 2010 – the first week of the first month in the first year of a new decade – Dubai’s skyline was forever changed. The Burj Khalifa officially opened. Standing at its imperious 828 metres tall, the world’s tallest building was rooted in the emirate.

The symbolism was clear. Traditional thinking, blueprints and limits were discarded. With the soaring Burj, the 2010s were to be the decade that ushered in an era of unfettered architectural creativity and imagination. Queue a surge of healthy competition and a regional movement in architecture. 2017 saw the opening of the spectacular Jean Novel-designed Louvre Abu Dhabi. Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, the planned Jeddah Tower and its aim to eclipse the Burj with a 1km pinnacle began construction in 2013 and is set to complete in 2020.

An industry upheaval

The ‘10s also brought the most significant shift the modern media industry has witnessed to date - the fourth industrial digital revolution and the rise of on-demand content.

The rise and rise of Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Snapchat precipitated a monumental shift in media marketing and content production.

So dramatic and swift has been the behavioural switch to digital platforms, that media houses and publications have been forced to undergo radical changes. Media houses, companies and communications firms are now under excruciating pressure to make their digital offerings more creative, more resilient and more in-tune with their audience – all ahead of a nocturnal competition.

A transformative media landscape

Content has fundamentally changed. It never sleeps. And neither do we in the communications industry. It’s quicker (think TikTok); bite sized (think Insta stories); and snackable (Twitter). Always calling someone to action – all of the above, plus Facebook and LinkedIn.

With dwindling attention spans and a hyper-competitive market, communications experts are faced with a media landscape wholly different, almost unrecognisable from that of 2010. The commercial pressures this new mediascape brings with it are obvious: flexible social listening, analytics teams populated by millennials and Gen-Zs are imperative. Commercial models must have a digital angle to them. Integration is essential to survival.

The campaigns we design, tailor, target and pitch have taken on a new, exciting aspect, and will continue to do so as technology continue to develop at the sort of breakneck speed we’ve become accustomed to.

Reassessing the future

But this speed of change has brought with it a skills gap – albeit one that is being filled now. As we move towards a world dictated by technology and connectivity, we need to continually assess and analyse where we can improve our media campaigning, given the upheaval caused by the digital disruption.

Nowhere more significant has the digital movement impacted on a major development of the '10s been seen than in Saudi Arabia: the launch of the hugely anticipated, forward-thinking and progressive King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s Vison 2030.

KSA: a role model

A look at the ambitious projects now taking shape in Saudi reveals much of the direction we can expect to see as we move into the 2020 era. The Kingdom’s decision to open its doors to foreign tourists has sent a wave of optimism through the world, with the Al-Ula project, the UNESCO World Heritage site touted as "Petra Plus" for travellers seeking new, unexplored horizons.

Moreover, the lifting of the ban on women driving, the announcement of new Saudi tourist visas and the new dress code for women tourists are all signs of ushering in a new era.

The launch of the Saudi Tourism ‘Where in the World’ campaign created a powerful impact across the world. A swathe of beautifully executed tourism ads and campaigns duly followed on the back of the tourist visa announcement, and Saudi has consequently begun to be spoken of as offering the greatest market opportunities since the lifting of America’s prohibition era.

New territory could be a pithy way to sum up the ‘10s. Especially considering what we are all looking to this year, what we have all been looking to since 27 November 2013: that Dubai would become the first country in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia (MEASA) region to host the World Expo.

So, as we step through the 2020 looking glass, what’s ahead is fantastical and unknowable. But what’s behind us has given us the courage and knowledge to confront this brave new world with daring and ambition.


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