Analysis: Dubai - a PR market growing up fast

Dubai’s economic boom is fuelling growth in the number of communications consultants operating in the emirate. Ian Hall canvassed the opinions of four consultants in the city to gauge the local market

The question of sustainability is, inevitably, on the lips of those observing the economic growth of Dubai and its booming PR market.
The emirate's GDP rocketed by around 17 per cent last year and the number of companies offering marketing services support, including PR, is mushrooming.

Dave Robertson, regional director for one of the largest PR firms in the city – Gulf Hill & Knowlton WLL – observes: 'The PR sector here has grown at the pace that all things grow in Dubai: very rapidly.'

Estimates vary enormously as to the number of PR consultants operating in Dubai, a city whose population is dominated by expats. One PRO estimates the number of PR firms (mostly one-man-bands) at 'around 50', another cites a figure in the hundreds.

The market is clearly ill-defined. John Badenhorst, director-in-charge at Landmark PR & Events, jokes: 'Someone recently remarked that anyone who could rent a space at Dubai Media City was opening a PR agency.'

The difference between PR and other marketing disciplines is for many clients something of a grey area, while  negotiation over payment rates – perhaps unsurprisingly in a city whose heritage is in trading – often remains an unsophisticated process.

Demand for heavyweight Western-style corporate communications is on the rise in the region. However, Tim Burrowes, editor of Dubai-based Campaign Middle East, says: 'The major problem for the PR industry is that there are a lot of crooks and charlatans operating here – and standards are often woeful.'

He adds: 'Clients are often not very sophisticated – agencies can be just paid per "number of press releases'' or press conferences they stage, with little evaluation. But the Middle East PR Association is beginning to champion quality.'

That, ultimately, will ensure the current boom does not turn into bust.

Sue Vey, general manager, Promoseven Weber Shandwick
'The PR sector in this region has grown up in the past couple of years – albeit into a rather peculiar-looking adult. Agencies here now provide everything from basic party-and-press-release to top-quality investor relations counsel.

'The media have evolved into a more specialised and sectorised industry, offering vertical titles in most sectors. New titles enter the market almost every month, keeping our advertising colleagues happy, as most are heavy with ads but light on editorial.

'PR fees have also seen a dramatic improvement. Not long ago selling full-service comms for a monthly retainer of about £3,000 was good business. The leading agencies, at least, can double that these days for a targeted campaign and tightly defined outcomes.
'Clients are becoming more PR-savvy, but talent is hard to find.

Recruiting experienced PROs (with Arabic, English and preferably French) is tough and, once recruited, they demand high packages.'

John Badenhorst, director-in-charge, Landmark PR & Events
'As Dubai booms, the demand for PR here has increased exponentially.

'Those with a basic knowledge of branding and international marketing will be better equipped to handle the demands of the local market. IT continues to grow, but European practitioners face stiff competition from the subcontinent – whose practitioners will usually accept a lower offer.

'Financial and healthcare PROs are in demand, but a really experienced consumer PR person might be assimilated more easily. The Arab world is making noises about using local people in PR, but the realisation of this is not imminent.

'Arab speakers are appointed to client-servicing positions, but they tend to be from Lebanon or Jordan. First prize are bilingual (English-Arabic) candidates. They can virtually write their own cheques.
'Dubai is very Western in many ways, but 70 per cent of the region's business is in Saudi Arabia. A little Arabic, correctly pronounced, coupled with sound cultural insight, goes a long way.'

Tim Harrison, associate director, Asda'a Public Relations
'The PR industry across the Middle East is growing rapidly, a reflection of the booming local economies – and Dubai is the PR and media capital of the region.

'Significant sectors include consumer, technology, corporate and B2B. But it is in financial PR that, for me, the really exciting opportunities can be found.

'The market is developing rapidly and, with the opening of the Dubai International Financial Centre, Dubai has become a magnet for global and regional institutions. Dubai is where the deals are being done, but international firms need help in communicating with local audiences.

'Niche areas of activity such as Islamic finance require specialist understanding, and the Arab business culture is one that requires a specialist comms approach.

'The growth in local equity markets, and the launch in September of the Dubai International Financial Exchange has led to strong demand for specialist investor comms from quoted companies and their advisers.'

Elizabeth Cowie, media relations manager, G2 Dubai
'Dubai has become the Gulf's PR hub. Global companies looking to benefit from the relatively untapped markets of the Middle East have begun to dominate the PR sector here.

'Many would argue that the development of PR in the entire region is inextricably linked to that of advertising budgets and, sadly, there is considerable evidence that many clients still consider PR to be a cheap alternative to costly above-the-line campaigns.

'But which sectors are driving growth? Consumer PR is where it's at, a pattern reflected by the seemingly unstoppable growth in the number of lifestyle, beauty and fashion magazines.

'More specifically, in real estate – one of Dubai's fastest-moving sectors – developers are turning to PR to support their sales. CSR is a buzzword at the moment but many still fail to recognise the benefits of such strategy.

'PR in the Middle East still has a long way to go but the good news is that standards are on the rise.'

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