In 1986 the Iranian Army invaded southern Iraq and was within striking distance of Saudi oil fields. Civil war raged in Lebanon, Egypt was isolated from other Arab states, oil slipped to under $5 a barrel; business and political confidence were at lows not seen in the region since 1967 and thousands of expats were leaving the GCC while corporate spending plummeted and layoffs mounted.
Let's compare that situation to today: oil is at $79, there is relative peace in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. Egypt is once again a major regional economy and very much in the fold of the Arab world. Despite an economic shock of massive proportions, the Middle East is, as a whole, witnessing strong GDP growth, large current account surpluses and an overall debt to GDP ratio of only three per cent (as reported by the chief economist at the Dubai International Finance Centre).
Add to that levels of literacy, life expectancy and income levels that have quadrupled since 1986 and we see a region on an unmistakably upward trend.
What does this small socioeconomic snapshot tell people in the regional PR industry? First, despite the upheavals of the past 18 months, life goes on - there is plenty of business around and plenty more coming.
Second, PROs need to continue thinking regionally. The Middle East does not start at Dubai International Airport and end in Jebel Ali. This is a region of more than 200 million people with trillions of dollars of cash in the bank and booming growth in the volume and quality of communications events, practices and media. It is wrong to assess the region based on the fortunes of Dubai alone.
Third, about this place called Dubai. It is a tiny emirate whose incredible growth stunned the world and just as quickly was written off by many of its detractors and those jealous of its growth. We saw how PR can turn a bad situation into a decent one, and put it on the road to being a good one.
Dubai undertook a solid public affairs campaign to accept the challenges it faced: it launched a communications programme to clarify its debt position and to highlight its financial strength. The campaign worked: earlier this month the emirate raised $6.2bn in bond purchase orders - less than a year after financial experts predicted the demise of the emirate.
Now, if you can use great public relations to convince the sharks of the global financial services industry to give you billions just months after the world questioned your ability to pay back debt, then you have done a pretty good job of changing perceptions and restoring confidence. PROs should take note of Dubai's campaign - 2010 will be a golden era for public affairs and government PR.
The success of the Dubai bond issue, regional GDP figures and other statistics quoted should serve as an important reminder to my fourth point: it is now more important than ever to measure. While great strides have been made to shift regional PR away from discredited forms of measurement such as AVEs, not enough is being done to kill this practice off once and for all - and to move into genuine data-driven PR that uses measurement and evaluation prior to, during and after any PR effort.
The sum of the four points above all stresses the big internal challenges that PR agencies and professionals will face in 2010: upgrading their abilities to think and act like business people. This means having a regional view, appreciating things for what they are and seeing opportunity based on long-term economic realities.
Having entered my 15th year of working in regional PR, I can say with confidence that we are making progress on all four points and see a golden era for Middle East PR just around the corner.
VIEWS IN BRIEF
Which media have proved the most accurate/comprehensive in reporting the effects of recession in the Middle East?
The Middle East is a big place with lots of media; if we were to focus on the impact of recession on the lives of ordinary, middle-class people, I would give high marks collectively to newspapers and print journalists in Levant, Egypt and Saudi Arabia for really digging into the hardships faced by families, employees and small businesses.
Has the development of internal communications progressed or regressed in the past 12 months? Why?
Internal communications was already improving gradually in previous years. This took a step back in 2009 with many marketing and communications teams suffering deep reductions in staffing and budgets.
Tell us about one organisation that has enhanced its reputation this year by remaining open in its communications.
Dubai International Financial Centre. It does not claim to have all the answers but has created an atmosphere of open debate and discussion about important topics that are critical to the credibility of Dubai and its financial institutions.
- Mazen Nahawi is managing director of Media Watch Middle East.