The region's first independent PR awards – held by the Middle East PR Association (Mepra) in Dubai last week – stands as firm evidence of the increasing importance of sophisticated communication to the UAE's aspirations.
However, it has not been an easy year by any reckoning. Dubai World, one of the emirate's biggest holding companies, last week stunned the financial world by asking for a freeze on the $60bn of debt attached to its portfolio, which includes key assets such as Dubai Ports World, investment vehicle Istithmar and property developer Nakheel.
The overall financial restructuring may offer long-term benefits for Dubai, which has faced an unprecedented level of scrutiny since news of the development broke. Oil-rich Abu Dhabi has had a considerably happier year - launching its first F1 Grand Prix and unveiling a raft of eye-catching initiatives - including the Masdar alternative energy project, the Louvre Abu Dhabi and a Guggenheim.
Although the downturn has been painful for the UAE, it has forced communicators to sharpen their skills and gather some hard-earned experience in handling bad news. A flourishing business environment has been hit hard by the financial crisis, adversely impacting PR growth in 2009. Thankfully, Abu Dhabi has offered a silver lining - maintaining spend levels as it navigates an ambitious series of projects.
TV and press remain the dominant media in the UAE. There is a relatively high penetration of satellite TV, led by Qatar-based Al-Jazeera and Al Arabiya news channels. Al-Jazeera, says Hill & Knowlton Middle East, Turkey and Africa CEO David Robinson, ‘revolutionised TV' in the region. ‘It has brought an unprecedented level of scrutiny across the Gulf.'
Daily newspaper readership is led by Arabic-language titles: Al Khaleej, Al Ittihad, Al Emarat Al Youm and Al Bayan, along with Arabic business daily Al Roya Al Eqtisadiya. Other important Arabic titles are the London-headquartered newspapers: Asharq Alawsat and Al-Hayat.
English-language titles, adds Robinson, tend to lead the business debate, with business monthlies MEED and Arabian Business particularly prominent. An expanding English-language newspaper sector, meanwhile, has seen the launch of respected new title The National in Abu Dhabi, which takes its place alongside Gulf News and Khaleej Times.
Key international media outlets include the Financial Times and CNN, both of which are headquartered in Abu Dhabi. ‘Most business decision-makers are likely to read multiple English-language sources for news,' says Robinson. ‘They will use the Arabic-language media for context.'
A large and fast-growing youth segment means digital media usage is surging in the UAE, led by Facebook, Hotmail and MSN. Yahoo acquired key Arab online community Maktoob, with its 16.5 million users, in August of this year, while Twitter usage has grown 300 per cent in the first half of 2009.
‘Digital has a disproportionate level of influence,' explains Robinson. ‘It is almost entirely uncensored. You now have almost a duality of comms.'
A relatively young agency landscape has exploded in recent years, growing from approximately 60 shops in 2003 to 122 to date.
Hill & Knowlton is generally considered the longest-established, having opened its Dubai operation in 1989, and was the biggest winner at the recent Mepra awards. Among its key rivals is the largest local player Asda'a, now 60 per cent owned by Burson-Marsteller. Another key homegrown agency is Jiwin.
Other MNC brands with substantial operations are Impact Porter Novelli, Promoseven | Weber Shandwick and Edelman – which has forged a strong Abu Dhabi presence. The financial and corporate boom has drawn several financial specialists to the UAE, including Brunswick, Finsbury, FD and M:Communications, although the departure of Buchanan from Dubai earlier this year is evidence of a tougher environment.
Salaries are bolstered by a tax-free regime, with Abu Dhabi now commanding the largest pay packets. Full salary figures, courtesy of recruitment firm PRJS, can be found here. Attracting and retaining talent remains one of the key challenges in the region, with a paucity of homegrown talent proving a particularly complex hurdle for agencies to overcome.
A relatively high proportion of PR spend is driven by the government or linked entities. In Dubai, these include Dubai World, DIFC, Emaar Properties and its Department of Finance.
Abu Dhabi, say observers, is even more reliant on government PR spend – which is largely overseen by Simon Pearce, director of strategic comms for the emirate's Executive Affairs Authority. Important vehicles include investment arm Mubadala, property company Aldar and the Abu Dhabi Media Company.
Outside of government, financial and real estate players have been hit hard this year. Key marketers include telecom brands Etisalat and Du, and national airline Emirates.
A series of absolute monarchies means that the public affairs and lobbying space is, in the words of Robinson, ‘not formalised or institutionalised to allow business easy access'.
The flipside is that government relations remains in strong shape – with various government-related entities spending major budgets in order to engage business, consumer and overseas stakeholders.
Population: 6 million (more than 80 per cent of which hail from outside the UAE)
GDP: $39K per capita (14th in the world)
Unemployment: Four per cent
Languages: Arabic, English, Urdu, Hindi, Persian
Religions: 76 per cent Muslim