How Can the Gulf Countries Change Their Image?

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When Caryl Stern, president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, tried to raise financial support for the children of Middle Eastern refugees, she said many Americans tended to “look at her blankly.” It turns out that there was a widespread belief among donors that the Gulf nations are “rich oil countries … and they don’t take care of their own,” she said. More troubling was a prevailing stereotype that the region is “a hotbed of terrorism … [and they] don’t want to support those countries.”

But actually, the top six host countries for refugees worldwide are located in the Middle East. “That — in and of itself — tells you what these countries are not [communicating to] the rest of the world,” Stern said. She and other panelists discussed nation branding and the Gulf countries — Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates — at the recent Wharton Nation Brand Conference.

According to the Best Countries report, a worldwide survey of  people’s perceptions about 60 nations presented at the conference, the region’s image needs some burnishing. “They are seen as “religious …  unapproachable … and different,” said Anna Blender, a senior vice president at the global brand strategy firm BAV Consulting. Her firm collaborated with U.S. News & World Report and Wharton marketing professor David Reibstein to publish the 2016 report.

People “don’t really understand what they’re all about,” Blender added. “So it’s up to these countries to educate the world’s population about what is actually there, and to drive a global brand. Because that ultimately will help drive prosperity for their people.”

Glen Weyl, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research and a visiting lecturer at Yale in economics, pointed out that most people would think wealthy countries like Canada or Norway probably give most generously to poorer nations. But, “the UAE and Qatar send [the equivalent of] about $4,000 per person. … Canada, which is the most generous OECD country, sends just $900” per capita.

Moreover, the scale of immigration in the Gulf nations is even larger than people would think, Weyl said. In the U.S., there is approximately one migrant from a poor country for every 15 citizens. But in the Gulf nations, depending on the country, there are between four and nine migrants per citizen, he asserted.

Weyl added that the West has a “skewed perspective” that doesn’t recognize the “contribution that [Middle East countries] are really making to global prosperity.” He noted that many of the poorest people from places like Bangladesh, Philippines, India and Pakistan come to the Gulf states and view the region as a place to create a future, much as “many of our parents and grandparents did when they came to the United States,” he said to the mostly American audience.

Stern pointed to another often overlooked humanitarian effort. “Sheikha Mozah [bint Nasser Al Missned] is a perfect example,” she said, referring to a member of Qatar’s ruling family. “She launched her ‘Educate a Child’ foundation in 2012. She’s reached 10 million kids already with access to education, but the world is just not seeing it.”

Successful Branding Efforts in the Gulf

Blender said three qualities contribute most positively to any nation’s brand. They are “doing good” — meaning global citizenship, human rights and equality — creating a high quality of life for its people; and strength in innovation and entrepreneurship. Clayton F. Ruebensaal, vice president of global brand management and design at American Express, pointed to the UAE’s Dubai as an ethnically inclusive city and an example of strong nation branding in the Gulf.

Ruebensaal called Dubai “a successful model of the knowledge economy,” citing its many special economic zones — for example the Dubai Internet City, Dubai Media City, and Dubai Design District — that have attracted foreign investors. “Sheikh Mohammed [bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the emir of Dubai] … made a big bet on creativity and sustainable global growth,” he said.

“Sheikh Mohammed [bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the emir of Dubai] … made a big bet on creativity and sustainable global growth,” –Clayton Ruebensaal

Ruebensaal noted that there is a need to “let more people know about the generosity” of the Gulf region and also about the business opportunities: “It’s quite clear that this is an economically welcoming, vibrant environment where … [one] can make a lot of money and create something exciting.” He compared the atmosphere to that of Silicon Valley.

Ruebensaal also tackled the common belief that substantially all of the Middle East’s wealth comes from oil. He noted that only 3% of Dubai’s ultra high-net-worth citizens make their money from petroleum. “There’s a lot of other revenue being generated that’s not oil money in the region,” he said. Indeed, a recent communication from Sheik Mohammed to the populace noted that 77% of Dubai’s economy comes from non-oil sources, according to Blender.

Blender also spoke about some ways that Gulf countries are consciously trying to improve their image. Saudi Arabia, for example, is working with PR agencies to mount global conferences. “They’re getting the word out by bringing in people … who might not have had experiences with the region, to showcase just how powerful they are from an economic perspective, an innovation perspective and an education perspective.” The idea is that attendees return to their own countries and act as advocates because they now “understand what the value is” that the country brings.

Another nation-branding effort by Saudi Arabia is the creation of a new city, the King Abdullah Economic City, designed to attract global business. The project is in its early stages, Blender said, but “what it’s doing is contributing to the brand of Saudi Arabia as an economic powerhouse, as an innovation powerhouse.”

“What they want is to amplify that conversation globally, to get people around the world, when they think of Dubai, to [equate it with] ‘happiness.’” –Anna Blender

As for the UAE, it established a Ministry of Happiness, with the possibility of future conferences built around this theme, Blender said. A conference would bring global brands into conversations with Dubai citizens around the question: What does it take to create more happiness? “What they want is to amplify that conversation globally, to get people around the world, when they think of Dubai, to [equate it with] ‘happiness,’” she said. “And that’s a huge component of this idea of quality of life that’s so important for the brand.”

Politics and Reputation?

Audience comments tempered some of the panelists’ statements. For example, an attendee brought up Dubai’s naturalization restrictions. “I know Dubai was mentioned about how global it is as a city, but at the end of the day, as an Indian I can go and work in Dubai but know I’ll never be a citizen. At 60, I’ll need to think about packing my bags and leaving.”

She also noted that while Qatar’s Sheikha Mozah was doing “great work” in education, Qatar “doesn’t help itself” when there are reports, for example, that the country is committing human rights abuses against Nepalese migrants. “There’s a deeper question [here] about the political systems in those countries, and whether a brand can really be that strong if these countries are not thinking more deeply about what kind of political system they want to have longer-term.”

Echoing her sentiments about politics in the Gulf was another audience member who said he spoke from personal experience in the Middle East. He said there is currently a “mass exodus” of migrant workers out of Saudi Arabia. “They’ve kept it very quiet, but we’re talking tens of thousands of people being asked to leave [the country] so they can provide more employment for their [own] people….”

Ruebensaal acknowledged that a nation’s brand and its political system are interconnected, which can present challenges. But there’s always room for improvement. One way is through philanthropic efforts. “There’s a benefit to doing good,” he said. For example, “I think you can see what’s happening in Saudi Arabia right now” where progressives and conservatives are working out a balanced approach to women’s rights. There’s an “attempt to modernize the approach to women — and modernize society — so that the whole thing works.”

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