How do you promote Dubai to the world in the time it takes an express lift to travel from the ground floor of the Burj Khalifa to the observation deck?
The 90 second challenge was posed as part of a new programme to help pitch the emirate, handle negative news and encourage foreign investment, taught by the Emirates Diplomatic Academy.
Those taking part included staff from Expo2020, Dubai Chamber of Commerce, the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre as well as Nakheel, Emaar, Etisalat, DIFC and Dubai Holding.
The need for such training was explained by Seppe Verheyen, a research fellow on 21st Century diplomacy at the EDA, which is based in Abu Dhabi.
“On negative news, there are always so many misconceptions about Dubai and the UAE when you go abroad. In Belgium, they often ask me if it’s safe or if women can drive cars.”
Another task was to take an example of negative international press and give participants just five minutes to come up with a response.
“We asked difficult questions like whether they had enough staff in the fire department, and immigrant workers,” said Mr Verheyen.
“They’re very good at communicating internally within the UAE but they need practice in communicating with foreign institutions.”
“By not giving them much time for preparation, then the talent will rise up. We’ll then come up with the good communicators, those that need more work and those that shouldn’t communicate.”
To do this well, special skills are required beyond those of the traditional diplomat, said Bernardino Leon, the director general of the Academy and a former senior official at both the UN and the European Union,
“It’s not the typical and traditional communication discussion, the conversation goes on where the connections are between political, strategic and security communications.
“We live in a complex world [where] all elements are interrelated so if you want to communicate successfully, you have to take into account all these inputs.”
The course was created: “Because this country has a fantastic capacity to innovate.
“In the past, communication in politics was about including everyone but today, around the world, you have so many countries where politicians are considered to be part of the problem and they play politics as a division, like US President Donald Trump.
“The UAE is still advocating inclusion, tolerance, understanding, rejecting fanaticism and extremism so I think still here we have many of the answers and values.”
He said improving the efficiency of the UAE’s outreach today was vital given how many of these values were suffering abroad.
“Their message has to be heard beyond,” Mr Leon said. “This is why it’s so important that people attending this course and the communication community in the country is so aware of challenges ahead, because the battle here is really huge.”
Those taking part were mostly in their late 20s to early 40s. At the start of the course some seemed shy or found it hard to hit the right tone in their responses.
“Some have difficulties expressing themselves and some are unable to communicate long ideas very briefly,” said Dr Sara Chehab, another research fellow at the academy.
“They have to introduce themselves in 140 characters at first and not many were able to do so. But they got better at being on the spot, thinking on their feet and being more confident in how they speak which is one of the main outcomes we wanted to see.”
Language was another challenge.“Some are more comfortable in Arabic but the main communication has to be done in English,” she said.
Addressing bad press was also crucial, Dr Chehab said. “One of the things we struggle with in the Middle East is being able to answer criticism,” she said. “This programme is tailored to that.
Unfortunately, Dubai is very stereotyped in the west sometimes in a very bad way so being able to respond to them with a very good image is very important. It should be something all government entities should have because you’re more and more exposed to that.”
Mr Leon also gave a masterclass, explaining that without good communication it is the message that suffers.
“I told them to keep having trust, and make sure you have something really substantial and strong to sell. It was not only a reflection on how politics have evolved, but how political communication can help communication in general and help us overcome the crisis we are going through today.”
Paulo Portas, Portugal’s former Foreign Affairs Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, shared his experiences in another talk. “You can’t rule a country, take decisions and establish major policies without communication,” he said.
“It’s a part of the solution and if you’re not aware of modern techniques and instruments of communication and major risks, you may lose the context, the text and not be able to connect with other’s minds.”
Back home, Mr Portas found himself in the firing line over Portugal’s major financial crisis between 2010 and 2014, which produced 90 per cent negative coverage, he estimates.
“My first duty was to clarify to everybody in the world that Portugal had a problem but we would fulfil the programme, deliver the solution and overcome the crisis,” he said.
“But we had a reputation problem and reputations are built through perceptions. So my first fight all around the world was to explain that we are able to solve the problem. It was a tough moment but we delivered.”
He said transparency was key, “The aim is to have the trust so you have to explain yourself.
“Dubai wants to perfect its communication strategy and it’s a new area for many people. New technologies are surprising for many people so you have to update your information, graduate your techniques and know how to use new communication strategies and instruments to achieve better results in the dialogue with your society and the exterior world.”
Mr Portas said the UAE was one of the countries that understood globalisation and digitisation better.
“It’s a rising power,” he said. “The UAE is more or less like the virtual border between the old and the new world. It’s a sort of United Nations of the world and this is a very modern example. With good ideas in the right moment, you can build a fantastic nation project.”
Mona Al Marri, director general of the Dubai Media Office, believes the programme is needed for the entire country.
“It’s very educational and it’s about knowledge and experience sharing from people in the industry themselves, from politics to business and crises,” she said.
“Today, we are living in the middle of a very disturbed region so we need to be equipped — not just our political leaders and chief executives, but also our government communication employees who are meant to know, not just the agenda and directions of the leadership, but also how to manage them.”
For the Dubai Government, she said, the Emirate was adopting a model of soft power pioneered by Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father of the UAE.
“We were raised to see Sheikh Zayed, the founding father of the UAE, doing a lot of soft power, so the programme is valuable and it gives us a great network to create for the future.”