Dubai: a remarkable branding symbiosis

Sometime in 2009, my plane from Tunis landed at Dubai International Airport. It was a night-flight and by the time I cleared the police and customs it was already past midnight. I was curious to be finally able to discover, among other things, the reasons for the outstanding international reputation quickly earned by Dubai — a place which only a few decades ago was just another desert location almost nobody knew. The Dubai-based reporter who picked me up at the airport needed to muster a lot of patience in order to answer my endless stream of questions, that late at night. The quick ride to my hotel ended up being a four-hour multi- disciplinary briefing on his part. I still had questions about the sources of “soft power” wielded by Dubai. Three years later, I still have questions, but I think I have figured out at least some of the answers.
As we look at the economic history of the region, it is difficult to miss the pioneering role played by Dubai in identifying the challenges, but also the opportunities that came with globalisation. Decision-makers understood quickly the need to develop a new mindset, according to which attracting the best world talent does not necessarily constitute a threat to one’s identity or traditions. They grasped the new economic prospects created by an ever-expanding global middle-class and the quickly changing mores around the world, including, in particular, higher demand for tourism, leisure and consumer goods. With that foresight, they prepared themselves for the staunch competition with cities, anywhere on the planet, to attract visitors, businessmen and investors. They did that without throwing cheap rates, tax exemptions and free land. They courted the world with quality infrastructure, amenities and services that gave the destination sustainable value.
Understanding the new global economic trends came with an unprecedented awareness that developing a successful brand is an investment in the future. Just as Simon Anholt said: “We live in a world where perceptions regularly trump reality. Knowing how to deal with intangibles is just as important in such times as traditional military, political or fiscal competence.” Or the even more crucial corollary of Anholt’s theory, according to which, “a reputation can never be constructed through communications, slogans and logos: It needs to be earned.” In today’s world, reputation vitally matters. But, good or bad, reputation is more often deserved than not. When the 2012 Mercer Survey voted Dubai the best city in Middle East and North Africa in terms of quality of living and city infrastructure, it did not base its assessment on hype, but on tangible assets.
To become a global hub, it took Dubai a lot of work and investment. More importantly, it took a self-confident vision and a different notion of time other than that of the ever-extensible deadlines stereotypically attributed to the Orient. “Most of the people talk, we do things”, Seikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, once said.
It took preparedness, but also daring initiative to be the only Arab city to ever host a World Bank-IMF annual meeting and to do so just two years after the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers and their chilling impact on the Arab image in the West.
The remarkable branding symbiosis between Dubai and the UAE was (and is) a win-win situation. Columbia University’s Eric Goldwyn believes: “Cities act as a true gateway to a nation and are integral in shaping national identity”. A successful city can become an icon for a successful nation, New York City being the foremost model. However, cities also benefit from the good reputation of their nations. Undoubtedly, the Dubai brand was enhanced by that of the UAE’s. In Future Brand’s Country Brand Index 2012-13, the UAE is identified as the “world’s leading future country brand”. The UAE ranks on top in the Middle East and North Africa in terms of quality of life. In terms of business environment, it ranks 13th worldwide, ahead of France, Spain and Italy. In terms of investment climate, it ranks sixth worldwide, ahead of the US and all Scandinavian countries. It ranks fourth in the world in terms of job opportunity, ahead of traditional job Eldorados such as the US and Australia. As one of the world’s Top 25 tourism brands, it has some of the best global reputations in terms of lodging and resorts, attractions and “value-for-money” services.
But a city or a nation brand once earned has to be sustained. Competitors are waiting in the wings. By presenting its candidacy to hold major world events, a city or a nation projects its will and ability. In presenting its candidacy for World Expo 2020 or the 2024 Olympic Games, Dubai strengthens its global brand. It also makes better-known its assets, including distinctive landmarks and outstanding infrastructure. An international airport, with an expected capacity of 90 million passengers by 2018, is but a remarkable example.
Bids for major events are no flights of fancy. Especially when well prepared, they constitute serious placements. The UK Sports Minister, Hugh Robinson, recently commented in Dubai about his experience with the London Olympics: “If you had asked me before the London Games what benefits it could bring, I would have run you through our four legacy pillars of economic impact — particularly tourism as, if images of your city are beamed to four billion people around the world, it tends to encourage people to come and visit — regeneration, social and sports,” he said.
“But then I would have wholly missed what has arguably been the most important legacy of London 2012, which is that renewed sense of national pride and confidence. That has been our most important legacy.”
The lesson of Dubai, for those of us who always dreamt of challenging the unfair international perceptions of Arabs, is that negative images are not necessarily the region’s fate. For those who are occasionally prey to doubt, the lesson of Dubai is that of the deliverability of promise. Oussama Romdhani, a former member of the Tunisian government, is an international media analyst.