Sunday, 23 November 2008

'Tournalists' who catch the Dubai bashing syndrome

Since Dubai has taken a front seat in the international limelight, we in the UAE have grown used to welcoming journalists from across the world. Recently, though, there has been a slew of reporters coming hoping to uncover a "dark side". Thankfully, the UAE has largely ignored this negative campaign and has continued with its development, looking towards the future.

The truth is that so many visiting journalists have come looking for negative news that I have become apprehensive of their visits. In early November, the UAE won a great honour when Dubai hosted the World Economic Forum's Summit on the Global Agenda, billed as an opportunity to gather 700 of the world's most influential thinkers from academia, business, government and society to discuss and find solutions to "the most critical challenges facing humanity".

Among the attendees were dozens of Nobel laureates and one of my own heroes from the financial world, Mohamed El-Erian the current CEO of Pimco, the world's largest bond investor with $692 billion of assets under management as of 2007, who also used to manage Harvard University's $35 billion endowment fund.

It was a gathering like no other. Naturally, a newspaper like the Los Angeles Times would want to cover the event and reflect on the discussions. That is what I initially thought when I started reading its report; but I was mistaken. Its reporter, Rosa Brooks, "spent a few days in Dubai" and came up with hurtful phrases like "for us normal human beings, it's hard not to be revolted by Dubai", and "Dubai is repulsive enough to make most ordinary mortals start rooting for the collapse of global capitalism".

As a UAE national, the thing I found to be repulsive and revolting was her attitude. Did she bother writing about Dubai Cares? It only happens to be on an unprecedented billion-dollar, eight-week fundraising drive to help people around the world. Did she write that the UAE is one of the most generous countries in the world with regards to its aid as a ratio of GDP?

She is not the only one to act this way. There was a book published recently, The Vulnerability of Success – a title as ironic as, say, The Curse of the Multi-Millionaire – that was also full of errors. For instance, it has many references to a certain "Sultan Bin Sulayman", who seems to be a juxtaposition of two respected but very different Dubai leaders, Dr Omar Bin Suleiman and Sultan Bin Sulayem.

As the book was being reviewed by the UAE's National Media Council prior to its release, the author went public and accused the NMC of having a "kneejerk reaction" and banning it. In fact, the book was never banned but was simply being reviewed – in the same way that in the UK, the British Board of Film Classification reviews movies before screening them. Is that a kneejerk reaction? We in the UAE have our processes too.

There barely passes a week without another dying (circulation wise) newspaper from the West sending a reporter to the UAE to uncover our "dark side". Sure, it's not perfect here, but we're trying our best. Do criticise us, but get your facts right.

When I spoke to a fellow Emirati columnist about the West's Dubai bashing syndrome he told me: "It's natural, they're jealous." He may be right. Stagnant economies (we're still predicted to grow at 4.25 per cent in 2009 despite the economic crisis), ageing populations, weakening social welfare and scant natural resources aren't really as exciting as reading about Princess Diana.

Part of this maybe because the UAE has suffered from a lack of representation not only in the international media but, unfortunately, locally too. Although the efforts of our expatriate journalists are admired and appreciated, it is important that the opinions of UAE and Gulf nationals appear in the local media. It is said that 98 per cent of journalists in the UAE hold a work visa, meaning that they are not citizens. Imagine if for three decades all you read in the British press had been written by Arabs or Americans: the news would not reflect local opinions. Sadly, this was the case here until The National arrived. It is an area in which our GCC neighbours are exceeding us. Even in the 1990s, it was not surprising to find reports and Op-Eds written by nationals in English language newspapers in Kuwait or Oman.

Yet few Emiratis have penned or translated their opinions into English. The rare cases include Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qassimi, Ruler of Sharjah, Mohammed Abdul Jalil al Fahim, and Essa Saleh al Gurg. These books give everyone a better picture of the people of this land. We need more of these enlightening windows into the culture and history of the UAE.

There have been other valuable contributions, such as My Vision – Challenges in the Race for Excellence by Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, that won the Sheikh Khalifa Emirati Book Prize, when it was published in Arabic in 2007. When the English version becomes available it will be a welcome addition to the libraries of those who want to learn about Dubai from the inside rather than from the biased opinions of tourist-journalists – who would perhaps be better called "tournalists".

I hope the UAE continues with its wise open-door policy regardless of the negativity of some of those who write about us. I also hope that more Emiratis are represented in the national media. These policies are the best way to combat the Dubai Bashing Syndrome.

* Sultan Al Qassemi is a Sharjah-based businessman and graduate of the American University of Paris. He is the founder of Barjeel Securities in Dubai. This article first appeared in The National newspaper on 23/11/2008


sadia said...

uae needs it's own "local" journalists, writing in the english language, who are thorough with the country's history, culture, religion...they will be the only ones who can really judge whether or not the emiarates are heading towards the cright direction.
it looks like you're already making headways in the field.
good luck.

ColOman said...

I could understand if someone did not like Dubai and found it repulsive....... but reading her article, it seems like she has hate for the fact the Dubai has money and not because its turned into Disney Land.........

M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
M said...

sultan i certainly agree and its shameful. i think they are many reasons for this but jealousy and ethnocentrism are definite core factors behind this 'bashing'.
to add to this, please see the recent article written on abudhabi museums in MUSEUM magazine. all emirates, including shj are written awfully about with reference to the blatantly racist and inaccurate article written last year in news week by zvika kriger,
-manal (proud of UAE accomplishments)

T ALM said...

Sorry to burst your bubble, Sultan, but Dubai is as plastic as it gets. Towers built on sand by the sweat and blood of ill-treated migrant workers, and the infrastructure managed by western expatriates.

Meanwhile, the UAE citizen is led to believe that he or she is part of the process.

hamad tarek said...

those statements by ms. Brooks would have gotten here banned from places like china if she had said it about them no matter who she is. she should at least appreciate that about dubai.

even though i am nowhere near a big fan of dubai i will admit that their achievements (no matter who built them) are impressive and worth taking account of and understanding.

and what i can't stand is those that pull out the 'migrant worker' card every time they talk about the country's development. those people would rather toil in the heat and get paid minimal wages rather than remain jobless and hungry in their homeland.

and what about all the expats that have flocked to dubai to make their fortunes? no one threw them out or made them feel unwanted or prevented them from repatriating any gains they made.

dubai is a free market albeit a directed one. its also, more importantly, one with strong leadership and vision and we are glad to have it as part of our region's story.

eat your hear out america, the brits got there before you, accept it.

Sayeed said...

Salam Sultan,

You have raised some very interesting and valid points in my opinion. In particular about how the western media portrays Dubai to its Western counter-parts. Being a UK born resident myself, I feel this is because it has its own policies to protect, more-over than jealousy and ethnocentrism. Business is undertaken at a global-level today (i.e. look at the current financial crisis). Each country is protecting its own interest from competition and the media plays a instrumental role in this, in today’s society.

However I feel the UAE has much to do to improve its handling with the way it reveals itself to the world. In particular the migrant workers problem, which I know the Ruler of Dubai has been recognised and acknowledge, and is doing much more to address.

Anonymous said...

Brother Sultan, Dubai bashing is nothing new. All you have to do is look at the British tabloids full of crap about Dubai, written by people who have never been to Dubai.Dubai because of its fast growth will remain the focus of Western attention with jealousy and envy.But dont worry, the new generation of locals are well educated and capable of standing up to the West, and we expatriates (not Western) are there to stand by you.

Anonymous said...

I agree with much of what you have said. I totally disagree with journalists having a go at dubai without enough facts.

From an outsiders perspective, dubai does look like a magnificent country. The concrete jungle it has created leaves one in awe of just what it has become. The reality though is that people like me see that it has become this through the inhumane treatment of imported labour. Unfortunatly seeing the way the foreign workers are treated makes me sick to the stomach. As a Muslim it makes me ashamed that Dubai is a Muslim country and can treat these humans worse than if they were animals.

I think that if we saw the citizens and people like you who love your country do something to speak out about this, I think one will start to see people looking at dubai favourably.