Robert Govers

Dubai, Qatar and Abu Dhabi: competing place brands in the Gulf

Robert Govers - Saturday 16 April 2011 - 07:48 - 2068 x read

By: Robert Govers for

With this week’s Qatar talks on Libya, published an interesting paper by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen on Qatar and the Arab Spring. It provides food for thought on how some Gulf States, or rather, Emirates, are competing for nation brand hegemony in the region. Readers of our blog and our 2009 book on Place Branding will know that we have studied case Dubai extensively and Kristian’s paper has provided us with some fresh insights.

For many years since the start of the new millennium, Dubai was THE example of the modernization of the Gulf in the 21st century while rapidly building place brand image awareness. How come that they seem to have been overtaken, considering the recent media coverage of the Gulf, with lots of attention for Abu Dhabi, its grand prix and cultural projects, and FIFA’s stunning decision to have Qatar host the 2022 World Cup.

One major difference between Dubai and Qatar and Abu Dhabi is that the latter two are resource rich, while Dubai was forced to diversify its economy because it will soon run out of natural resources (since 2007 these contribute less than 2% to Dubai’s GDP). The strategy to build an internationally strong brand through the launch of large scale developments aiming at trade and tourism supported with foreign investment (in 2006 the UAE – predominantly Dubai - attracted almost as much foreign investment as the whole of India), was not all that irrational. Unfortunately, the global financial crisis came at a very bad time, right in the middle of Dubai’s investment hype. Others might argue that the timing was exactly right; putting everyone back with their feet on the ground before it was too late.

However, the international debt crisis induced postponement of payment announcement for Dubai World forced the Dubai government to lay low for a while in order to let the dust settle in the international media. In the meantime resource rich and thus less crisis affected Doha and Abu Dhabi made use of this Dubai silence to build their own brands. In fact, one could argue that Abu Dhabi’s financial help for Dubai, created the opportunity for the dominant Emirate to leap-frog Dubai’s strong brand, exemplified by the renaming of Burj Dubai - the world’s tallest tower - to Burj Khalifa; taking everyone by surprise (literally everyone, because even the souvenir shop at the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa had to initially sell incorrectly branded gadgets).

Tourism in Dubai is still doing very well with constant growth in airport traffic and profits for the airline, but Dubai’s brand has been damaged. The focus on creating a brand image of luxury, prestige and modernity has boomeranged with the financial crisis. Since then, Dubai has launched an interesting place branding initiative with This is Dubai that shows an intimate human face of Dubai, but it seems too late and that the damage is done, creating opportunities for major competitors such as Qatar and Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi has recently had its own share of Dubai-style negative media coverage with the art world’s boycott of its Saadiyat Island’s Guggenheim and the arrest of three human rights and democracy activists (update on April 18: arrest of four activists). Has Qatar moved to pole-position as the most respected nation brand in the Gulf? What do you think?

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Latest Change by: Robert Govers on Sunday 14 September 2014 - 16:21


William Coombe
William Coombe -  (2011-04-16 22:17)
I would tend to agree. Based on my research, news is the #1 source of information among global professionals regarding Dubai (and I imagine Abu Dhabi & Doha as well). In my survey, 85% of global professionals received information on Dubai from the news.

Although it's been one year since I tracked the data, Abu Dhabi has attracted a lower volume of international media attention compared to Qatar. In 2008 and 2009, Abu Dhabi received about 50% the volume of Qatar's global headline coverage.

According to the Nation Brand Perception Index (which is actually a media projection index), Qatar ranked #4 in the world in 2010. Unfortunately, Abu Dhabi can't be compared on this index since Abu Dhabi is not a country.

Robert Govers
Robert Govers -  (2011-04-18 15:18)
Thanks for that input William and indeed, unfortunately, comparisons are difficult in that region, because of the variation in governmental structures.
Someone from UAE
Someone from UAE -  (2011-04-20 13:12)
Why do people always seperate Dubai and Abu Dhabi like they are two seperate countries? They are both in the UAE and to most of us here, considered one of the same and are not in a big competition with each other.

Qatar is a country. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are emirates within one country, the UAE.
Robert Govers
Robert Govers -  (2011-04-20 14:42)
Obviously Dubai and Abu Dhabi are part of one and the same country, but one could argue that even within countries, cities, and particularly city states, compete with each other. Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi have their own airline and major airport hubs; financial centres; ports; or educational offerings, so it seems fair to me to assume that there is some healthy competition between them, as there is between cities and states within other countries. Check which argues that the different states in the US should cooperate more to build brand America, as opposed to competing as fiercely as they do. A better terminology might be "co-optition" where there is cooperation and competition at the same time, at different levels. So we are not saying, as some superficial observers do, that Abu Dhabi was gloating at Dubai’s challenges as a result of the financial crisis. It is not surprising at all that Abu Dhabi has offered their assistance to the government of Dubai, because, of course, indeed, in the end the two emirates are part of the same country; the people in power even part of the same tribe; and it is therefore in everyone’s best interest to keep the mutually entwined economic engines going, which does not mean that there is no competition at other levels. In any case, in their own way, both Dubai and Abu Dhabi have succeeded in establishing themselves as major global place brands in a limited period of time; an achievement to be respected for either city or the UAE as a whole.
William Coombe (@ArabBrands)
William Coombe (@ArabBrands) -  (2011-04-20 16:31)
Someone from UAE-

One challenge is that many in the world actually view Abu Dhabi & Dubai as countries, and not as both emirates & cities. I have read a number of newspaper articles and even Dubai-specific academic papers where they referred to Dubai as a "country." One reason may be that Dubai has been so prominent in the international news - appearing three times as frequently as the UAE from 2008-2009. As a result, people seem to be much more familiar with "brand Dubai" than "brand UAE."

I wonder how many other countries receive less global media coverage than one of their cities or regions? A good reserach topic, which I unfortunately do not have time to do. Any takers? : )

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