By: Robert Govers for Placebrandz.com
With this week’s Qatar talks on Libya, OpenDemocracy.com 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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