As I read earlier this month that the Prime Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, had announced the development of a unified corporate identity for the country as part of Vision 2021, I was pleased. It speaks volumes that the word development was used instead of “strengthening”, which would infer that a common brand already existed. In fact, individual emirates have all too frequently had their separate identities promoted abroad in the past decade. Some people may regard this as acceptable – I would like to assure them that among nationals, acceptable is the farthest thing from the truth when the fragmentation of the country is portrayed in the media.
There are already corporate symbols of unity that Emiratis regard with pride. The first that comes to mind is without a doubt Etihad (or Union) Airlines, the award-winning carrier. Of course, Emirates Airlines, which bears the federation’s name, is also an important global ambassador of the national brand. Back home, one looks towards the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi and the towers in Dubai. On the other hand, there are examples of Emirati corporate branding that have favoured highlighting individual emirates over co-branding. Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman have all launched global tourism campaigns featured on CNN, BBC and other television networks with one common factor: they all unashamedly neglect to mention the name of the United Arab Emirates.
By contrast, the now-acclaimed Incredible India campaign, conceptualised in 2002, understands that country’s history, symbolism and the message that should be portrayed. The campaign was so successful it managed to increase high-end tourism to India by 16 per cent in its first year and today is a case study of tourism marketing. When cities or regions promote themselves individually, like Kerala, Goa or Uttar Pradesh, Incredible India always appears in the background to build Brand India.
The same goes for Malaysia’s Truly Asia campaign, which markets the federation as a single destination. Even when one of the states promotes itself individually, the phrase “Malaysia Truly Asia” appears clearly in the background. Frankly, I have no doubt that if Emiratis were responsible for the UAE’s tourism campaigns we see on television, the name of the country would have appeared. The truth is, in order for us to project a unified single identity, we need to start reflecting it in ourselves first. Until Emiratis start taking this matter seriously, our fragmented branding will continue to remain the victim of global marketing agencies.
It is no surprise that a unified corporate identity for the UAE is not marketed abroad. While the UAE prides itself as an early member of the World Trade Organisation, it is not a member of the other WTO, the World Tourism Organisation. In fact, many are unaware that the UAE does not qualify to be a member of this global tourism body for the simple, and some may think absurd, fact that we do not have a federal ministry of tourism. As I highlighted in a previous column in The National about the Federal National Council (FNC), in April 2007 a draft law was sent to the FNC by the Ministerial Cabinet on establishing a National Council for Tourism and Antiquities, effectively a tourism ministry. Almost three years later, we have yet to hear from the FNC about it.
But why does a country that is about to enter its fifth decade in existence and is counted among the favourite destinations for travellers from across the world not have a federal tourism ministry? It was never emphasised in early years, because, like other fledgling federations, unifying the armed and police forces, social services and education were and continue to be the priority. During last week’s ITB Berlin, the world’s biggest tourism convention, the emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah were represented in separate booths. There were 253 exhibitors from the UAE, but not a single federal institution promoting Brand Emirates.
There is a risk that as more people abroad see the various emirates as separate states, this mentality will seep into the culture of this mostly expat nation. Unless Emiratis take this matter seriously, no one else will, Vision2021 or not.
This article was originally published in The National on March 14, 2010.