ITL #574   Pragmatic, ideology-free and a bridge to the Global South: MENA’s new narrative is led by B2B influence

3 weeks, 1 day ago

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The Gulf region is tapping the power of influence through the credible and confident voices of opinion leaders. By Ashraf Shakah.



 The past years have witnessed PR practitioners communicating the new narrative of the Middle East region in global markets. Several campaigns were launched showcasing the long-term vision and the transformational progress that governments in the region aim to realize. Many of these, often unintentionally, also aimed to dispel prevalent misperceptions about the Arab world.

 

But did earned media – or even OOH advertisement tactics – deliver on their mandate? Many argue that their success was never substantial. There are two reasons to this: One, their conventional approach to communications, and two, a shallow understanding of what these glossy ‘feel-good’ campaigns really aimed to address or their relevance to the target markets and audiences.

 

Some of these campaigns also fell into the trap of reinforcing stereotypical notions and entrenching the trope of ‘Arab oil wealth’ purchasing Western trophy assets. After all, misinformation campaigns about the Arab world have never been accidental. They have been primarily politically motivated, and driven by orientalist ideologies propounded by the ‘elites’ and intellectual circles.

 

Despite this, the Gulf region has focused on maintaining a pragmatic and ideology-free position. This can be linked, arguably, to the collapse of many pan-Arab nationalism political enterprises, especially following the Arab Spring, and the concerted efforts to reinforce national identity.

 

A mild-to-moderate approach

Without a genuine understanding of the context, market or audiences, most global PR campaigns from the Gulf region, of late, have turned out to be mild to moderate in their impact.

 

They all sing from the same song sheet, with the same narrative of emerging regional economies not being just fossil fuel production economies but instrumental soft power economic hubs on a fast-track to economic and energy sector diversification.

 

In some areas, such as aviation, these campaigns made a big impact, evident in how champion airline companies like Emirates and Qatar Airways went on to redefine industry standards. However, in some other areas – for example, energy transition and climate change – the impact was less than exemplary and often counter-productive.

 

Further afield, when it came to nation branding and destination marketing, we saw relentless efforts in the Western media to discredit the hosting of what turned out to be the best global sporting event for years, the FIFA World Cup 2022 Qatar.

 

How then can the communications industry sharpen its impact in delivering the new narrative of the region in a post-globalised era?

 

The changing nature of influence

Today, there is increased focus by the region – both governments and the private sector – to strengthen their influence in emerging urban hubs in Africa. Among G20 economies, China and India now top their go-to list.

 

Three factors have led to this: The first is the rise in the economic and geopolitical clout of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. After staying in the shadows of the global power corridors for long, these nations have underlined that when it comes to the Arab world, their voices really matter. These nations, with reliable allies in the East and the West, are asserting their role in advancing the transformation of the Global South societies.

 

The second is the boredom and fatigue induced by the Western media’s often lazy, inaccurate, and biased reporting of the region. This, in no way, undermines of the role of journalism to challenge the status quo and there is no denying that brilliant journalism about the region did exist and still does.

 

The third factor is that the 200 million plus digital-savvy youth in MENA, who form about 60 per cent of the population, have their own well-rounded worldview. They are informed by social connectivity, and disappointed with irresponsible political complacence and the enduring cycle of strife in many parts of the Arab world.

 

An unprecedented transformation

What the region is telling the world now is the story of an unprecedented transformation, one that Dubai – and the UAE – successfully demonstrated many years ago through compelling proof points centered on economic and energy sector diversification, its impact peaking, most recently, with the successful hosting of COP28. The fundamental purpose of the ‘Dubai story’ was served – to differentiate the city as the ‘beacon of hope’ in a region typically associated with strife and conflict.  

 

Today, there is more for the GCC to tell the world. The ‘livability’ of Saudi Arabian cities; the rise in Arab pride following the successful hosting of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar and the Expo in the UAE; and the magnetic pull of the Future Investment Initiative in Saudi Arabia, where Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman declared, in its first edition in 2017, that ‘the new Europe is here’.

 

With Saudi Arabia set to host Expo 2030 and FIFA World Cup 2034, the Kingdom and the wider Gulf region will continue to be in the global spotlight for the next decade and after.

 

Further, in every sphere – be it climate action, energy transition, technology, healthcare, trade, tourism, education or manufacturing – there is a new narrative being built around self-reliance and digitalization.

 

To tell this new story, businesses and governments in the Gulf region are looking beyond conventional PR routes. Remember that a good LinkedIn Article generates far more and relevant readership than an op-ed in many 20th century media houses.

 

Tapping the power of influence

Today, the Gulf region is tapping the power of influence – the real reason why public relations as an industry was formed – through the informed and confident voices of opinion leaders who are credible, knowledgeable and trusted.

 

The region already has the highest use of  B2B Influence in the world, as Ogilvy’s ‘Influencing Business: The Global Rise of B2B Influencer Marketing’ reveals. Compared to just about three-fourths of respondents in international markets surveyed saying they use some form of B2B influence, it is at 100% in Saudi Arabia and 96% in the UAE.

 

B2B Influence is seen by them as effective pathways to build brand perception, sentiment, and ultimately, purchase decisions. It is also the preferred channel for governments to communicate their priorities – economic diversification, entrepreneurship, digitalization, climate action, heritage, culture and more.

 

The rise of homegrown influencers

The success of B2B Influence, however, rests on a ‘secret ingredient’ – one that Lionel Messi in Saudi Arabia and Steve Harvey in Abu Dhabi delivered – an understanding that the local culture is not at odds with universal values.

 

Today, homegrown influencers are harnessing their powerful personal brands, and continuing to build authority and credibility in their domains – driven by their ‘domain’ knowledge.

 

Their success is rooted in their intuitive understanding of the Arab world’s intricacies, enabling them to forge genuine connections, especially through the Arabic language, and engage deeply with the diverse cultural preferences across the region.

 

For those who have missed the party, it is not too late to check in and revisit their marcom strategy, with B2B Influence at its heart and leveraging the growing clout of homegrown influencers. Because, there lies the future of marcoms in the Gulf region.

 

 


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The Author

Ashraf Shakah

Ashraf Shakah is President, Public Relations & Influence, MENA at MEMAC Ogilvy. https://ae.linkedin.com/in/ashrafshakah

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