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Charmed into agreeing to speak in public and weak at the knees

An innocent invitation to a speaking engagement in Dubai turned out to be rather more daunting than first imagined.

It was only a few weeks ago, but it seems much longer when I was sitting in the depths of the French countryside, as relaxed as you can only be in France, with Dubai a million miles from my mind.

Reclining beneath a vine trellis swaying gently in the warm breeze, I took a mobile call from a Dubai number. “It’s the UAE Irish Business Network here,” said a lilting female voice. “Would you mind giving a small talk to our members in Dubai in September, all very relaxed, nothing serious. Just a few words on the Irish and UAE economies.”

Well, I was in such a good mood I more or less agreed on the spot, and promised to contact “the voice” – which turned out to belong to Sinead El Sibai, who works for Dubai Duty Free – on my return.

Why not, I thought, you’ve got to do the bidding of the old country when it calls, and it promised to be a bit of fun, “all very relaxed, nothing serious”.

Back in Dubai, I returned the call. She’s a lovely lady Sinead, and we had a very pleasant coffee in the Mall of the Emirates, where she explained the details to me. I left her rather less relaxed than I’d left Paris.

They say that public speaking is commonly voted as the fourth-biggest fear of most human beings, after death, divorce and moving house. After I heard Sinead’s plans, I would have put my personal ranking at just below death.

The “small talk” turned out to be the first meeting of the IBN after the summer break, therefore guaranteed a big turnout. “Just 100 people or so,” said Sinead with a smile.

It was to be held in the imposing surroundings of the Godolphin Ballroom in Jumeirah Emirates Towers (nothing informal about that), and it was a breakfast meeting. “Bright and early”, said Sinead, again with that smile.

And among the people listening to my “small talk” would be the new Irish ambassador to the UAE, Pat Hennessy, as well as many other dignitaries of the UAE-Irish scene, including hard-nosed executives like Gerald Lawless of Jumeirah and Colm McLoughlin of Dubai Duty Free.

Big shots like these wouldn’t be impressed by a few jokes strung together in a top-of the-head delivery of my dilettante thoughts on serious economic and financial issues. The anxiety levels rose all last week.

When I finally got up on my feet, I was a bag of nerves. I find it difficult to speak impromptu at these kinds of things, and have to write the whole thing out painstakingly, hoping I’ll be able to inject a note of spontaneity somewhere.

Anyway, it’s not for me to judge, but it went as well as could be expected. Or at least nobody in the audience threw bread rolls or rotten fruit in my direction.

I decided at the last moment to leave out the only real “joke” on the grounds it was more after-dinner than before breakfast. (I can relate it to readers only on email application.)

But what struck me after the gathering was this: many of the audience had arrived in the UAE weeks, days or even hours before, escaping “austerity” Ireland for the promise of the Emirates. I wish them well.

My father (RIP) took the long trip from his home in the Irish midlands in the 1940s and got on the boat to Holyhead in Wales, before heading to London looking for work.

These days, the equivalent of that voyage is Dublin airport to DXB. Now that’s globalisation.


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