In this serialised feature, Ali Al Saloom shares his insight and experiences from growing up in the UAE.
I started to realise I had a gift of being able to relate to people from all walks of life, be they heads of state or ordinary tourists, as if they were my friends or relatives.
I say this, in all humility, because in these short few years I have built up so many long-lasting relationships with people I have given tours to. It was one of the happiest phases of my life, but I was still not clear on what I was going to be. My speaking career was expanding, and I felt I needed to concentrate on that.
One day, I woke up and every single interaction I had had with my tour groups flashed through my mind. Every single question about my country came back to me, from the most frequently asked enquiry: "Will they put us in jail for eating during Ramadan?" to the strangest one: "How many camels are there in the UAE?" I wondered if this was what tourists wanted to know about my country rather than its unique culture?
Who was out there spreading misinformation and how could this be remedied? Someone needed to take responsibility for changing these perceptions. I could continue being a tour guide for the VIPs, but I could not reach out to as many people as I wanted in a way I thought was most effective working in a government department. I also strongly felt I needed to teach young UAE nationals to reach out to the world and spread awareness of our culture. I knew I needed to personally change course.
The minute a person realises he wants to be doing something different yet continues to do what he is doing, he is stuck for life. The temptation to stay in your comfort zone is so strong that you shy away from the risk of change. I had higher goals: to share, to learn and to inspire. As a tour guide, I was clearing misconceptions and building cultural bridges, but I was always answering the same questions, which stemmed from ignorance.
I needed to create a channel to reach a wider audience. I explained to my colleagues at Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) that I was staying in the tourism industry, but I wasn't joining a competitor. Tourism is not only about being a tour guide. Nor is it about spas, hotels and tourist numbers. It is about bridging cultures. Specifically, I believe cultural tourism is the key to world peace. I became very excited thinking of all the different ways in which I could fill the gap in cultural understanding.
I am one of the few people to be academically qualified and to earn my livelihood as an active tour guide. I am also the only UAE National to be both licensed as a tour guide by ADTA and affiliated with the World Tourist Guide Association. But I have mixed feelings about this. Hospitality is in the blood of Arabs. We don't need to learn it. Stories of Bedouins sharing their last crust of bread with strangers in the desert are legendary. Every citizen of my country is a cultural ambassador; I just happen to have a licence for it. All of us can be tour guides. We just have to decide to set up formal training and have proper job descriptions.
In May 2007, I formally quit my government job and started my own enterprise: the Maestro Enterprises. I decided I would be the self-appointed public relations manager for Arab culture in general and the UAE in particular. My Internet portal — www.ask-ali.com — was not an option, it was a compulsion. In the months to come, I want this portal to be the search engine of choice for questions about UAE culture or the feasibility of bringing an international brand into the country. Embrace Arabia, the mother portal of Ask Ali, handles corporate consultancy, where we help firms and individuals who wish to come to the country.
I notice that the habits and lifestyles of my people are changing. By and large our values remain the same; we still pray five times a day and fast during the holy month of Ramadan. But we are emerging as an economic force. Countries and corporations are realising it is in their interests to have a presence in the UAE. We have taken a beating during the past economic crisis like other dollar-linked economies, but we will rise from this like the proverbial phoenix and emerge stronger for the lessons we shall have learnt. Arabs have survived thousands of years of harsh, natural conditions, and my guess is that we will not allow a man-made crisis to stop us now.
We shall require introspection to overcome our flaws and a strong sense of solidarity to work towards a sustainable future. But I foresee companies who share our beliefs in environmentally friendly living, peace and abundance for all humanity will flourish in our desert land. And Embrace Arabia will be the conduit to bring in such entities, and facilitate growth here, inshallah.