x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Gulf's spin doctors in a blur of activity in trying times

The public relations profession is a hive of industry at the moment despite recession so much that it is hard to keep up with their comings and goings.

The Gulf may be struggling to come to terms with the fall out from the financial crisis, but one profession in particular is a hive of industry. I refer of course to the region's ever-increasing army of public-relations executives, who are in such a blur of hyperactivity at the moment that it's hard to keep up with their comings and goings. But let's try. First stop, Kuwait. The sleepy emirate nestling between Iraq and Saudi Arabia has had an image problem for many years, going back at least to the first Gulf war in 1991 when its expensively armed military failed to keep Saddam Hussein's invading forces for any significant length of time.

Since then, even fraternal Gulf neighbours have become tired of Kuwait's apparent superiority complex. The credit crunch hit the country hard, forcing large-scale government intervention and an ongoing crisis in its investment industry. Apart from signing big bailout cheques, the government appeared powerless to halt a slide into financial chaos. The country's international image began to suffer further.

The Kuwaiti establishment decided there could be only one man for the job, and sent for Tony Blair. The former British prime minister, regarded as a Middle East "specialist" mainly because of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, was called in to offer image-making advice in a multimillion-dollar contract for his private business, Tony Blair Associates. My Kuwaiti sources tell me the result is a small army of communications executives bunkered down in a hotel in the capital, Kuwait City, with an expensive computer database and a big budget to cherry-pick the cream of the international spin-doctoring profession. Leading western headhunters have been hired to scour the globe for talent willing to take on a Kuwait posting.

There are, however, rumblings of discontent in the country. One bone of contention is the cost; Mr Blair's services do not come cheap and local politicians worry that the result will not justify the outlay. There is also concern that Mr Blair's main recommendations will have the effect of reinforcing executive power at the expense of the country's parliament, which is fractious, but takes its oppositional job seriously. Bigging up central government while overriding the democratic process? Mr Blair never would, would he?

Back in the UAE, the communications business is thriving. Perhaps the most significant development is the establishment of a centralised media office under Ahmed Al Sheikh, the head of Dubai Media Incorporated and adviser to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. The new set-up will streamline the functions of the Dubai Press Club, the Brand Dubai office and the existing media operation.

One winner from the shake-up is Giselle Pettyfer, nee Davies, whose Falcon and Associates consultancy takes a prime slot in the new hierarchy. Ms Pettyfer, hired originally to push the case for Dubai's 2020 Olympic bid, has taken on a communications expert in the person of David Hodgson, the former marketing boss of the English city of Birmingham. The consolidation at the upper echelons of Dubai's media power structure seems to reflect a new conviction that the fallout from the financial crisis and the ongoing problems at Dubai World have to be addressed. To this end, I hear, the emirate is also thinking of hiring some top international advisers to help it revive the Dubai brand. Lord Bell, the head of the firm Bell Pottinger that is already big in Dubai thanks to its work for Emirates Airline, was recently asked to pitch a new strategy to counter perceived negativity in the international media. Lord Chadlington, who runs the London-based Citigate Dewe Rogerson PR firm, was also asked for his thoughts. Whether either of them, or indeed any other firm, is ultimately appointed remains to be seen.

Elsewhere the surge in PR activity is also strong. Nick Lunt, the former spokesman for the government of Afghanistan who now heads up the Gulf operations of M Communications in Dubai, recently took on a clutch of executives to help him win business in the UAE, including my old pal and one-time voice of Dubai Eye radio, Mustafa al Rawi. The urbane Mr Lunt is obviously in the emirate for the long term.

But the main focus of spin-doctoring activity remains the situation at Dubai World. Two of the bigger beasts in the PR jungle, Financial Dynamics and Brunswick, have their hands full, respectively, with the corporate and government aspects of the Dubai World restructuring. With major developments in Dubai World's high-profile talks with bank creditors likely before the end of the month, FD's John Hobday and Brunswick's Azadeh Varzi are in potentially career-enhancing positions.