x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

How a Christmas tree became a beacon for critics

The recent story about the Christmas tree at the Emirates Palace Hotel ... showed how badly a story can be spun in the international media.

Part of my work involves watching how the world media covers the UAE. Thanks to Google Alerts and a couple of media monitoring companies, that's not as complicated as it sounds - every morning, a list of stories drops into my e-mail inbox.

The number and topics vary day to day, ranging from major economic and political items to smaller pieces about the kaleidoscope of UAE life. Some are serious, some sad, some funny and some in-between.

And some stories seem to combine all of these features together. The recent story about the Christmas tree at the Emirates Palace Hotel was one example, which also showed how badly a story can be spun in the international media.

Other recent "hot" topics have included the international swimming competition in Dubai, the important new employment and visa legislation, and the announcement by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, that $1 billion (Dh3.67 billion) would be spent on projects in Fujairah. Other stories may simply be based on a press release about the launch of a new product or a new leisure facility, not particularly important except for those intimately concerned.

Overall, however, the mixture of these stories and the attention they attract in the global media provide a pretty good idea of how the UAE looks to the rest of the world, at least to internet news readers.

On occasion, stories can in a single stroke do a lot to affect the UAE's image, both positively and negatively. Two stories that have attracted coverage that was overwhelmingly positive were the recent Formula One Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi and the launch of the Zayed National Museum project. Each in its own way helped to enhance global perceptions of the country and its objectives.

These stories were positive not because they were spun in one direction or another, but because they were essentially good news. Another topic that attracted considerable critical publicity around the world was the financial woes of Dubai World and other major companies. This was bad news in its purest sense and it has taken many months and much hard work to begin to restore confidence. While some may argue otherwise, it was the news itself, rather than marketing and PR activity, that was the story.

In all of these cases, it was evident from the beginning how the news would be viewed by the international media. The facts spoke for themselves; the story was either good or bad.

The international reaction to the recent Christmas tree story, however, must have been far different than what the marketing team anticipated. When the tree was announced to the media, the hotel's general manager and marketing team presumably thought that the world's most expensive Christmas tree, draped with expensive baubles that were worth more than $11 million (on loan from a jeweller), would benefit the hotel's standing. After all, the hotel trumpeted that it would seek recognition in the Guinness Book of World Records.

It attracted attention all right. For days, my inbox was full of stories from around the world about the tree. But the reaction of the media wasn't quite what had been expected. There wasn't much of a "wow" factor; rather a steady stream of comments about extravagance, conspicuous consumption and the like, often mentioning that the hotel had the first gold vending machine and offered a $1 million, one-week holiday packages.

The subtext was that this was somehow typical of the UAE: an approach that said "loads of money, but not much taste".

That's a pity. There are aspects of the UAE that lend support to that view, but there are other aspects that are much more worthy of note. For example, per capita, the UAE is one of the most generous countries in the world in terms of providing assistance to the poor and needy. That's a message much more in tune with Christmas.

Even though I was pretty incandescent when I first read the story, I can't help feeling a bit sorry for the general manager and his team. As the trickle of critical news stories grew into a torrent, the hotel was obliged to step back from its initial enthusiasm, first saying that it was "just a venue" for the tree, then stressing that it hadn't spent any money on the tree. The understandable regret at the "overload" of publicity led to more headlines like Abu Dhabi hotel regrets Xmas 'overload' of glitzy $11 million tree. There seemed no way to turn the tide.

One obvious lesson is that marketing and PR gurus aren't always right - the old saying that "all publicity is good publicity" is also clearly wrong. The tree was conceived with good intentions, but it failed to take into account the negative stereotypes about the country that are already far too prevalent in the rest of the world. Sadly, they have been reinforced among people who don't know any better. There's a lesson there that applies beyond just the walls of the Emirates Palace.


Peter Hellyer is a writer and consultant who specialises in Emirati culture and heritage