x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The Ali Story: expat and Emirati forces unite to build tourism

In this serialised feature, Ali Al Saloom shares his insight and experiences from growing up in the UAE.

In this serialised feature, Ali Al Saloom shares his insight and experiences from growing up in the UAE.

I faced a steep learning curve after being hired by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority in December 2005. I was entrusted to set up the Mice (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, Exhibitions) department along with my manager, Gillian Taylor.

We began by researching other Mice department modules, and arrived at a model for Abu Dhabi. The aim was to integrate Arabic culture and traditions into the Mice industry to provide a unique experience. Gillian and I enjoyed a fantastic synergy of ideas and goals. Things could have gone very differently. For example, Gillian could have been standoffish and presumed that her sole role was to approve projects. Alternatively, I could have been aloof and presumed that my role was to execute projects. Instead, we both put our heads together and thought aloud about what we could bring to the table to make our department an instant success.

I offered my knowledge of the local culture and helped make Gillian comfortable interacting with local officials. Gillian brought her considerable experience and expertise in the field. Together we cooked up innovative ways of marketing and executing projects. I think our department could have been a model for Emirati-expat work dynamics. For those who say that Emiratis are reluctant learners and that expats never get off their high horse long enough to integrate, the ADTA Mice department would put that talk to rest. It helped to bring in increasing numbers of visitors. In 2011, Abu Dhabi emirate drew 2,111,000 visitors, exceeding the target then set by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, by more than 110,000. Hotels also earned Dh4.4billion.

The professional partnership of Gillian and I began by understanding each other's families and culture. For Arabs, everything revolves around the family. Gillian and I exchanged notes on our families for two hours after we met. I learnt she was a mother-of-two from Australia, where she had to return to retrieve her husband and children so they could move to Abu Dhabi. She was a mother first and a professional second. I had my responsibilities to my parents and my sisters. To me, family responsibilities mattered as much as my commitment to my job. Exchanging this background information set a tone of mutual respect.

Gillian and I formulated market survey forms and carried out the surveys. Everywhere we went, Gillian showed her professionalism. I would tell her how much I had learnt from her about the tourism industry and about interacting with people. "No, I learnt this from you," she replied. "You helped me transfer the strategies and formulas that I knew from experience into local perspective."

The input I gave Gillian was critical because strategies that worked in Australia may have resulted in some disastrous situations here. For example, you cannot just throw a pool party for 60 Australians and serve alcohol if you want them to embrace our country. I made sure all our programmes were mindful of Arabian culture. Gillian needed to know that a particular group of people had to be approached in a certain manner. It was these insights that made our programmes successful.

Gillian let go of being the person in charge and allowed me to modify the programmes and marketing strategies based on my local knowledge. Many expats feel too insecure to do this, but the minute you empower a local, he becomes an asset. If you merely use us as a source of information without appreciating our input, you have lost our trust.

When we organised conferences, the participants' kits had to be packed. I would personally do the packing to ensure that everything was perfect. If there was a job to be done and I could do it, I saw no reason why anyone else should do it.

Gillian asked me if I would like to speak at the 2006 EIBTM tourism conference in Barcelona, and I readily agreed. She gave me a 16-page presentation to memorise. But I didn't need to prepare a speech to speak about my own country and culture. I put the presentation aside and gave an impromptu talk about the dunes, the domes, the sand and the sun that were the pride of my country. The audience was with me throughout.

This was the launch of my professional speaking career. Later, I did a cultural presentation for Nokia and things just picked up after that.

One day my department director asked if I would be a tour guide for Thomas Kerns, the head of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. The next thing I knew I was on a safari in the middle of the Liwa desert, pointing out its unique relief features. I felt privileged to share my knowledge with someone like him. Next came a city tour for Frank Gehry, the architect of the Guggenheim. This was followed by tours with several VIPs of different governments and heads of state. This was a rare honour. I started to realise I had a gift of relating to people from all walks of life, heads of state or ordinary tourists, as if they were my friends or family, and another, new career was opening up to me.