Sunday, April 12, 2009

Dubai in deafening crescendo of bad press

Dubai has received a lot of bad press recently after the downturn hit the emirate. British readers have have been served a diet of relentless doom and gloom in Dubai.

Ignore them, they’re only jealous

Frank Kane

Some sections of the British media seem intent on finding darkness amid the bright lights of Dubai, but the good life continues in many luxury hotels in the city. Jeff Topping / The National

It’s another cold, rainy morning in Gordon Brown’s recession-ravaged Britain. At the imagined London offices of The Daily Beast, that brash British newspaper, editors gather for the weekly forward-planning conference. All are worried – about their jobs, their mortgages, how to pay the school fees. And what to put in the paper.

For months the Beast’s readers have been served a diet of relentless doom and gloom: bust banks, rising unemployment, falling property prices and soaring street crime. The editor wants something to take the readers’ minds off it all. “What have we got for next week then?”

The news editor clears his throat. “Well, we’ve sent our star reporter to Dubai, and he’s got a great story about starving beggars on the streets, wild animals roaming the five-star hotels and prisons full of penniless expats. He’s even got an interview with a woman who is living in her car after being released from jail after serving six months for bonking on the beach and now can’t afford to live in her £1 million house on the Palm. Really great stuff.”

The meeting feels a collective warm glow of Schadenfreude. “That’s it – let’s give it to those tax-evading, SUV-driving expats. Thought they could get away from the long arm of the Beast by moving to the sun-kissed beaches of the Gulf, did they? Well, this will spoil their pool-side breakfasts.”

It is a fictional scene, of course, an homage to Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. But perhaps this is the kind of process that has been played out in British newspaper offices over the past six months, if the insanity of all the media coverage of the emirate is anything to go by. The Beast has well and truly savaged Dubai and all they think it represents – bling, sunshine lifestyles, no tax and lots of domestic servants.

In the past few weeks, there has been a deafening crescendo of bad press. The tone was set by a psychedelic opinion article in The Guardian by its star columnist, Simon Jenkins, in which he conjured a Blade Runner vision of the city, crumbling into the desert and unfit for human habitation.

Panorama, the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, spent three months under cover at Dubai labour camps and last week produced a barrage of allegations about the emirate’s workforce; then Johann Hari, travelling commentator for The Independent, wrote a lengthy piece revealing the “dark side of Dubai” – an adult Disneyland built by slaves and populated by drunken expats and plastic palm trees, he said.

Next week, there is more to come, with a Human Rights Watch report into the state of the media in the UAE entitled Just the Good News Please set to ignite international debate over alleged censorship in the UAE. No doubt more of Fleet Street’s finest will be dispatched to Dubai to reveal more of that “dark side”.

Simultaneous to the lurid revelations from the general and foreign news pages, there has been a different kind of campaign of criticism from the business press.

The Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, as well as the glossy weekly news magazines, have for the past year been warning readers of the effects that the credit crunch would have on Dubai and the UAE.

Some have only belatedly recognised the extent of that damage. Last week the British Foreign office felt obliged to intervene, condemning its country’s coverage of Dubai as “over-exaggerated”.

The British business minister, Lord Mandelson, on tour in the Middle East, distanced himself from the “gloom-laden” tone of recent media coverage.

Jogging at sunset behind the Burj Al Arab hotel. Jeff Topping / The National

There is no doubt the onslaught has been felt in the emirate. Maurice Flanagan, the executive vice chairman of flag-carrier Emirates Airline, said the coverage had been “disgraceful”.

Riad Kamal, head of Arabtec – one of the firms targeted in the Panorama programme – called the reporting “unfair”. He also disputed the accuracy of the BBC’s findings – including conveniently filmed pools of sewage after a torrential downpour in January – and said his company would mount its own investigation.

Saqr Ghobash Saeed Ghobash, the Minister of Labour, is to investigate the veracity of Panorama’s claims that some building labourers were living in “inhumane conditions”.

Maher al Obaid, the acting director general of the inspection team task force said the ministry would visit construction sites to investigate the claims but emphasised that regular inspections were carried out and those that failed to measure up were fined.

A source in the Dubai establishment attacked the “hysterical” tone of Hari’s article in The Independent, calling it “a very ugly piece of journalism, but typical of the schoolyard mentality of the British press”.

Meanwhile, British expats in Dubai are bemused and shocked by the media offensive. “I don’t recognise my Dubai in all this,” one said last week. “They seem to have decided all together to invent a version of the place and then knock it down.”

So is there some hidden agenda by the British media? Is it a case of mass Schadenfreude? What do the opinion formers of the British press really think of Dubai?

Jenkins, whose Guardian article took Dubai-bashing to a new level of sophistication, explained the origin of his piece: “My article was simply the result of a visit to Dubai and much subsequent reading and talking on the subject. There was no other motive but personal opinion,” he said.

Paul Johnson, the deputy editor of Guardian News and Media, explained his paper’s stance in more detail: “Dubai was always a symbol of financial muscle and conspicuous consumption, but full of paradoxes, like poor labour conditions. The world has changed, and such extravagance is not viewed in the same way any more. Maybe it goes back to the beach-bonking story last year, but now it seems to me coverage is attacking the entire basis of what Dubai stands for.”

He denied there was a hidden agenda in the Guardian’s coverage of Dubai, and pointed to earlier positive coverage of the emirate, as well as negative coverage in other British papers. “It’s not Schadenfreude – the world has changed, that’s all.”

Hari stood full-square behind his damning article. “I had no evil or malign motives towards Dubai before I went there. My job is to go to places and find out what is really happening, and that was the agenda with Dubai. It’s not Schadenfreude, but I do think there’s a revulsion in Britain towards people who don’t pay taxes.”

Was there anything he liked about Dubai? “Women and gay people are relatively free by the standards of the Middle East – you won’t find gay clubs in Riyadh. And I suppose it’s impressive when a country goes from poverty to wealth in such a short space of time.”

His boss, Roger Alton, editor of The Independent, said: “Personally, I absolutely love the place, but then I like all that over-the-top stuff – the idea you build a ski-slope in the desert just appeals to me. But we have a free press and, though people in Dubai might not like it, Hari’s piece was beautifully written and well-researched and sourced.”

The theory that there was some “hidden agenda” in the British media he dismissed as “quite ridiculous. The idea that editors phone each other and say ‘let’s all do this’ is just absurd. Anyway, I don’t read The Guardian. But I can see there is a type of person who might not be upset if all the bling people of Dubai got it up ’em, though that doesn’t apply to a fair-minded person like me, of course.”

The Atlantis Hotel on Palm Jumeirah. Pawan Singh / The National

At the Financial Times, editor Lionel Barber declined to get involved in the debate. “I think it’s best if we let the FT’s coverage of the UAE speak for itself,” he said.

Ironically, the British press onslaught coincides with Dubai’s appointment a couple of weeks ago of a firm of London communications specialists, Finsbury, with a brief to counter negativity about the emirate, especially in the business press.

Certainly, they could have done little about the onslaught in so short a time, but it underscores the level of attention and sophistication Dubai is using to deal with the issue.

Roland Rudd, the founder of Finsbury, said yesterday: “It’s going to be a long process and we may find ourselves taking two steps forward and then another back. But I remain an optimist."

In Dubai’s halls of power, they hope it is so, but some remain apprehensive about fresh attacks.
“There is a feeling that Dubai has to be put in its place, and the British press has a long tradition of building people up and then pulling them down. Nemesis follows hubris,” said one commentator.

In London, it seems, the Beast is still hungry.

* The National