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Letter from the Middle East: different languages, religions and cultures present perhaps the world's greatest communication challenge.

The challenge of communicating in the Middle East lies not just in the constant flux of the region's political quagmire or its religious significance, but also in the sheer heterogeneity of a region known oversimply as the Arab World.

The Middle East is home to 22 countries, more than 300 million people, 14 different religious groups (from Alevism to Zoroastrianism) and four main languages (although Arabic dominates). It is a region haunted by stereotypes--something that several regional wars and Western foreign policies have done little to help. Today, outsiders frequently buy into the image of "terrorist" Arabs who oppress women, promote religious extremism and abhor Western civilization.

And yet the regional reality is very different. The Middle East hosts a plethora of social, political, economic and religious opinions, policies and trends. Lebanon is a good example. While most Lebanese are Arabs, they are divided into Muslims and Christians, and these groups in turn are subdivided into numerous faiths or sects. Muslims subdivide into Sunnis and Shias. The Druze minority derives its religion from Islam; the Christians are divided into Maronites, Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholics. Kurds, Jews and Armenians (Catholic and Orthodox) all add to the tapestry. A great misconception is that the Arab world is home to most of the world's Muslims, when in fact more than 80 percent live elsewhere. The need for effective, clear and accurate communication is obvious.

A wealth of opportunities

Perhaps the real tragedy of the misconceptions about the Middle East lies in the opportunity that swathes the region. The United Arab Emirates alone has become a key re-export zone for the region, the real estate market in the country is booming, capital markets are witnessing new listings with values in excess of the local market gross domestic product, and tourism is growing so rapidly that even the World Tourism and Travel Council has acknowledged that it defies their standard models.

This pattern is replicated elsewhere. Other countries with oil-based economies are looking to diversify into more sustainable economic sectors. And the Gulf region as a whole is doing its best to offset the historical lack of intraregional trade through the creation of a customs union and various regional economic committees. Moreover, this is an energetic region--more than half of the population is under the age of 15, and some states are witnessing growth as high as 6 percent per year.

Such a wealth of potential, yet such a sea of misconceptions.

These are the kind of issues that any PR professional hoping to move to, or progress in, the Middle East needs to understand. There is currently a huge demand for highly qualified PR professionals with global experience in all aspects of PR, from media relations to public affairs. From corporate political debacles such as the U.S. Senate vs. Dubai Ports World to the regional conflict post-September 11, the Middle East is center stage. And the Arab world realizes this. From the smallest local corporate entity to the largest cross-regional conglomerate, the Middle East has a soaring new demand for public relations.

The industry itself is, of course, subject to the conditions of its operating environment. While Middle East media has progressed significantly over the past five years or so, with online media coming to fruition and a range of satellite broadcast media as powerful and prevalent as their global counterparts tackling subjects that previously would have been taboo, it remains a highly self-censored and still relatively immature industry. Broadcast media has to some extent evolved faster than its change-resistant print counterparts, and more progressive markets (such as the UAE) are even seeing the advent of popular and influential blogs, which are acknowledged as often more independent and hence more credible than traditional media conglomerates. But since most of the region's markets are not democratic, influencing decision makers, commercial environments or consumers is something that has to be more than just a media campaign.

Entering the market

This means a certain level of frustration for those coming from more mature markets looking to enter the industry. A common complaint is dealing with clients who have little understanding of the value of PR, a preference for marketing and high expectations that firms can manipulate a stultified media. PR is typically seen to be product and service promotion embedded in the marketing mix, rather than a strategic stand-alone communication exercise that can protect reputation and grow the business.

While opportunities are growing by the day, with more than 230 PR firms now operating in the region, those entering the market and keen to succeed should attempt to grasp the sociocultural and political complexities of the region if they are to make any significant inroads into adding real PR value. Arabic language skills are at a premium as the industry wakes up to the need to understand and support Arab organizations communicating with the West and Western organizations seeking to woo local audiences.

The industry is maturing, but it is learning on the job. Though potentially very interesting and rewarding opportunities exist in a region that is now the global center of world politics, PR professionals should be aware of the lack of structure and the demands these opportunities may make on one's personal life.

Clare Woodcraft is head of public affairs/corporate communications for Visa CEMEA in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
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Title Annotation:SPECIAL REPORT / Europe/Middle East
Author:Woodcraft, Clare
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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