Barakabits

September 29th, 2013

Gaza Surfers

With all the chaos and upheaval in the Arab world, I decided that it was time to stop watching the news. Around the same time, I was pleasantly surprised to learn about Barakabits, ‘Baraka‘ meaning blessed in Arabic. After sitting with the incredibly inspiring Rama Chakaki - Founder of Barakabits – (who coincidentally advised me to not put on my tv) I realised that the Arab world has some pretty fascinating stories to report. Did you know that the UAE is home to a business that works to preserve traditional Palestinian embroidery?

Or that the Tigris River Flotilla in Iraq starts on September 15 to highlight a green future?

I certainly didn’t know that Gaza for example is home to a huge surfing community and has a full-fledged Gaza Surf Club that connects its members with international surfers of the world.

Barakabits brings us good news from the Middle East! Such a refreshing and alternative perspective on the region we live in. You can follow their news on social media or subscribe to their newsletter. Even better you may want to get in touch with them and contribute a ‘good’ story. http://barakabits.com/

A Life Beyond Boundaries: Artist Fatma Lootah

May 4th, 2012

Some may describe her as bohemian, others eccentric and controversial. Today artist and activist Fatma Lootah lives in Italy but her Emirati heritage that was very much a part of her childhood, remains a central part of her life today. Her desire for art drove her beyond boundaries as she struggled to exist in a society that at the time questioned her career choice. Her love and endurance for art is a story to be told.

At Bastakiya on one of her rare visits, she shares her thoughts with me on painting, performance art and her passion in life.

Where were you raised?

I was born and raised in Dubai in the 1960’s and 1970’s, lots of lovely memories.

Current city?

Verona, Italy. I came to Verona in 1984 and never left. This is where I raised my three daughters.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I always knew that I wanted to be an artist. At the age of 13, I started drawing and painting more seriously. In fact, I was just reminded the other day by AbdulQader Al Rais that we had both exhibited together at the age of 15 at an official art exhibition! That’s how passionate we both were about art. I did my Bachelor of Fine Arts at Baghdad University, and then went onto Washington DC for higher studies in the Arts.

What does your Emirati heritage mean to you?

It means everything to me – the desert is the land that I was raised on. The palm tree is the most fascinating tree – there is no tree like it. I painted the Emirati series of works a few years ago – life-size canvasses of women in traditional dress. One common theme existed – they were all strong women.

Tell us about your latest project.

My latest project is called ‘Whispers from High Heavens’ and was exhibited at Sikka Art Fair. The material used is unique; creating it was also quite dangerous. I persevered to create these very different pieces of art made out of resin and added calligraphy to the paintings.

When was the highlight period of the arts scene during your lifetime?

Until the 1980’s performance art was considered an avant garde mystery. Art was not just created by the stroke of a brush, but also involved performance. This was a very popular period that I lived through, especially in Italy where I created many performance art pieces involving women’s rights. During this period, it became more widely known and people started to appreciate its technical brilliance.

Where do you look for inspiration?

I look up to the skies.

Who is the greatest artist of all time in your opinion?

Pablo Picasso – one of my favourite artists.

A little known fact about you.

I am an avid cook – I love cooking different cuisines to unwind and it’s one of my hobbies.

Words you live by…

Freedom, freedom, freedom.

Click to watch Fatma Lootah’s Abu Dhabi TV interview, 2008 (arabic)

Tracing the history of my country

December 4th, 2011

This article was first featured in Gulf News on 25th November, 2011

As we all know, certain points on a map become sacred because of their history — but articulating the details of that history is not always easy. As we celebrate the UAE Federation’s 40th anniversary, the country’s history is incredibly central to my thoughts and reflection. For one, over time it has been called the Pirate Coast and then the Trucial Coast which ultimately led to the UAE Federation.

In 1602, the Dutch and English gained commercial strength in the East under the Dutch VOC and the English East India Company, both joint stock companies owned by private merchants. This influenced much of the history of the Arabian Gulf. At the time, Amsterdam had developed into the leading financial and commercial city in Northern Europe. The existence of a vast integrated network of trade in the Indian Ocean stretched from the Red Sea and the Gulf to South of China, Amsterdam and London. The Dutch had gained extensive information on where the Portuguese had failed before them in the Gulf in terms of trade. The objective of the VOC was to obtain a monopoly of the lucrative Spice Islands and in 1619 they achieved this goal by having a stronghold in Batavia, Jakarta. This helped them establish trading ventures all over Asia allowing them to sell commodities from India, Indonesia and the Far East to Arabia, helping them monopolise the Indian Ocean trade routes. In 1622 the Dutch and English entered, through the Strait of Hormuz (known for its large number of pelagic fish such as tuna, mackerel and sardines), to the Gulf markets where they concentrated their trade with Basra and Bandar Abbas, the latter becoming a centre for trade and political activities in the Gulf for the next 150 years.

In 1652, competition intensified between the two powers and the English lost their Arabian Gulf factories at Bandar Abbas and Basra to the Dutch. The VOC became the chief supplier of spices in Persia and the Arabian Gulf by 1680.

By the mid 18th century the Dutch power weakened as a three-way warfare erupted between them, the English and French. In order to preserve their position in the Arabian Gulf they occupied the island of Kharg, which was offered them by the Arab ruler of the Za’ab tribe. Erecting both a fortress and factory strengthened their position and they took over many economic activities of the indigenous Arab population including pearling. In 1766 under the leadership of Mir Muhanna, the island of Kharg was freed from the Dutch. This was a historic moment as it ended the VOC presence in the Arabian Gulf.

With the decline of the Dutch, British fortunes increased in the region marking the beginning of the British Political Residency in the Gulf, whose primary functions were entirely political. At this same time in the 18th century three political entities emerged in southeastern Arabia — the Qawasim with their main base at Ras Al Khaimah, the Bani Yas federations and the Al Bu Said dynasty with Muscat as its capital. The region was known to the British as the ‘Pirate Coast’ as raiders based there harassed the shipping industry despite both European and Omani navies patrolling the area. There were disturbances between the Qawasim and the British and in 1820 the British concluded the General Treaty of Peace with the Shaikhs of the Arab Coast by which the Rulers agreed to putting an end to any disturbances at sea— this meant that they were not allowed to build large ships and erect fortifications along the coast. With this agreement also came the denunciation of the slave trade (that were mainly brought as domestic servants). This essentially gave the British the right to police the seas of the lower Gulf and was a crucial point in their ‘formal’ interest in the area.

Many other agreements were signed after these series of events — an important one being the Ten Years Truce, which was a document that established permanent peace at sea and in 1853 The Perpetual Treaty of Maritime Peace. The area became known in political documents as the Trucial Coast as a result of this truce. This later led to The Exclusive Agreements of 1892 which ensured that the Trucial Shaikhs not enter into any agreement with any power other than the British Government, in return for defending the emirates from foreign aggression.

Between both World Wars, the British got more involved with the Trucial States with the ‘British Imperial Airways’ securing landing rights in Sharjah in 1932 and the introduction of a Political Agency, which was later, transferred to Dubai in 1953. The signing of the oil concessions was ultimately the biggest involvement on their side and this led to the demarcating of boundaries in the 1950s.

As oil was discovered and produced in Abu Dhabi in 1962 and later in Dubai and Sharjah the region gained momentum in world economic and political affairs. This led to the development of a desired unification among the emirates. In 1968 the British finally announced their intention to withdraw from the Gulf by 1971.

On the 18th of February 1968, Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Ruler of Abu Dhabi, and Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, met at Al Semha and agreed to merge their respective emirates in a union and jointly conduct foreign affairs, defence, social services, security and adopt a common immigration policy. This momentous agreement came to be known as the Union Accord and considered as the first step towards uniting the Trucial Coast as a whole. The foundation of an independent, sovereign state was formally proclaimed on December 2, 1971, and after Ras Al Khaimah joined on February 10, 1972, the federation was complete, with the inclusion of all the seven former Trucial states. This newly-founded federal state became officially known as Dawlat al Imarat al Arabiyya Al Muttahida or the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

As I watch the small abra boats cross the Dubai creek, I imagine the incredible series of tumultuous events that make up the history of my now peaceful home, the UAE.

Published at www.GulfNews.com

Becoming an Aspen Institute Fellow

October 23rd, 2011

 

 

 

Think creativity, values-based leadership, and change. These words describe the Aspen Institute Fellowship program.

My experience with the Aspen Institute started upon receiving a call at the start of 2011 saying I was nominated to be a Fellow. At the time,  I was not quite sure what it meant, though after some research and conversations with past Fellows I was pleased to hear that a great deal of good comes out of this 2-year program. I was informed that discussions within the sessions will lead to working on a project that would bring positive change within my community. Aspen will be investing in me. I accepted enthusiastically.

What was ahead of me was something truly beyond what I had expected. All twenty Fellows from across the Middle East met at the Dead Sea in September 2011. We read and discussed many leadership types from Thatcher to Martin Luther King, and Jack Welch to Machiavelli. But the Aspen program turned out to be not just about discussions on various leaders and their styles. It involved a journey of self-discovery into our inner characteristics as managers, leaders, parents, spouses and even as children. The Aspen program evoked a human element to leadership and a great deal more of emotional discovery. We spoke about the ‘sadhu’s’ in our lives – the people we tend to forget whilst climbing up the corporate ladder. Those were powerful sessions.

I was fortunate to make the best of friends whom I learnt so much from, one of them being Anousheh Ansari – the first female astronaut and private space explorer. Anousheh is an engineer and businesswoman and she always knew that she wanted to travel in space. She made sure she turned her dream into a reality. Anousheh is an incredibly inspiring person to us all.

There are some fascinating success stories that have come out of Aspen over the years, such as the eye doctor who worked on manufacturing affordable eyeglasses for people in poverty-stricken countries. Post Aspen, this Fellow left his job as a doctor to continue growing this business and help thousands of people around the world.

We came back from the program having bonded – our minds buzzing with ideas. We were all incredibly motivated to do the best we can for the countries that we live and work in.

I’m now working on the first part of my project and cannot wait to share the idea with the other Fellows at the next meet up which will be early next year.

http://www.aspeninstitute.org/

Employment conundrum

August 22nd, 2011

This article was first featured in Gulf News on 19th August, 2011

About a month ago I was in a London cab on my way to an antique market. For most of the journey, I was obliged to listen to a talk show, blaring loudly from the speakers, the driver seemingly unaware of just how loud it was.

The topic of discussion was unemployment, and specifically the lack of ‘decent’ jobs readily available to British citizens. Apparently, and to my surprise, jobs were available though people consciously chose not to take them. This sounded all too familiar and quite intriguing.

In the UAE there are readily available skilled jobs — from carpenters and electricians to chefs, waiters, florists and construction workers. As I continued to listen, now attentively, I learnt that the UK has many jobs of this nature unfilled by its own jobless citizens.

‘Menial’ was the word used to describe them; another coincidence?

When faced with persistent unemployment and low to no income, surely any legitimate job is worth having; apparently not. The UK’s jobless are not only declining opportunities on the basis of the task at hand, but also if the location is not to their liking. It begs the question, who exactly is taking up the abundance of ‘menial’ jobs? In the UK, apparently migrant workers from eastern Europe, Russia and the Philippines. We see a similar effect in the UAE, the majority hailing from India, Pakistan and, similarly, the Philippines.

It is ironic that unemployment is regarded as a persistent problem when quite simply expatriates occupy much of certain segments of the workforce. This is the heart of the issue, and with 43,000 unemployed Emirati citizens, there can be tremendous social and economic gains by making some common sense changes to our labour force.

Winds of change

The demographic disparity is crystal clear — Emiratis are a minority of the labour force. In addition, the private sector continues to find it difficult to attract, employ and retain citizens as many Emiratis are enticed by government jobs, which pay more and have shorter working hours.

To its credit, the UAE has worked on areas such as vocational training. With organisations such as the Sharjah Institute of Technology, Abu Dhabi Education, Vocational Training Institute and twofour54 tadreeb, a lot of service sector training is available to Emiratis. These programmes are relatively small however, and the greater issue remains society’s lack of enthusiasm or, in some cases, distaste towards trades and skilled jobs, which influences Emiratis accepting, or rather rejecting, such jobs.

I recently heard of a young Emirati working as a salesperson in a department store. He truly enjoyed his job — however his only concern was that other nationals who walked in mocked him.

Pride and vision in what one does to earn an income is important. I believe that a carpenter today, for instance, could just as well grow a thriving furniture business. Looking through the history of the UAE in the 1950s, you will find that many of the successful businessmen of today started off in skilled jobs that they took pride in.

I believe the answer is to be found with support from education and media sectors. Firstly, it ought to start at the school level. Naturally, some students are less academically inclined and perhaps more successful with a physical skill. By cultivating and instilling a sense of pride in their skills, students may be subsequently guided towards more appropriate options after school. Promoting the importance of such skills and highlighting their relevance to society will certainly boost self-confidence and act as a catalyst for the acceptance of certain jobs. Second, the media can play a huge role in shifting attitudes towards the paradigm of skill-based jobs. Of note was the recently aired television campaign This is Dubai, which interviewed people of different ethnicities living and working in the UAE.

Not only did it demonstrate the hard work of the people who had given back to the country, it also exhibited their pride. For a better tomorrow, showcasing Emiratis in skill-based jobs through similar campaigns and highlighting their satisfaction through achievement is crucial.

We must move beyond social prejudices towards Emiratis adopting skill-based ‘menial’ jobs and increase awareness about the importance of integrating nationals into every sector of our economy. Not only will it help create balanced and sustainable economic development, but it will also elevate the dignity and self-respect of every citizen.

Published at www.gulfnews.com

Spend first, ask questions later

June 15th, 2011

This article was first featured in Gulf News on the 3rd June, 2011

The last time I gave a talk at a university, I admit to getting sidetracked. Barely a few minutes into my speech, I noticed a group of three young girls in the audience, adorned head to toe in a plethora of luxury brands.

A recent study in the UAE reveals that local teens spend about $103 (Dh378) per week, nearly four times the $28 global average. In fact, the UAE comes in at second place globally after Norway in terms of youth spending. A more worrying reality is that many youngsters live far beyond their means, taking out incredibly large loans to splurge on superficial demands. Interestingly, young men take out higher loans than women, spending most heavily on luxury cars and mobile phones.

I see this trend all around me, at malls, schools and, to my utter surprise, even at clinics. Several weeks ago, whilst I sat in a waiting room for my turn, I noticed a girl, not a day over 17, looking through her bright orange Hermes bag. Baffled, I asked myself if this was the appropriate place to be carrying a bag that costs over Dh40,000. Luxury brands seem to have lost their value in the midst of these circumstances, as the novelty and days of saving to buy something special are in decline.

There is no escaping the social issues that surround residents of the Gulf. I’ve wondered about the rationale behind teenage addiction to high-end products, rather than carry a practical duffle bag to college. It seems that peer pressure is one of the reasons, demanding conformity to a certain group, and as we come from very small communities, keeping up with the Jones’ is a constant challenge. We all know how growing up can be a demanding enough experience, and most young people understandably do not wish to stand out and look odd. So if one part of a group is opting to show off by driving a fast expensive car, others will follow. If they do not have the means to be backed financially, they will opt for the quite easy choice of taking out a hefty bank loan. This is a very dangerous path to take, as the problems that come with debt — in extreme cases jail sentences — should be the last thing a young person ought to be dealing with.

The fact of the matter is that there is no borrower without a lender. The responsibility lies equally with the banks and their lending policies. In addition to already strict lending policies, perhaps more needs to be done, including educating future borrowers on the terms and consequences of these debt contracts. Borrowers need to understand that the money on loan will eventually have to be paid back, with interest. I wonder how much of this is grasped by Generation Y as they sign on the dotted line.

Lessons at a young age

Perhaps a lot has to do with what lessons are taught from a very young age. As a parent, instilling a respect for saving from a young age is prudent, no matter what social background one stems from. Learning the value of money, and living within one’s means are lessons that protect a child later in life when faced with options such as borrowing and credit. One of the world’s richest men, Warren Buffet, is known to have said that there are only two things worth getting into debt over, one’s education and house. These lessons would further imbed the values that sustainable pleasure and happiness are rarely achieved through the pursuit of material objects.

Many argue that this phenomenon of extravagance relates to the Gulf economies. A few decades ago, pre-oil, life was indeed simpler and priorities were those of survival — luxury attire was not even an option for adults, let alone a teenager. In reality, things have changed at a global level, and we are more a consumer-driven society today than any other time in history. The Gulf’s set of circumstances are amplified by a higher concentration of wealth in a smaller geographic area. This results in sizeable disparities that further accentuate the issue.

It needn’t be this way. Young people at college can live the carefree life they deserve, concentrating more on their studies and the real pleasures of life, not having to worry about the next haute couture outfit in their wardrobe. It only requires instilling different values into them from a very young age. What a difference this would make if everyone shared these attitudes.

Published at www.gulfnews.com

Egyptian bedouins face a minefield of problems

March 14th, 2011

This article was first featured in Gulf News on the 4th March, 2011

Desert people losing limb and life to World War II landmines for years lament the lack of government support and compensation.

Egyptians eagerly took their cue from the grassroots revolution of neighbouring Tunisia and succeeded in toppling their long-time president Hosni Mubarak. But the topic of this column traverses a much longer timeframe and looks at a large part of Egypt that has been neglected.

The Al Alamein Desert is a vast expanse of land; a mirage that disguises the claws left from the Second World War — a land infested with millions of landmines.

In 1942, Egypt found itself at the centre of one of the most catastrophic clashes of that decade — the battle of Al Alamein. The incident was one of the Second World War’s many tragedies, but few have persisted as this one has today.

Between German and British commanders Erwin Rommel and Bernard Montgomery, European and Middle Eastern blood soaked this parched corner of the Saharan desert. Rommel was defeated; he retreated and left those sands over 60 years ago but the landmines, bombs and mortars still sleep under this large stretch of desert, 150 miles west of Cairo.

Attempting to find the whereabouts of the landmines is both a tedious and incredibly difficult process, as they are buried deep in the sand.

I find myself asking why the bedouins have to suffer the consequences of history. Generations of Al Alamein bedouins, having never witnessed troubles of the 1940s, pay a price to remain on their rightful lands and face atrocious ongoing suffering. Countless children have lost limbs playing in the desert sands. Fathers are kept from supporting their families as a result of losing legs, their sight and in many case their lives, to landmines. They lament the lack of government support and compensation.

According to Landmine Monitor, a report published by the largest anti-landmine initiative, the total number of landmine casualties in Egypt isn’t easy to identify. In February 1999, it was reported that landmines had claimed 8,313 victims (696 killed and 7,617 injured).

More recently, 2009 figures as tracked by Land Mine Monitor number 41 casualties, around half of which resulted in fatalities and included mostly men and children. These are the people for whom bloodshed did not end at the battle of Al Alamein.

Misplaced priorities

Shockingly, the Egyptian government has refrained from joining the 156 countries to sign the Mine Ban or Ottawa Treaty. They were far too busy dwelling on the paranoid strain in Egypt’s politics that runs deep.

It is estimated that Egypt’s Western Desert is home to 16 million pieces of unexploded ordinance. About 10 per cent of this stretch of land is rendered useless for cultivation as a result of landmines, impacting the livelihood of the Bedouins who rely largely on agricultural incomes.

A more recent turn of events suggests that the Western Desert may potentially be home to significant oil and gas reserves. In 2009 the government did clear 130 square metres of land from mines, however this remains a fraction of the total 2,800 square metres of land that poses an ongoing risk.

Innovative methods in landmine clearance have been recently developed. One particularly successful international organisation known as APOPO has been locating and removing landmines with the help of trained sniffer rodents.

The initiative, based on thorough research, follows a coordinated strategy that brings together some of the best experts in the field of behavioural research, animal training and environmental chemistry.

The African Giant Pouched Rat has a very acute sense of smell, is easy to breed and maintain as well as being relatively easy to transport.

Consequently, APOPO has attracted many acclaimed partners including the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and Antwerp University. Locating landmines is a complex process and so considerable efforts are put into training the rats to carry out the correct procedure.

APOPO has been operating in Mozambique since 2003 delivering a low cost, efficient mine detection solution using mostly local resources. I stress on introducing an affordable solution, as given Egypt’s economic standing and its dependence on foreign aid, a costly solution is likely to encounter resistance.

The APOPO approach tackles the landmine problem without relying on either foreign aid or donor support.

If Egypt can feel fearful about its somewhat unpredictable current political status, it can appear dysfunctional to its bedouin inhabitants who live in the Al Alamein desert. If they allowed their justifiable fears to propel them into useful action, they would take two steps.

Urge Egypt to put a substantial budget aside for thoroughly studying the landmine issue. Second, seek solutions such as those proven to work like APOPO, where cost is not a deterrent.

The Egyptian bedouins, having lost the most, will likely feel a sense of relief. But I can only come away with the passionately held belief that these desert people deserve far better.

Published at www.gulfnews.com

Less is more during Ramadan

August 27th, 2010

This article was first featured in Gulf News on the 20th August, 2010

Begging, gluttony and extravagance should not be part of the month of fasting.

I recently visited a superb exhibition in Washington, D.C. by a Korean artist and came away intrigued by her work, which depicted three quite shocking human characteristics — begging, gluttony and extravagance. As I made the return journey home to Dubai to spend the month of Ramadan close to my family and the beautiful sounds of the athan (call to prayer), I was bewildered to find those exact three characteristics prevalent in my own city. Not exactly what Ramadan is meant to be about, is it.

Ramadan is undoubtedly a month of giving and one of the pillars of Islam is zakat — the giving of 2.5 per cent of your annual income to the less fortunate — a noble initiative. Muslims are sincere about helping others, and particularly during this month. Upon entering our office building in the first week of Ramadan, I found myself surrounded by a sea of beggars sitting on the floor, and others keenly negotiating with the security guard to let them into the elevators. Witnessing a scene like that is heart-wrenching — who does not want to help people in need? Those same scenes can also be unnerving. Last year, Dubai Police arrested 618 beggars — of which more than half were caught during the month of Ramadan. Shockingly, most of these individuals were found to be members of organised gangs, many even travelling from abroad to shamefully profit from this month. Some of those prosecuted were even proprietors of real-estate businesses financed with money earned from begging.

Another noticeably contradictory characteristic to the essence of Ramadan is overeating. As people stress on how this month is about cleansing, detoxifying and empathising with people who have less food than ourselves, I find us doing the exact opposite. Although gluttony is quite a strong and repulsive word, it does describe the motions of people once the call to end the fast is heard. The massive explosion of food and beverage adverts on television during this month exemplifies the frenzy of self-indulgent feasting. As many households complete their first meals of the day, plenty of food remains as the sufra (dinner table) has been stacked with dishes from every country and origin, many sent by friends and family members. I recall an anecdote where one woman sent out a dish and it went round the entire city and ended up back at her house that evening. The overabundant food in this month of restraint and spirituality has in many cases made people careless and negligent.

My final concern is unnecessary spending. Although our society is consumption-orientated, and not just in this month or region, I would have liked to think that people would have taken steps given the time of year. As I walk through the malls I find that people are still overindulging in every product and item available.

Well-intentioned

Fasting is intended to teach Muslims the virtues of patience, humility and spirituality, and is carried out as an offering to God. This is the glorious intention of most Muslims, and many are to be applauded for their generosity and humility at this time of year. But things are not always as rosy as we would like them to be — reality does also come into the equation.

When it comes to the issue of begging, perhaps authorities should explore the merits of a rights-based approach. Professional begging violates human rights and integrity — especially the rights of the children and the disabled, who are often taken advantage of in harsh conditions. Professional beggars often mistreat children on the street in the interest of attracting attention and soliciting charity. In the battle against begging, authorities may also approach people in need via social aid teams, discussing the reasons individuals begin begging and proposing solutions. These same people ought to be directed to the social aid government departments and various charities that give out monetary assistance, as they can help to guide them. Defining instances of real social problems resulting from professional begging is key in turning this issue round.

As media play a substantial part in defining our thought process, it would be refreshing to see a responsible campaign reminding us of the humbleness and humility demanded by Ramadan. Instead of preparing an abundance of meals that go to waste, we may want to think of preparing less and spend the same amount of money on people truly in need. I would like to see the same campaign speak about the need for less extravagance in our society.

After all, if we are serious about respecting Ramadan as more than simply a tradition, then perhaps that respect should be reflected in as many areas as possible, so that the true spirit of it is felt in a tangible way by all who need it, and not just by those who can afford it.

Published at www.gulfnews.com

The pragmatic hub of art in the region

April 2nd, 2010

This article was first featured in Gulf News on the 2nd April, 2010

Dubai isn’t quite there yet, but with a bit of fine-tuning there is no reason why it shouldn’t seize the initiative.

After a week of taking in all the art at Art Dubai and Bastakiya Art Fair, I felt quite invigorated to say the least. Both fairs were extraordinary — one very up-market with visitors dressed to the nines strutting their latest Manolo Blahniks, seen analysing Kader Attia’s deafening installation History of a Myth: The Small Dome of the Rock , and the latter boho-chic and relaxed in what it had to offer. It was very refreshing; I felt that many of the pieces of art crossed the line in their subject matter and at the end of the day that is essentially what art is meant to do — leave you pondering, or in extreme cases quite horrified, about a certain message. Despite the critics condemning the fairs’ censorship policy, Art Dubai left me asking one significant question: As the city of Dubai moves in this creative and commercial direction, are we really getting it absolutely right?

Art Dubai certainly proves that the world of art and culture in the region has moved from the traditional notion of a gatekeeper ministry approach to private and semi-government institutions moving things forward in a positive manner. This avant-garde fair idea takes a great deal of foresight for a city in this region and yet again Dubai has proven that it has taken the initiative and jumped first onto the bandwagon. Take the Bidoun Lounge Art Park and the Global Art Forum for example — substantially off-beat talks where people interested in the world of art get together very informally to hear international curators, artists and collectors share their views. Over the years they have proved to be stimulating. This shows that Dubai can be a pragmatic art hub of East meets West, where debates occur. After all, we are geographically placed in the middle of both worlds and demographically we qualify as a city with a critical mass of over 180 nationalities living and working together. This all sounds very positive, and coupled with a large amount of wealth owned by many collectors in the region and the many galleries that already exist, Dubai seems to be on an ideal cultural pedestal moving towards the success level of fairs such as Art Basel Miami and Frieze in London. Nevertheless, I believe the city has a great deal to get right before it is close to being dubbed the ‘pragmatic hub’ of art in the Middle East.

Firstly, and at the top of my list, is the creation of art-education institutions that cultivate and incubate creative young minds. On the periphery, Dubai does have some good non-profit organisations — such as Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre — which continuously feed the minds of young people and adults in the fields of art, drama and music. However, my interest lies in the educational institutions of a higher level such as universities that teach the fine arts. Once this happens, we will see the emergence of many talented Emirati artists who would look up to and learn from legends of the previous generation such as Najat Makki and Abdul Qader Al Rais, and see them entering into international auctions such as Christie’s and Bonham’s as their predecessors did.

Public art

Secondly, I would like to see the development of art in public spaces. Aren’t urban developments meant to be where people learn to appreciate the meaning behind creative installations and sculptures? This has an impact on their understanding of each piece of art that they will ever come across. I am a great believer in art in public spaces — so much so that I feel we need to create a designated committee to this end. In the 1970s we did see an abundance of sculptures, such as falcons and traditional coffee cups, all over the country, but after that not much was created. These creative installations could be placed everywhere, from park benches to main roads, from designs on metro manhole covers to architectural building designs. This is one of the ways that we can inculcate a sense of curiosity and innovation in the minds of our youth.

Last but not least, we need to witness the birth of our very own Middle Eastern Contemporary Art Museum. The wave of visitors at Art Dubai certainly proves that there has been a thirst in the region for something as substantial as this. With prominent collectors such as Sultan Sooud Al Qasimi and artists that exist within the region who have personally told me they would fully endorse the idea by donating some of their top pieces, I am absolutely sure that we can put together an impressive museum that would attract the mobile population of the UAE and many people from all over the worldwho visit.

For argument’s sake, let us go back to the original question. Is Dubai the pragmatic art hub of the Middle East? Perhaps not at the moment, but it is certainly on its way there. We just need to inject some of the above to get there a bit faster.

Published at www.gulfnews.com

Let’s raise the bar, please

February 12th, 2010

This is a topic that I have very strong views on. I honestly believe that we have built an impressive region with the tallest and biggest icons, but what about the soft skills? The glamorous outlook is not enough to sustain residents and tourists to stay on and keep coming back. It didn’t take me long to write this article after much research, and your views would be greatly appreciated.

This article was first featured in Gulf News on the 12th February, 2010

Having heard the saying ‘the customer is king’ many times in my life, I have often wondered if it applies to the Gulf. The service industry is complex and not something to be taken lightly, but are we fully equipped to handle this very significant part of a customer’s experience?

As I listened to the CEO of Bloomingdale’s talk about their Dh270 million investment in the Dubai store, I was rather impressed. Dubai’s retail industry has risen to great heights, competing with cities like New York and London, and with the Burj Khalifa, the Metro and other landmark additions to the city, I doubt that I am the only person who is dazed by it all.

However, you only have to open a few newspapers to realise that, too often, the journey a customer takes is not an entirely satisfying one, and that the term ‘after-sales service’ is altogether ignored or discredited on the organisation’s side. For example, does a customer enjoy standing in line for half an hour to post a letter, only to find a disgruntled employee procrastinating, sipping coffee and enjoying a leisurely chat with a colleague? Should we be grateful to the telecoms company for sending our bill on thick expensive paper, when the person on the other side of the phone cannot comprehend our concerns about our phone bill? Do I ignore the speeding taxi driver who is desperately honking behind me, trying to get me out of the way, only to discover that there are a group of bewildered tourists sitting in the back of the taxi holding on for dear life? This is the kind of customer journey that I am speaking of.

London Business School research shows that the ability to deliver a customer experience consistently aligned around customer needs and intentions has a significant impact on a company’s ability to create customer loyalty. In turn, loyal customers have a huge impact on the bottom line, by buying more and referring other customers to the company.

Economic downturns such as the one we are experiencing provide a unique opportunity to re-evaluate and optimise the customer experience. Moreover, with sharper focus an economic downturn gives businesses a unique opportunity to re-examine their customer experience. These companies recognise the risk and opportunity downturns create within their customer base. The risk of losing customers increases as consumers reassess their service providers; they begin the process of reducing spending, sparing only those products and services from companies that they value most. Switching from a large retailer to perhaps a smaller, more hands-on retailer could be one of the outcomes. The retail industry’s sales service is always under the microscope — exceeding customers expectations is key. Incorporating these insightful processes requires a great deal of effort on behalf of a retailer. Customer research, including primary and behavioural analysis, makes up a large part of the process.

Training

The outcome of this study should inform the goals and guidelines of the organisation, which are instilled through training. This may involve a substantial amount of investment into these training programmes, but will certainly work to the great benefit of the employee’s sector knowledge, additionally instilling a feeling of self-worth into them. A tailored customer experience is the resultof this good plan, and if implemented on a continuous basis can lead to retention. Jack Welch, former chairman of General Electric, was spot on when he spoke about ‘sticky customers’ — those who become very loyal.

The orderly city-state of Singapore has always been a model for the region. I personally find the Customer Satisfaction Index of Singapore, which is used as a national barometer of customer satisfaction in their economy, to be a great example of a tangible benchmark for a typically intangible aspect of business. In 2008 the Institute of Service Excellence at Singapore Management University was appointed to implement and maintain an annual benchmark for the service sectors in Singapore. The questionnaire is completed by both residents and tourists and covers eight sectors of the Singapore economy. Once a small fishing village, Singapore is now a prosperous nation with a population of about five million and a GDP per capita that ranks it as the fifth wealthiest country in the world — a formidable case study for us all to take as an example. This is the direction that our service industry should be moving in.

In truth, the Gulf is not at stake. It continues to offer most people a rewarding place to live, and both tourists and residents enjoy a great social life. But there are some grounds for concern when it comes to the retention and loyalty of those people. Let us raise the bar, build a region based on meritocracy and diminish these concerns once and for all. Without doubt we have the means and manpower to do so.

Published at www.gulfnews.com