By Diana Milne
From property to media and finance to airlines, Arab companies are taking the global stage by storm.
From property to media and finance to airlines, Arab companies are taking the global stage by storm.
Mike Simon is more used to mixing with heads of state and royalty, but it was a chance encounter with a London cab driver that made him realise what success is.
When your taxi driver knows things like that you know you are becoming part of the community.
"He asked me where I'd come from. I said Dubai. He said ‘Ah, that's where Emirates Airline is, isn't it?'" says Simon.
For Simon, who has run Emirates Airline's communications department for nearly 20 years, that was the moment that proved all the hard work had been worth it. An Arab company, conceived and built up out of Dubai, was now a global player and a global brand - equally recognisable on the streets of Riyadh and Rio.
Emirates isn't the only Arab company to become a global household name. Broadcaster Al Jazeera Network was ranked the world's fifth most influential brand in a 2004 Interbrand survey. Its English and Arabic news channels, coming out of Doha in Qatar, are now major players in the 24-hour rolling news industry.
Hotel group Jumeirah International - behind the landmark Burj Dubai hotel, has taken London and New York by storm with new developments. Emaar meanwhile, which is constructing the world's tallest building in Dubai, is soon to list on the London Stock Exchange for US$40 billion - instantly propelling, for the first time ever, an Arab company into the upper echelons of the coveted FTSE100.
Saudi Arabia's Prince Alwaleed's Kingdom Holdings now has stakes in 40 companies across the globe including Apple Computers, Hewlett-Packard, The Walt Disney Co and eBay.
Brand Arabia, it would seem, is now a worldwide phenomenon, with at least 25 other major Arab companies preparing to take their place on the global business stage in the next two years.
But getting here has been no easy journey. For both Al Jazeera and Emirates the task of marketing an Arab brand in the west has been a big challenge.
"Terror TV," is how the many people in the western world once viewed broadcaster Al Jazeera, according to Nigel Parsons, managing director of Al Jazeera English.
The network has now achieved its target of reaching 100 million households worldwide after taking the daring step of launching a 24-hour English language Arab news channel across the world in 2006.
But, says Parsons, it first had to overcome the scepticism surrounding its launch and its reputation, in some parts of the world, particularly in the US, as a mouthpiece for terrorists.
"The mood in the US has definitely changed towards us now," he says. "They want to engage with us and we're seen as a serious news organisation whereas before we were seen as some kind of terror TV. There were a lot of sceptics before we launched. People said we couldn't do it."
Ultimately, however, he says Al Jazeera's notoriety has been a driving force behind the success of its global English language launch.
Because as he points out, no publicity is bad publicity.
"We were helped a lot by having a well-known brand. In some parts of the world the image was negative and in some parts of the world very positive. But the worst thing in the world actually is to be unknown so to have a strong brand was a huge help in many ways. And that's why we were in so many homes by launch. It was 80 million at launch and we're past the 100 million households now. That's a huge achievement."
Although Parsons admits it has not yet fully conquered the American market, a mark of its success is that Al Jazeera English is currently the most watched news channel on the internet site YouTube and half of its internet traffic is from the US.
"We've got a fairly limited distribution there (in the US). Probably about two million households across the country, but we're also the leading news channel on YouTube by a long way and half of our internet traffic tends to come from the US," Parsons goes on to say.
He reveals that Al Jazeera is about to greatly increase its penetration into the US market when it signs "significant carriage deals" in the US later this year.
"I'm fairly confident that we'll be announcing substantial deals in the US within certainly the first half of this year. This will give us much greater penetration into the US market via television rather than relaying so heavily on channels such as YouTube or the internet."
When introducing Emirates to the rest of the world almost two decades ago Mike Simon's biggest challenge was promoting flights to a destination many people in the Western world didn't even know existed, and then persuading them to board an Arab jet.
"Many years ago when I first arrived people had never heard of Dubai. When you talked about Dubai people just gave you a blank look. So initially we had the joint job of promoting Emirates and Dubai."
The days of Dubai's anonymity are long gone. Fifteen million tourists a year are expected to visit the emirate by 2010. In the financial year 2006/07 17.5million passengers flew with Emirates, which now covers 99 destinations worldwide.
For 2006 it reported revenue of US$8.1billion and it is expected to report another year of record profits for 2007. In 1985, Emirates Airline didn't even exist. Earlier this year the influential USA Today newspaper predicted it was on course to overtake American Airlines to become the world's biggest airline.
The greatest mark of Emirates' success, Simon says, is the fact that it is now viewed not as an Arab brand, but as an international brand - a perception which he says makes it far easier to market in the Western world.
"I think initially for an Arab company, one of our biggest challenges was to persuade people that we actually serve liquor on board," he says.
"Everybody used to say ‘are you dry or can you actually get a drink on Emirates?'
"Nowadays nobody asks that question because they are so used to Emirates being an international airline. We have positioned ourselves on the world market as an international airline rather than an Arab airline. We're very proud of our heritage.
Sponsorship is something that has a scatter gun effect. You hit all sorts of people in a wide area.
"But on the other hand when you are operating in diverse countries like South America, Europe, North America, Australia, South East Asia, you have to be seen as an international carrier."
Emirates currently invests 3.5% of its annual revenue on corporate communications - and employs the services of 110 different advertising and PR agencies around the world.
Sponsorship of major sporting events and venues around the world is one of the ways in which it has had the most success when building up its brand internationally.
Its football sponsorships alone include being an official FIFA partner, and sponsoring Arsenal FC, Emirates Stadium, Paris St Germaine, Hamburg HSV, AC Milan and The Emirates Cup.
It sponsored the Rugby World Cup 2007 and will be sponsoring the Rugby World Cup Sevens 2009.
It is also the official airline of ten gold tournaments worldwide, including the Hong Kong Open, Malaysian Open and Australian PGA Championships. In cricket it sponsors ICC Umpires, Cricket Australia and the Lord's Taverners association.
"Sponsorship is something that has a scatter gun effect," says Simon. You hit all sorts of people in a wide area. For most of our sponsorships, we have a return of minimum 8 to 1," He reveals.
"Take Arsenal for example. If you take a Premier League match with Arsenal every Saturday afternoon it's watched by 440million people around the world on the television.
"That's a big, big audience."
And, he says, it is harnessing sporting fans' passion for the game and associating that with the brand, which makes sponsorship so effective, as he discovered during his encounter with the London cabbie.
"When I told him I was from Dubai he said ‘Emirates sponsor Arsenal don't they, and the stadium'. When your taxi driver knows things like that you know you're becoming part of the community. And that's a very emotional attachment. That's the difference between pure advertising and sponsorship. It's that you get to the heart, the emotion of the person, rather than just the mind."
When it comes to attracting the attention of a global audience, nobody does it better than the Middle East's top property developers, Nakheel and Emaar.
Dubai's rapid emergence as a major tourist destination is largely due to the global branding of landmarks such as the Nakheel's Palm Jumeirah and The World island developments.
These projects have become synonymous in many people's minds with brand Dubai - just like the association between Paris and the Eiffel Tower or New York and the Statue of Liberty.
And as a hook for your global branding campaign it doesn't get much better than being able to lay claim to building the world's tallest tower the Burj Dubai.
Developer Emaar announced last year that it is considering listing on the London Stock Exchange this year, where it is expected to be valued at a massive US$40bn.
For Mohammed Alabbar, Emaar's chairman, the London listing would be the culmination of over a decade of what he admits has sometimes been an "obsessive" passion to build up the Emaar brand.
"I believe it is our time to go global," says Alabbar.
"It is not our time alone and going global can be a scary and risky venture but the time is right."
Emaar's success is all the more remarkable given that Alabbar built his empire from nothing - after seeing vast potential in the vast acres of emptiness that once surrounded Dubai.
"I remember before we launched Emaar I used to drive down Dubai's Sheikh Zayed Road and on both sides I would just see desert," he says.
"Some people described the view as emptiness. I just saw it as opportunity."
Alabbar's revolutionary vision has seen him create what has become one of the world's most valuable companies with 59,000 shareholders including the Government of Dubai.
Its Vision 2010 strategy will see the company diversifying into leisure, hospitality, health, education and finance and it has recently announced plans to aggressively expand into the retail sector with investments of over US$4bn to develop 100 malls in the emerging markets of the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent.
"Emaar expects over 70 per cent of its revenue to be earned from international markets by 2010, and to double its presence in all its markets with a focus on the emerging markets of India, China and the Middle East and North Africa," Alabbar adds.
Both Nakheel and Emaar have adopted a strategy of forging partnerships with high profile global brands in order to increase awareness of their own brand names.
Nakheel has developed partnerships with the Atlantis Hotel, the Trump Organisation and with the Cirque Du Soleil.
Meanwhile Emaar has teamed up with Giorgio Armani to build and manage 10 Armani hotels and resorts across the world, including Milan, London, Shanghai, New York and Tokyo.
"While Emaar retains its aspirational value, we also tailor the brand message to suit the market. The key to Emaar's success in any market - regionally or internationally - is in identifying the needs and aspirations of the customer and tuning ourselves to bring in new value," says Alabbar. He adds: "The Arab cultural ethos is part and parcel of our identity, which only complements our efforts in brand-building internationally. At all levels of our expansion internationally, we remain steadfast to our brand values, which help us to create an intimate personal bonding with our stakeholders - which is indeed the essence of brand management."
Despite Emaar becoming a global brand however, Alabbar is keen for the company to remain close to his UAE roots - crediting the success of the emirate for his own company's success story.
"All of us living in the UAE at the moment are blessed to be here at the right time, and have the opportunity to build one of the greatest cities in the world. I wouldn't have said that four or five years ago because I was waiting to be convinced," he says.
Emaar's global success has been matched by Nakheel. And as Manal Shaheen, director of sales, marketing and customer service at Nakheel says the best way to grab people's attention is to break world records by building landmarks that are bigger and better than all the rest.
"Dubai was not only ambitious but also recognized that it needed to create concepts that would capture an international imagination; whether that was ski slopes in the desert or sail shaped hotels in the sea. And the world has seen nothing like the The Palm Jumeirah before - a man made island in the shape of a palm tree which was larger than 600 football pitches.
"Nakheel has attracted worldwide attention for its extraordinary vision. Focusing on building icons that embody innovation and progress, it has helped transform Dubai from a sleepy fishing village to a leading international hub for business and tourism."
Testimony to the success of Nakheel's international branding campaign is the fact that buyers of 75 different nationalities have now bought property on the Palm - soccer stars David Beckham and Michael Owen amongst the purchasers. The company celebrated completing the project two years ago by flying a hot air balloon between London and Dubai.
Nakheel, which is part of Dubai World, a holding company that manages and supervises a portfolio of businesses and projects for the Dubai government formed Nakheel International last year and is it currently on the look out for property development opportunities across the world.
"With developments such as The Palm and The World gaining international attention for Nakheel and Dubai, it was natural therefore for us to step into the international arena pursing development opportunities in key markets around the world," says Shaheen.
"A key driver will be building on our diverse experience and we'll be looking at opportunities across a range of sectors, including residential, commercial, retail, hospitality and leisure," he goes on to say.
Shaheen says Nakheel too will not forget its UAE roots, while continuing to develop the brand internationally.
"A vital key to success is not leaving the home market behind. We definitely won't lose our focus on Dubai as we have a large portfolio to deliver here. Nakheel International will provide a broadening of our strategy, and will be handled in a considered way, as part of a long term strategy."
While Nakheel and Emaar have remained loyal to their UAE roots they have firmly established themselves on the world property scene.
However a tendency for the majority of Arab brands to focus on their home market, has meant that relatively few have in fact become global players.
Interbrand, a global brand consultancy firm with offices in 25 countries, releases an annual ranking of the world's top brands, which is published in BusinessWeek.
And to date there has never been an Arab brand in its global listing according to Matthew Millard-Beer, regional director of Interbrand, who explains why: "The way in which the rankings is carried out means that at least a third of the earnings of that brand must be carried outside of its home country. And it also needs to be recognised outside of the based of its customers. Another reason is that the company has to be publicly listed so the financial information about it is actually widely accessible," he goes on to say.
Broadcaster Al Jazeera made the "most influential" brands list but not the financially measured one.
Chris Bell, chief operating officer and managing partner of Face to Face, a Dubai based advertising agency, which has devised campaigns for the likes of Emirates, Jumeirah and Emaar, says there is still work to do for Arab brands: "This is a region which is in many ways very advanced but in many ways it is in its infancy as well. And the lifecycle of a lot of brands is very young here as well. Some of them are first looking to master the region then they are looking to expand globally."
"In terms of whether there should be more Arabic brands on the scene soon, yes it would be nice to think that there will be."
A sign that the times are indeed changing however is the fact that Interbrand is now looking to publish for the first time, a listing of Arab brands.
"As well as our top 100 global brands listing we also publish either industry or regional reports and the Middle East is the one we're looking at doing next," says Millard-Beer.
"We will be looking at the 22 Arab countries and the different industries there."
He goes on to say that the presence of stock markets in many Arab countries now makes it far easier to evaluate the success of a brand.
"That's obviously quite a new thing and it makes it easier to understand the economic benefits that Arab brands are creating for the countries they are based in.
"The level of sophistication in the marketing and branding of Arab companies has grown dramatically over the past four or five years."
The rapid development of the Middle Eastern economies and their emergence as world-class tourism and business destination means Arab brands can finally step out from the shadows and take their place alongside the world's top names.
While many have yet to play catch-up and extend beyond the boundaries of their home turf, with top names such as Nakheel, Jumeirah and Emaar leading the way forward - it won't be long before more Arab brands become household names across the globe.
Because as Mohammed Alabbar himself puts it: "Now is the time for the Middle East to push forward."