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Thu 16 Jul 2009 04:00 AM

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Paris in Dubai

Rumour has it that US president Barack Obama gave a speech in the Middle East fairly recently, outlining a new, clear message to the region, signalling a sea change in America’s dealings with this part of the world. Like, whatever.

Paris in Dubai

Rumour has it that US president Barack Obama gave a speech in the Middle East fairly recently, outlining a new, clear message to the region, signalling a sea change in America’s dealings with this part of the world. Like, whatever.

Far more importantly, the United States’s unofficial cultural ambassador arrived in Dubai shortly after the speech. Paris Hilton popped over to film an episode of her reality TV show, with the expected media circus following in her wake.

Hilton seems to have been invited to come to Dubai by Sheeraz Hassan, British boy of Pakistani origin done-good, now owner of Hollywood.tv, a celebrity chasing TV channel. Hassan can be seen on YouTube, floating the idea to Hilton in November 2007, somewhat presumptuously appearing to invite her on Dubai Ruler HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s behalf and claiming that without a visit from Hilton, Dubai’s reputation as a tourist destination would not be properly cemented in the minds of those wondering where to take their next holiday.

To her credit, Hilton accepted the invitation and came over to film an episode of her reality TV show, part of a global tour to find ‘Best Friends Forever’ in all corners of the world.

Good on her — I still often hear of US-based executives who are nervous to come to the region for business meetings, thanks to ill-founded fears for their security. These concerns for their personal safety always baffle me — do they think that their Dubai-based employees are willingly living in a warzone, risking their lives daily to sell the company’s products? On second thoughts, let them continue to think along these lines, particularly when salary reviews are on the table. A five percent hardship allowance increase would be most welcome at Saul Towers. That said, it’s probably too late — if a vice president of a large US corporation ever responds negatively to an invitation to come to Dubai again, the local office will be able to say, ‘well, Paris Hilton thought it was safe enough to come here.’ Shamed, they’ll find themselves straight on the next Emirates flight out of Los Angeles Airport.

So, who is Paris’ visit good for? Good for Dubai?

Almost certainly. Dubai markets itself as a tourist destination after all, so most publicity is bound to be good publicity. Tourism from Britain received a huge boost when English footballers started popping over in the early 2000’s, staying at the Burj Al Arab and allegedly buying villas on The Palm. Now, more than ever, getting the UAE on the US-based tourism radar, is bound to increase numbers on Emirates’ and Etihad’s US-based routes, particularly after Hilton posted photos of the luxurious first class compartment she graced during the flight over.

It’s also important to note that unlike recent visitors from the international press, Hilton will be spending more than four hours in the city, which will allow her to form a better opinion of the place than Germaine Greer, for example. Should she visit the same hotel that The Independent’s Johann Hari stayed at, she may notice expats sleeping in the car park in their Range Rovers, but will probably simply assume they are having a snooze and breeze on by.

Is her visit good for the region in general? Why not, if her presence sheds a positive light on the Middle East in terms of the outside world looking in?

The words ‘Middle East’ conjure up all sorts of images in the minds of Westerners who haven’t had the chance to visit the vast swathes of the map that are not conflict zones. If Hilton can come to Dubai — and therefore the Middle East — anyone can. Publicity of her visit will reach the eyes and ears of hundreds of thousands of people whom millions of dollars in advertising dollars wouldn’t get near. Although she’s only visiting Dubai for now, her visit will be considered a visit of the general area. That should help clear up some common misconceptions.

Clearly, Hilton does not live in a manner that reflects some of the more conservative values held by many of the Gulf’s population, so I can understand some resentment that someone with her lifestyle is inflicting herself on the region. That said, she’s taking advantage of the hospitality and tolerance that many countries here are famous for, the UAE being a prime example. She’s also behaved herself very well, appearing at press conferences dressed modestly and using her Twitter-feed to teach her fans some Arabic phrases.

Is her visit good for the States? Does it represent a positive promotion of American values and culture?

It would be easy to be drawn into a quagmire here. Most Brits probably don’t feel that David and Victoria Beckham particularly represent Britain very well, but they don’t claim to be cultural ambassadors. They are just getting on with building Brand Beckham. The same goes for Hilton and Brand Paris.

Regardless, when you’re abroad you find yourself an unofficial representative of your home country, whether you want to be or not, so Hilton does have some responsibility. As mentioned earlier, however, she’s behaved herself rather well.

It might sound pretentious, but Hilton represents a certain kind of freedom and lighthearted fun that can be infectious. Here’s a single girl, travelling the world, building a business empire and generally enjoying herself. It’s this kind of propaganda, beamed via satellite TV to the citizens of countries across the world, which does more to promote a positive view of the US than anything else.

Less US-friendly regimes might claim that America is the Great Satan, but how bad can it really be? If you switch on the box you can see Hilton and friends living their high standard of living.

Flip the channel over to watch an episode of Friends and you may ask yourself if the place is really that evil — after all, there on the screen we see a bunch of Americans happily living in central New York without a care in the world. Lightweight, easily consumable US TV does more to promote a free American way of life than any other propaganda tool. (Just make sure those foreign viewers don’t watch The Wire, or they may get a rather different picture of what the average American city dwellers’ life might be like).

It’s easy to have a sneaky admiration for Hilton, as one might have for her somewhat less classy British equivalent, Katie Price, alias Jordan.

Hilton generates a lot of vitriol, particularly from female observers. It’s easy to dismiss her as a wealthy, privileged airhead, stupid, uneducated and vain. This is unfair.

Jordan pulled herself up from nothing to build a business around her brand, making herself and others a lot of money in the process. Hilton started life with rather more advantages than Jordan, particularly on the cash front. What has she done with that advantageous start in life, however? She could have sat around, comfortably off, doing not very much and having fun in LA.

Instead she’s used what nature, nurture and her parents’ wealth have given her to create a successful business and brand. She’s the product that people buy into and she markets that brand exceptionally well.

Hilton and Jordan might not be classically educated, but they clearly possess keen business sense. It helps to have a leg up, or in Jordan’s case, a leg over or two, but neither has squandered their initial advantages. These ladies would not be where they are today if they simply had to rely solely on advisors or agents to further their careers this far. Their achievements to date, whatever one might think of them, must be down to a keen sense of business and an appetite for hard work. You or I might not value a business based initially on good looks, but we probably never had the option in the first place, let alone the business acumen to put it to lucrative use.

Hilton’s use of mainstream media, combined with the options offered by social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, have been exemplary. Her fans can get close and personal by following her every move on Twitter. Gossip magazines report her every move. Even serious broadsheets find themselves hitched to her bandwagon — the Gulf News followed Hilton’s every step in detail during her visit. All of this simply enhances Brand Paris, doubtless ensuring that her appearance fee at every club opening or TV show is raised accordingly.

Perhaps it’s time for Hilton to consider a permanent position in the American government?

Nicolas Sarkozy married a beautiful actress-singer-model. Tony Blair courted UK celebrities assiduously during the early days of his premiership. Gordon Brown recently made Sir Alan Sugar a Lord and appointed him a special business advisor to the government. All of these political moves courting famous people have done neither party any harm.

Perhaps Obama could use some of Hilton’s tips to keep his image shiny, should the sheen start to fade in the weeks and months to come?

We should also consider Hilton’s next international moves. How about seeing members of Hugo Chavez’s government swooning as they escort her off the plane at Caracas, on the way to the filming of the Venezuelan edition of Hilton’s new ‘Best Friends Forever’. Chavez might even find himself the winner of the show, doubtless thanks to a free and fair election.

Keeping a focus on this region, Hilton in Tehran would certainly go a long way to promoting international co-operation. Instead of dour men in suits, a light hearted American envoy in the form of Hilton in stylish hijab, flitting through the Iranian capital, would be a fantastic coup, should the Iranian government choose to invite her.

Such an event might not be too far-fetched — the timing of the Hilton visit to Dubai might be seen by more cynical minds as a calculated effort to divert media attention from the furore surrounding the recent Iranian elections? Do we sense some collaboration with Mahmoud Ahmedinejad? When it comes to the heady mix of business and politics, we’ve seen stranger bedfellows.


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