There are myriad shades of beige in the desert sands of Abu Dhabi emirate’s Western Region and one glittering global branding opportunity – of Gulf Arab culture. The eighth edition of Al Dhafra festival in the dunes of the Rub Al Khali desert ended on New Year’s Day but it’s fair to say that the wider world probably knew little about the owner of the region’s most beautiful camel (of 25,000 competitors) winning a Dh 1 million prize, the best date packaging for the 21st century as determined by judges, that a female Saluki set the fastest time and that millions of dollars worth of prized dark-skinned Majahim camels were bought and sold.
This is a missed opportunity. Madinat Zayed’s 10-day calendar of events should be a world festival, visited by people from all over. The world needs to know Arabs better. And there may be no better tool than the cultural markers that have defined a people for centuries.
The festival showcased a mix of these. Camels, of course, the very soul of the Bedouin, for whom the stately ship of the desert was everything – a portable repository of wealth, a means of transport, food, survival itself. Falconry, which dates to at least 3500BC in this region, and remains popular till today partly because the birds are admired and respected for their power and grace. The techniques used by falconers to build a relationship with the falcon might usefully be taught at Harvard Business School – it is an exercise that requires boundless trust, skill and patience. The Saluki race celebrated one of the world’s oldest dog breeds, one still prized in the region, both for hunting and companionship.
The fascination with Salukis is an example of the missed branding opportunity. Does the wider world know that Arabs actually cherish a relationship with a breed of dog? Might this knowledge help the cross-cultural bonding exercise between Arabs and demonstrably animal-loving people like the English and French, and perhaps even in the United States, where the Kennel Club continually records the Saluki’s popularity from among nearly 200 recognised breeds?
Back in the 1930s, philosopher Lin Yutang recognised the inherent possibilities of branding countries and whole communities when he commended macaroni as having “done more for our appreciation of Italy than Mussolini”. The point about that observation is that the hollow noodle tube, so beloved of children everywhere and so supremely accepting of almost any sauce as partner, spells the comforts of home and hearth and thereby the domestic delights offered by Italy. Macaroni’s homespun pleasures negated pretty much all of the damage done to Italy’s reputation in the mid-20th century by its fascist spell.
So to the branding possibilities of Al Dhafra festival and the implications for the Arab world. A brand is more than a word, a slogan or an easily remembered picture; it is a well-crafted personality profile of an individual, an institution, a whole people. The crafting takes decades, often centuries, and will often live long after the original has substantially changed. This is why the English are still seen as fair – despite double crossing the Arabs with respect to making Palestine the Jewish national state, and other instances of two-facedness. The French are still seen as chic, despite occasional lapses of taste; the Swiss as precise, the Germans as serious, Americans as hearty and the Chinese as industrious. A cultural image begets the brand and it is this cultural “value” that allows French companies to sell haute couture without too much fuss about price and for the Swiss to sell the world Longines and other expensive watches as tomorrow’s heirlooms.
Gulf Arabs have a brand identity as well and it’s both modern and proudly rooted in their heritage. Al Dhafra has laid out the bare bones of the brand. It offered a good indicator of what Arabs prize and their traditional hospitality, which is of the highest sort no matter who you were or what you looked like. Everyone was treated to a cup of coffee, the chance to rest and then, the services of an English-speaking guide who would take you through the complex criteria that comprise camel beauty statistics – length of the neck, shape of the ears and their angle, size of the head and so on. Finally, there was the chance of a free camel ride.
One of the world’s largest camel fairs, the festival also offered the opportunity to see the desert through Arab eyes. Not, as many in the West might think, as an incubator of arid bitterness, but as a glorious home where the exuberant human spirit is an organic lived reality. It showcased the heart of a people just as much as India’s Maha Kumbh, Britain’s Glastonbury, Brazil’s carnival and Spain’s bulls fiesta in Pamplona.
The cultural studies field worldwide is increasingly cleaving to the importance of long-term leveraging of local assets, which is just jargon for the popularising of local cultural events. As a prominent Silicon Valley CEO – a self-confessed cultural festival junkie – recently said, “festivals are natural barrier disintegrators” because being on the ground and experiencing another culture’s rituals forces us to do what anthropologist Angeles Arrien reminds us is the Latin origin of the word “respect” – respetar, or look again.
The people of the Middle East need the world to look at them again and see what is real. Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius once wrote, life is an opinion. Cultural branding is all about opinions. Marketing may be all that stands between this part of the globe re-imaging itself in world opinion.