Prominent communications executive hails Saudi Arabia’s ‘admirable’ Hajj and G20 amid COVID-19

Prominent communications executive hails Saudi Arabia’s ‘admirable’ Hajj and G20 amid COVID-19
Muddassar Ahmed, one of the UK’s most prominent communications executives, has praised Saudi Arabia for its handling of G20 and Hajj during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Supplied)
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Updated 30 November 2020

Prominent communications executive hails Saudi Arabia’s ‘admirable’ Hajj and G20 amid COVID-19

Prominent communications executive hails Saudi Arabia’s ‘admirable’ Hajj and G20 amid COVID-19
  • Founder of Unitas Communications says Kingdom has ‘set a precedent’ in its handling of both events

LONDON: According to one of the UK’s most prominent communications executives, Muddassar Ahmed, Saudi Arabia has “not only done an admirable job but has set a precedent for other nations to follow” with regard to its handling of Hajj amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

“The Kingdom’s decision to suspend the Hajj pilgrimage during the pandemic was a brave one, all the more so because it is a religious occasion that hundreds of thousands of people spend their lives preparing for,” Ahmed, the founder of Unitas Communications, told Arab News.

“To tell people making a once-in-a-lifetime journey that their plans must be put on hold cannot have been easy. But it was without a doubt the right thing to do. In our religion, the protection and preservation of life are of paramount value,” he added.

Ahmed, one of the UK’s top 1000 most influential people, also praised the Kingdom’s handling of the G20 summit last month after deciding to go fully virtual, calling it “absolutely the correct course of action.”

“In both instances, Saudi Arabia has set a precedent for other countries to follow. We can contrast its proactive, forward-thinking and compassionate approach, as well as its own COVID-19 statistics, with other countries’ track records,” he said.

Countering extremism as a British Muslim

Ahmed is not only known for his role as a communications expert, but also as a leading figure in the Muslim community in the UK, countering hate speech and the rise of extremism as an advisor to the British government on anti-Muslim hatred.

“As a born-and-bred British Muslim, this is not just important to me on a policy level but on a deeply personal level. I have dedicated my life to improving relationships between Muslim and other communities and I believe that, through Unitas and other projects I have dedicated myself to, we have made tremendous progress in improving the image and position of Muslims in Britain and the West,” Ahmed, who was named one of the 500 Most Influential Muslims worldwide three times, said.

Before founding Unitas, Ahmed was an activist campaigning against the Iraq war and founder/host of East London’s Radio Ramadan shows.

“I soon realized that adversarial campaigning only went so far. I was concerned by the growing divide between Muslims and wider society, between the Islamic world and the West, and I wanted — I needed — to help heal these divides, to bridge these allegedly irreconcilable narratives,” he explained.

Soon after, he teamed up with fellow East Londoner and childhood classmate Shiraz Ahmad to give birth to the world’s first public relations agency dedicated to bridging the gap between the Islamic and Western worlds: Unitas Communications.

One of the group’s first clients was the National Health Service, which needed to access hard-to-reach minority communities in East London.

It was not long before their work earned the attention of people invested in efforts to do the same. A few years after the start of the Iraq War and after the 7/7 2005 London terrorist attacks, community cohesion in the UK was at an all-time low.

The UN’s Alliance of Civilizations then reached out to Unitas to “see minority and Muslim communities have the training and develop the skills necessary to engage effectively and constructively in wider British society.”

Ahmed and Unitas’s work is not restricted to the UK alone, with the group and its founder earning praise and recognition from former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and by the City of New York.

Brexit and what is to come

While many businesses have been critical of Brexit and its potential consequences, Ahmed looks to the bright side of matters and instead calls it “an opportunity for Britain to reset its narrative on the world stage.”

“I have every confidence in the ability of the British nation to reinvent itself,” he added, explaining that “Unitas operations extend across continents in order to connect people, cultures and ideas and to make communicating effective and impactful.”

With regard to what the future holds for Unitas in such uncertain times, Ahmed remains optimistic.

“The future will see Unitas continuing to work with leading international brands and expanding its presence across Europe and the Middle East and deeper into Southeast Asia. But I should also say that a major priority for us has always been the US. We’ve had major American clients, like the National Football League and the US State Department,” he said.

“We will continue to choose clients who contribute to making the world a more understanding place, and we will engage those relationships to improve the world, to leave things better off than where they were when we started.

Because this work isn’t just a business to me or my team. It’s a moral calling.”


‘How do we get smarter? With better data’

‘How do we get smarter? With better data’
Updated 22 January 2021

‘How do we get smarter? With better data’

‘How do we get smarter? With better data’
  • Media innovator Tarek Daouk on the key trends shaping the Middle East’s business future

DUBAI: In January 2020, Tarek Daouk, CEO of media and advertising group Dentsu MENA, sat with his leadership team discussing what they believed was a generally optimistic year ahead for business. Fast-forward six weeks later and the whole world was in crisis.

“There was no way to predict what was going to happen, and how fast and how bad this was going to affect people and businesses across the world,” he said, recalling the widespread uncertainty at the time.

Although Daouk hopes COVID-19 vaccines will help the world get back on its feet, “the unpredictability of how we plan and make the business flexible enough to react to things that we cannot predict will always be there.”

Business challenges

The key challenges that businesses faced in 2020 — and will continue to face as the economy improves — are supply and demand, and cost infrastructure.

Daouk said that many clients faced logistical challenges due to restrictions on supply from outside the region, resulting in a delay in business activities.

“Obviously, this is easiest to sort out as things go back to normal,” he said.

However, the bigger issue is that of demand. Due to lack of job stability and an economic downturn, consumers became wary and even as the supply chain returns to normal, it will be a while before consumer confidence bounces back.

“That’s also the role of businesses, especially marketing and advertising, to restore people’s confidence in investment,” he added.

The second challenge is that of cost infrastructure across cities and sectors in the region where the cost of doing business was already high. Rents, especially, play a major role, with businesses forced to close their offices still paying high rents.

Geopolitical scenario

However, Daouk sees a silver lining largely on the back of Dubai and Saudi Arabia’s potential. It is an ideal time for Dubai to play a role as a hub beyond the MENA region.

Due to its location, Dubai is a strategic spot for businesses operating across Europe, Asia and the MENA region, which is critical at a time when Europe is still relatively locked down.

“I have met a few companies that are headquartered in Europe and many are considering relocating their headquarters to Dubai,” he said.

Moreover, as company structures change, there is room for a more mobile headquarters, which can be moved from one country to another depending on the business’ focus market at a given time.

Saudi Arabia is Dentsu’s largest and most significant market in the region with the highest per capita gross domestic product. Vision 2030 has opened up new avenues of doing business in the Kingdom that are already attracting investment, with the Kingdom’s investment in tourism and local entertainment giving the country a big push and strong potential to bounce back, Daouk said.

Increased digitization

With investments in digital advertising climbing well over 50 percent of the total ad spend in 2020, it is clear that businesses are seeing the benefits and reaping the rewards of their investments.

Daouk highlights the move toward digitization for business transformation, with companies investing in moving data to the cloud through products such as Microsoft Azure, and using the data to model business and advertising decisions.

“It allows you to put a layer of analytics on top of the data to help these businesses in their decision making, which will transform to a better, smarter, more personal experience for the consumers,” he said.

Lack of advertising measurement

Dentsu MENA has helped a retail client move its data to the cloud with a predictive modelling exercise to help the sales team by collecting data from all touchpoints — from the store to an online ad.

The businesses data is much more robust than the advertising data. For instance, digital media consumption data is provided by the digital platforms without any third-party auditing. Similarly, measurability for offline media consumption remains a challenge.

Daouk said that there are initiatives in the pipeline to improve measurability, with plans to launch people meters to measure TV in Saudi Arabia. But for now, he said, “we are getting faster, bigger, more accurate data — marketing data — much faster than what we get on media consumption.”

Decline in advertising spend

The global decline in ad spend in 2020 is forecasted to be around 9 percent, but in the MENA region it has fallen by up to 25 percent.

The obvious reason behind the decline is the pandemic. However, there are other factors at play. The increase in the digitization of business transformation, for instance, has taken budgets away from advertising.

However, according to Daouk, the disparity in the decline of ad spends in the region compared with the global figure began in 2016. Most ad budgets for the MENA region are decided globally and he has noticed a decline over the years in budgets allocated to the region. This could be attributed to a softness in the market that began in 2016, coupled with reduced consumer spending and a high cost of doing business.

Moreover, as other markets such as Asia began growing, they also commanded a higher share of the global ad budget.

“This is why there might be an opportunity for the region now. The role of the region is changing, but we need to bring trust, and trust can only be brought through measurability, governance and data,” he said.