Dispatches From Dubai

Rance Crain Reports for 'Ad Age' at the IAA Conference

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DUBAI, U.A.E. (AdAge.com) -- They say that 15% of the world's cranes are here in Dubai, helping to erect high-rise after high-rise in the most spectacular orgy of building I've ever seen. I was just one more Crain trying to figure out who would live and work in all those buildings.

Photo: AP
Much of Dubai is sprawl of massive building projects that are said to be using 15% of the world's construction cranes.

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I was in town to cover the International Advertising Association's 40th World Congress, attended by 2,000 delegates from 70 countries. Speakers included Norman Pearlstine of Time Warner, Steve Forbes of Forbes magazine and Forbes.com, Jim Stengel of Procter & Gamble Co., the former prime minister of Spain, lots of prominent agency people, the head of the Dubai Chamber of Commerce, and the woman who introduced coffee bars to a tea-drinking nation.

The young woman, Sahar Hashemi, stole the show. But the most controversy came from remarks made by Obaid Humaid Al Tayer, the managing director of the Al Nisr Publishing Group, which publishes the English-language Gulf News.

Strong words toward West
Here's how the IAA Congress Daily, which is published by a company at which Mr. Al Tayer plays a prominent role, began its story on his speech: "What started off as a warm welcome to delegates to enjoy the progress made by Dubai dovetailed into an analysis of the persistent demands on the Arab world and its people to change -- demands from its friendly Western allies, of course."

I won't give you any more of the Congress Daily's recount of Mr. Al Tayer's speech because my notes didn't always agree with the publication's version. Here's what I heard him say: The West wants the Arab world to "stop what [it's] doing and start afresh." He labeled this Western attitude "nonsense and ironic" because Arab countries were molded into their present form by the same European countries that want them to change.

Photo: AP
One of Dubai's current projects is the Burj Dubai tower, which will be the world's tallest skyscraper.

Turning to the media, Mr. Al Tayer said the U.S. has one of the "least free" media environments. "It's closed to others, but they keep lecturing about freedom of speech. It's a double standard." Why, he asked, is Al-Jazeera not allowed in Iraq? Because it "won't report what American generals want to report." Arabs, he said "don't want to see democracy on the back of tanks and F-16s." He added that Arabs will address "the democracy question in our own time, not something forced on us."

Mr. Al Tayer drew applause when he said the Western media have created an image of an Arab as "womanizer, greedy, corrupt, lazy, illiterate, rich, anti-Semitic and male chauvinist." He asked whether the West "has something against Arab people."

Mixed reactions to comments
As you might imagine, Mr. Al Tayer's speech was quite a conversation-starter. One prominent local ad executive told me he was surprised by the remarks because of Mr. Al Tayer's role as a businessman involved in luxury brands and automobiles as well as media. "It's not appropriate for a businessperson to talk politics at a forum like this."

On the other hand, Joseph Ghoussoub, the new chairman and world president of IAA, said Mr. Al Tayer provided "a different angle" on the state of international affairs. "I try not to take sides," he said. "He made some interesting points and it was interesting to think about."

Two Western ad people found his remarks interesting and open. But one advertising executive with close ties to the IAA said Mr. Al Tayer "had gotten as close to the edge as anyone can without dropping off and taking everyone with him."

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