Stable and solid: UAE retains 'AAA' brand rating

LONDON // Promoting “brand Middle East” would be many a marketing man’s idea of a nightmare; the widespread conflict, political upheaval and economic jitters do not, of course, help.

But despite the wider turmoil, the stable UAE has held its own in the international branding stakes and has retained its “solid” image, new research by the London-based consultancy Brand Finance shows.

The UAE’s “national brand value”, a measure of the combined worth of the country’s brands against the wider economy, this year rose by 19 per cent to US$478 billion, Brand Finance said in its 2016 Nation Brands report. About 17 per cent of that is directly attributable to the benefits of companies being based in the UAE.

The UAE’s own brand strength – based on factors like its worldwide image and perceptions about tourism, investment, governance and security – slipped slightly this year, with the country now ranking as the world’s 12th strongest nation brand, down from third last year. But the country has retained its “AAA” brand rating, and its brand score – 85 out of 100 – is almost level with the 86 recorded last year.

Andrew Campbell, the managing director of Brand Finance Middle East, based in Abu Dhabi, said the latter statistic is simply a “rounding issue” and that the UAE’s brand remains “solid”.

“The strength of the brand has held its own,” he said.

“Obviously the regional issues weigh against it, as do trends in the oil price. But in its favour there’s still a very high degree of visibility of the UAE as a brand, in terms of the airlines [which] carry a lot of brand recognition, as do things like the Expo 2020 and tourism generally.

“As a safe haven within the region, it still maintains that profile; even though it is in a region of unsettled politics, [the UAE is still] an island of stability and relative strength.

“Activities in terms of diversifying away from reliance on oil are continuing apace. Overall, the negatives are balanced out by the positives.”

One complication around assessing “brand UAE” is that many international marketing efforts are actually undertaken by individual emirates, rather than the country as a whole, Mr Campbell noted.

“There’s not a great deal of consolidated effort into promoting ‘brand UAE’. Brand Dubai is actively promoted, as is brand Abu Dhabi, as is brand Sharjah, and even Ajman and the likes are raising their profile. In terms of the actual promotion of the brand it’s effectively an agglomeration of the seven emirates’ brands,” he said.

Other branding experts agreed that the UAE had cemented its name internationally.

“Other countries should envy the link between our nation brand and our global brands,” said John Brash, the founder and chief executive of Brash Brands, which has an office in Dubai.

“The UAE really stands for something on the world stage – innovation, ambition, energy; that ‘can-do’ spirit,” he added.

Mr Brash said that the UAE’s relative resilience to the oil price decline has “surprised the world”.

He told The National: “People expected falling oil prices to drag the UAE down, but they hadn’t counted on the diversification that had been put in place. Once the UAE showed its economy wasn’t dependent on oil and gas, at all, I think people looked afresh at our brands in other sectors – from real estate to aviation, technology to creative sectors and more – and saw their real strength.”

But this positive picture is not reflected in all countries in the region.

Jordan, for example, was ranked the worst-performing of all the 100 nations ranked in Brand Finance’s report. Its national brand value plummeted by 35 per cent to $24 billion – something caused exclusively by the fallout from the conflict in neighbouring Syria, said Robert Haigh, the marketing and communications director at Brand Finance in London.

“The deteriorating situation in Syria is having an impact on Jordan, both because of the perception of regional instability, and also the number of economic migrants and refugees who are flooding into Jordan and other surrounding countries,” said Mr Haigh.

Lebanon, Bahrain, Morocco, Oman and Turkey all experienced decreases in their national brand values this year, the Brand Finance report noted.

Turkey – whose national brand value fell by 29 per cent – has faced a “perfect storm” this year, Mr Haigh said.

“The coup [attempt] makes Turkey look like the kind of place that isn’t as stable as people had thought it would be. It had been seen as this kind of bulwark against the troubles of the Middle East, and relatively isolated from them itself, essentially a safe European place. Whereas that now looks much less certain,” he said.

“The combination of the unrest of the Kurds within, its proximity to Syria, which is still in a very troubled condition, and then its own internal problems makes the security picture seem very uncertain.”

Saudi Arabia has announced sweeping economic changes after the oil price crash, and its national brand value declined by 5 per cent to $482bn.

But Mr Campbell said there was much hope on the horizon for brand growth in Saudi Arabia given the country’s plan to diversify its economy under the Vision 2030 reform programme.

“As they put those building blocks into place, Saudi Arabia as a brand will become more recognised and potentially will grow,” said Mr Campbell. “And as the country opens up and attracts more international investment, that potentially could be a future growth story.”

So while the prospect of positive “brand Middle East” remains unlikely, there are a few bright spots on the horizon.

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