I was privileged to join the Hogan Lovells conference on Championing Africa in July. An important discussion was around creating a positive environment during crisis and some very inspirational ideas were exchanged. True leadership is continuing to do exceptional things even during challenging times. Everyone is dealing with similar challenges today; what makes a prodigious leader who is able to manage through fear unknown to our times?
There are some countries that have walked the talk and none better than the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that has been our home for the last 31 years. The region has seen the worst crisis with oil prices flirting at the lowest in a decade, tourism coming to a standstill, Expo 2020 Dubai and a host of other conferences being postponed, the airline industry being annihilated and a massive exodus of expatriates resulting from job losses. The initial response caused by uncertainty was no different than in all other parts of the world; the fear of the unknown was evident in the decision-making. The gloom from Europe and the United States gave cause to get into a huddle to find short-term solutions mainly to slow down the spread of the pandemic. The initial shutdowns followed by the easing of restrictions, brought back a sense of relief and confidence but more than anything, there were several factors that gave citizens comfort.
The first was the visibility of the leaders. From time immemorial, soldiers on the battlefield fought relentlessly as long as they saw their flag flying; it gave them hope. In today’s context, this confidence comes from leaders who have the fortitude to stand before their people and give them an accurate picture of the crisis; the good and the bad. The UAE leadership kept everyone updated regarding the healthcare facilities and challenges, causes for the spread but more importantly, the tangible steps being taken to address the pandemic.
The second was the integrity of the community in general. The UAE is the unprejudiced home to 150 nationalities and is the greatest melting pot of cultures. It was overwhelming to see people help each other in small but meaningful ways. The governance in the country was strengthened to a point where predatory or mercenary conduct was completely nonexistent; there have been no examples of covid-preneurs or carpetbaggers during this period. There is nothing worse than witnessing the soulless profiteering from the misfortune of others.
The third was in catalyzing community activities and fund-raisers to help the needy. Campaigns requesting contributions of US$ 2 per meal were initiated to provide millions of food packets to the needy which not only helped people that were suffering but the orders were placed with small business owners who could provide the food packets at a time when restaurants were closed. The government does not have the resources to meet every need of its constituents but acts as a catalyst to bring stakeholders together and achieve multi-dimensional results.
The fourth was the celebration of stories of personal sacrifice and selflessness, initiatives of the public and private sector and the announcement of new initiatives and projects. At every opportunity, the government recognized citizens who had helped others, the sacrifice of healthcare workers, the police department and many other stakeholders. It regularly announced the infrastructure and healthcare plans that were being prepared and the resources being deployed in dealing with the pandemic. Being an economically developed nation, the UAE has also assisted countries as far away as Brazil and has received the appreciation of global leaders. Additionally, as some projects and activities (Expo 2020 Dubai) were being delayed, the country announced and celebrated the launch of Orbiter Hope, its Mars Mission, on 19th July 2020 and its nuclear energy project that would supplement the energy needs of the country.
The fifth example was in finding opportunities in the crisis. Other than ensuring that the services, including judicial and immigration, remained uninterrupted there was an effort from the government to ensure that it stayed alert to the changing environment and adapted to the needs of the present. The situation in March was very different and armed with the knowledge of what worked and what didn’t, the government took bold decisions to manage some of its crisis sectors. The badly-hit Emirates and Etihad airlines remained open for business by taking stranded passengers from different parts of the world and rather than focus on the crisis and layoffs, the only messaging was on the various initiatives that were being taken and the routes being opened. Similarly, the country will now play host to the annual Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament which is a star-studded tournament hosted annually in India. This will turn around the complete hospitality industry from September to November this year. Additionally, as the Chinese government is facing difficulties finding friends, the UAE will play host to scores of companies that are setting up to take advantage of the geographic location and connectivity of the country.
Finally, the government recognized the value and proactively engaged the media to ensure that the messaging was accurate, timely and balanced. Nothing is more damaging than misinformed or irresponsible media at a time of crisis and it is in the hands of the government to ensure that proper touch points are established to provide information so that there is no speculation on critical matters. This element of external communications is so important to provide comfort not only to your own people but also to the international community that is engaging at different levels; tourism, investments, trade, commerce, sports etc.
We need to learn from what people around us are doing right and stay positive. Roy T. Bennett said it aptly in his book, The Light in the Heart: “Instead of worrying about what you cannot control, shift your energy to what you can create.” The only way to span a crisis is to stay positive and innovate.