Tuesday, May 15

I jolted awake mid bus ride to “ooohs” and “aahhs” as we made our way from Abu Dhabi to Dubai. There were massive skyscrapers in the distance that the eye could just barely make out.  As we neared the city, I was glued to the buss window looking up at the impressive one-of-a-kind buildings. We continued our journey on Sheikh Zayed Road, one of the main roads in Dubai, toward our home for the next few nights. We would soon arrive at the Mayfair hotel located in Dieira, an older section of the city that was bursting with local charm. Although the area was fairly distant from the main tourist attractions, staying there allowed for us to experience a different side of Dubai. The quaint section is located along the Dubai Creek and home to both the spice and gold souks.

We took some time to settle into the third of eight cities we would experience in just three short weeks. Making sure not to waste too much valuable time, a few of us headed to Jumeirah Beach, sun lotion in hand. The warm sandy beach and clear ocean water was merely a 20 minute taxi ride from the Mayfair and overlooked the Burj Al Arab, the world’s largest luxury hotel.  After spending several hours soaking in the hot Arabian sun and swimming in the cool gulf waters we headed back and awaited the arrival of our desert safari tour guide.

My favorite extracurricular adventure thus far is the desert safari I was about to experience. We pilled into a large SUV and traveled out of the city and toward the Red Desert.  The SUV we were in was well equipped for flying through the desert sand and navigating up, down and around the vast sand dunes. After about 30 minutes of dune bashing we arrived at the safari campsite just as the sun was setting. We rode a camel and tried out one of Dubai’s extreme sports, sand boarding. We were then pointed toward a woman who was decorating ladies hands with henna, which apparently is a required part of “Dubai 101.” After the sun had fully set, we were served a delicious Middle Eastern BBQ buffet accompanied by cultural entertainment, including a belly dancer and whirling dervish performer. The night soon came to an end and we found ourselves in bed dreaming of what the next day would have in store for us.

Wednesday, May 16

The agenda for our second day in Dubai consisted of agency visits to both ASDA’A Burson- Marsteller and Hill + Knowlton Strategies. At ASDA’A B-M we met with Sunil John, CEO, as well as Bashar Al Kadhi, Kelly Home, Lois Cole, and Nicholas Nesson. This agency is devoted to evidence-based communication and explained that it’s success as the largest communication consultancy was due to being client focused. We started out with a tour of the office and then attended a briefing on Dubai’s culture, the company’s history, the Arab world and time management. Lois, reminded us that the second you walk into an office you are being interviewed and emphasized that your actions while waiting in the lobby can effect the outcome of an interview. A strong point made by Sunil John was how important trust is when doing any business, and especially so in the field of public relations in the Middle East.  Trust as well as driving development, monitoring, and measuring client progress through research and data is key at ASDA’A B-M.  After our first briefing we visited the Dubai Marina and had a tasty lunch at Chandelier Fusion Lebanese Cuisine.

At Hill + Knowlton Strategies we met with Katy Ludditt Brandon, the head of technology, who planned and hosted the briefing. Hala Saqqa, senior account executive, and Maddy Ravi, an intern, also met and spoke with our group.  One point that was brought up at H + K Strategies, that we had also heard at other agencies, was how business in MENA, the Middle East and Northern Africa, is based more on face-to-face interaction than emailing and phone conversation.  We found this to be interesting because this differs greatly from the way business is typically done  in the United States.  One similarity we noticed across both cultures was how key credibility is in public relations and how every company should be open, honest, and transparent.  Some advice that we were given at H+K Strategies was not to limit ourselves to one specific area within an agency and to volunteer as much as possible in order to learn more about different areas of public relations. 

After the professional briefing we enjoyed walking around the Emirates mall where the indoor ski resort is located.  Tourist and locals flock to the malls in the summer months to escape from the hot sun and enjoy an afternoon on the slopes, shopping, or at the movie theater. 

Thursday, May 17

On Thursday we were privileged to meet with both APCO Worldwide and Bates Pan Gulf.  At the meeting with APCO we met with several employees including Sonia Bahauddin, Rania Al Khadra, Omar Alziri, Craig D’ Silva, Suzanna Samaan, and Ashraf Abdullah. At APCO we were briefed on the company, media relations in the region, politics in the UAE, and living in Dubai.  It was very interesting to hear more about media censorship and the differences involved with the Middle Eastern media and the public relations field as a whole.  The Arab Spring was also a topic of discussion during the presentation.  We spoke about different perspectives on how the Arab Spring has already and will continue to effect the media and how business is done in the Middle East.  After the briefing we enjoyed great conversation over a typical Middle Mastern lunch with many APCO employees.

After our first briefing of the day we were off to the Emirates Dubai National Bank where we received a private tour of the pearl museum.  We watched a short video on the history and significance of the pearl before walking through the jaw-dropping exhibit.  The first pearl was found over 7,000 years ago in Kuwait.  Pearls were very expensive at the time and are still relatively expensive today.  Each pearl’s worth is determined by color, shape, weight, and size.  The museum is home to the world’s largest and perfectly round pearl which is considered a priceless treasure.  Once finished with a tour of the museum we were off to our second briefing of the day at Bates Pan Gulf.

At Bates Pan Gulf (BPG) with met with Avishesha Bhojani, group CEO, and Clark Williams, COO BPG public advocacy.  We began our briefing by watching a video that explained the company’s history and success.  BPG’s 4i’s are inquiry, insight, invention, and implementation which were mentioned several time throughout the presentation. We enjoyed the numerous case studies and campaigns presented to us, which gave us a better understanding of the company’s success. Clark Williams left us with helpful tips about formatting documents and other ways to prepare yourself for an interview.  After the presentations we had the opportunity to meet with some of their newest employees whom had recently graduated. One of Dr. Kalupa’s former students, Lara Al Nagi, met us at BPG and accompanied us to City Center mall for a light meal.  After a long and educational day, we returned to the hotel to rest for the night.

Friday, May 18

We arrived bright and early for our tour of the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. This impressive landmark stands at 2,716.5 feet and has 160 stories. The building was originally named the Burj Dubai and later changed to the Burj Khalifa, named after the Sheikh. Despite minor ear popping, the smooth ride from the ground to the 214-floor observation deck was a shockingly-short 90 seconds. We were amazed by the smoothness of the elevator ride as well as the breath-taking views from the indoor and outdoor observation areas. Luckily for us, the Burj Khalifa is adjoined to the Dubai Mall, the largest mall in the world, which has an astounding 1,200 retail outlets.  The Dubai mall is also home to an indoor waterfall and aquarium, two of its main attractions.

Once we had spent our remaining Dirham we returned from the mall and a few members of the group, including myself,  decided to walk along the Dubai Creek from the hotel to the spice and gold souk.  We were amazed by the amount of bargain shops and beautiful clothing, accessories, and jewelry.  The bright colors caught our eye and the distinct smells of ethnic spices filled the air.  After spending a few hours wandering through, and getting a little lost, it was time to pack and prepare for our 2 a.m. bus transportation for a 5 a.m. flight to New Delhi, India.

-Katie Casey

Sunday, May 13

After waiting a few hours in the airport of the Kingdom of Bahrain we were bused to the small Gulf Air plane that would bring us to Abu Dhabi. After a short flight, we arrived at the luxurious airport that was very different compared to most airports in the United States due to its beautiful décor. We did not have much time before our next appointment, so we immediately changed into professional outfits in preparation for our visit to Zayed University. Stepping out of the airport we felt the sweltering heat that was over 100 degrees. We were shocked to hear that it the weather would only get hotter in the coming months. With the help of our tour guide and a chartered bus, we made our way to the girl’s campus.  

Zayed University, which was named after the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, is one of the three main universities in the UAE. We had graciously been invited to attend and participate in Dr. Jack Hillwig’s media criticism class, which had about 35 female students, the majority of who were studying integrated strategic communication. It was interesting to observe the style of the students, as they were all wearing abayas, which are robe-like dresses worn by Islamic women in some parts of the world, complimented by designer shoes, jewelry, and expensive handbags.

The class discussion was centered on defining the key characteristics of criticism.  Dr. Jack argued that critics must be journalists, writers, critical thinkers, or people who have their own voices and strive for the truth when writing.  There were differing views of the role of journalists being identified as critics.  It was clear the students were more confident in the objectivity of the media.  We became aware that as Americans, we are prone to question the validity of the news and how it is reported, but in the Middle East it is somewhat different.

After class, Dr. Jack encouraged the students to introduce themselves, which gave us the opportunity to interact with them on a more personal and engaging manner.  We were able to ask and answers questions about cultural differences, mostly centered on university life.  The faculty then provided us with lunch, and a tour of the rest of the facility.  During our discussion at lunch the professors told us that most of the students are interested in pursuing a career in business or engineering, or what may be considered to be a more “noble” profession. We were also surprised to find out that only about 10 percent of the population in the United Arab Emirates was made up of Emirati nationals, the rest consisting of expats. Sitting in on our lunch was a graphic design major named Miriam Fahed, who provided us with her own perspective of being a student at Zayed, and told us about some of her interests and her culture. We then toured the campus a bit longer, thanked our hosts, and headed to the Crowne Plaza, where we would be staying for the next two nights.

~Meg Durcan and Faizah Butt

Monday, May 14

The morning started with an impressive breakfast buffet, and a sweltering hot introduction to one of Abu Dhabi’s greatest gems, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. This beautiful place of worship is the largest in the UAE, as it can hold more than 40 thousand people. Before entering the mosque, Mary, Faizah, Katie and Meg were required to put abayas over their clothes, while Andrew and Dr. Kalupa were able to enter the mosque as long as their legs were covered. As we stood on the largest carpet in the world, a female tour guide talked to us about the history and tradition behind the architecture and use of the mosque. One of the most interesting things we learned was the reason behind the different cultural styles of dress of men and women in the Islamic culture.

Next we made our way to the Higher Colleges of Technology, where Mohamed Blaik, the marketing, media, and alumni coordinator warmly greeted us.  He gave us an extensive tour of the grounds, which consisted of several presentations by faculty members. We were grateful for the College’s generous hospitality and extremely impressed by their beautiful campus. We also had tea with Sultan Karmostaji, the associate provost and Dr. Kahmali, the CEO.  Sultan told us about the Sheik’s Education Without Borders program, which many of us are interested in applying to.

Directly after our tour of the college, a driver who was graciously offered to us by Sultan, brought us to Jones’s restaurant for a light lunch. Then we were brought to the Masdar Institute, which is in the process of building a self-sustaining city that will be highly efficient. Masdar City will use 51 percent less energy and 41 percent less water as well as divert an astounding 96 percent of carbon waste by recycling. The city will have all organic stores, utilize natural sunlight, and have a natural cooling process created by wind towers. The only cars allowed into the city are electric hybrid cars. We were lucky enough to be transported into the Institute by pod cars that are run on magnetic strips. The city will also serve as a live lab, as they will be able to conduct different geothermal projects within its limits. Six of the buildings have already been constructed with an expected completion date is in­­­­ 2025.  Students from around the world can come to study at the institute in the UAE on scholarships granted by the Masdar Company. We found it fascinating that a city that built their office spaces out of used cargo containers could be so aesthetically pleasing, but Masdar was truly a beautiful yet efficient site. Being able to sign our names on the electronic guestbook, which makes customized artwork out of your signature and sends it to each visitor, also impressed us.

Our last stop for the day was at the Emirates Palace Hotel. This hotel was built and is owned by the Abu Dhabi government. It is one of the most expensive hotels ever built. We were amazed by the beautiful architecture of the building and even more enthralled by the beautiful interior decoration of gold and marble. We were fortunate to receive a tour guide who brought us into one of the palace suites, which are typically reserved for heads of state. Besides being fabulously decorated, this luxury suite had beautiful views of the Abu Dhabi skyline. The top floor of the hotel holds suites that are only given to Emirati dignitaries and royalty. After snapping a picture by the hotel’s main fountain, we went back to the hotel and went to sleep fairly early in order to prepare for our drive to Dubai the next morning.

 -Mary Cerasa
Thursday, May 10

The 2012 Europe, the Middle East and India tour sponsored by James Madison University began when our group landed at London Heathrow Airport on Thursday. The group met at our hotel, The Royal National located on Bedford Way in Russell Square. We started our day by trying out a local pizza place, Blooms Pizza, where we discussed our upcoming itinerary. Despite feeling a bit jetlagged, we were excited to begin what we knew would prove to be the experience of a lifetime. After a short nap we felt refueled enough to explore the city. To get a feel for the city, we made our way towards the Soho district, a bustling downtown area full of local culture.  When we returned to the hotel, we were able to catch up on some much needed sleep in preparation for our professional briefings the next day.

Friday, May 11

We began our morning with a European style breakfast of toast, granola, and fruit. The plan for the day included briefings at Echo Research and Ketchum Pleon as well as lunch with Dr. John White, an independent communications consultant. We hopped on the “Tube” a term for the London underground subway system, and took it to Echo Research that was located near Tower Hill. Echo Research, recently acquired by Ebiquity, has a main focus on reputational research that monitors, measures, benchmarks, and advises for their clients in order to better that client.
We met with Sam Knowles, the integrated services director, and discussed his personal definition of public relations and different aspects of the evolving field. According to Mr. Knowles, “public relations takes a group or audience on a journey, through a variety of tactics to move them along a spectrum of engagement.” Mr. Knowles advised us to remain both task oriented as well as objectively focused throughout our careers. Reflecting on this visit, we all plan to take this advice, which we feel will be very useful in the real world. Upon leaving the office, we took a stroll to nearby St. Katherine’s Pier, which was hosting an international foods festival. After enjoying a few samples, we took pictures with London’s Tower Bridge as our backdrop.            

Zizzis, a restaurant overlooking the pier, was where we met Dr. John White for lunch. While enjoying our meal, he gave us a synopsis of his life, starting with his early career, as well as his opinions on the current state of the public relations field. We appreciated his knowledgeable insight on the versatility of public relations. He feels that despite its quickly evolving nature, the fundamentals remain grounded. It was stimulating to receive advice from someone who became independently successful within the communications field. After enjoying our Italian cuisine in good company, we hopped in a cab and made our way to Ketchum Pleon.

In the lobby we met with Aimee Bateas, a JMU grad who is now an account coordinator. She brought us to the conference room where we also met Kate Matlock, a digital strategist. Together they outlined the merger of Ketchum and Pleon as well as the company’s objectives and success. They recommended that we remain both flexible, hardworking, and generous with our time and ideas throughout our future careers.  We also took a fun public relations quiz that highlighted social media. A tool Kate introduced us to, which we hope to utilize in the future, is Listorious. It is a site where one can acquire information about other professional’s media contacts. Upon returning to the hotel, we rested up a bit, then enjoyed dinner and another exploration of the city.

Saturday, May 12

The next morning we met Aimee in Soho at the Breakfast Club. There we enjoyed a delicious brunch that was a mix of both English and American cuisine. In the afternoon we took a private tour of London, which included stops at Covent Garden, The Palace of Sir James, Grosvenor Square, the Piccadilly Circus, The Clock Tower (Big Ben), Westminster Abbey, the queen’s birthplace, and Buckingham Palace. The tour guide dropped us off at Heathrow Airport to catch our flight to Abu Dhabi by way of Bahrain. We had many wonderful experiences in London to kick off our tour, and look forward to returning at the end of the month. We are eager to continue our adventures in the Middle East and to further our knowledge of the communication and public relations fields. 

_Mary Cerasa and Katie Casey


    All of the participants in the study abroad tour will be blogging about the tour before, throughout and after they return.


    June 2012
    May 2012