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Ali Al Saloom: Every expat's best friend in the UAE

posted on 08/03/2014: 1867 views



Do you want to know how many camels there are in the UAE but have no clue where to look for an answer? Is it correct to take flowers to a funeral? Are you fuming because you were stood up for dinner by your Arab friend and want to know why you were treated so cavalierly*?

A literature festival would seem an unlikely place to have such concerns addressed but then, the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is like no other literary festival. Come Friday and you can have all these perplexing questions — and a lot more — answered at the innovative session at the InterContinental in Dubai Festival City where the walking encyclopedia of Emirates etiquette, also known as Ali AlSaloom, will take the floor.

The 34-year-old is an expatriate's best friend in the UAE. Whether you are from Iceland, Zanzibar or Mongolia and whether you have been to the Emirates or not, his is the name that springs to mind if you want advice on anything related to the Emirates. "You ask and I'll answer,” promises the Ask Ali site (www.ask-ali.com) started seven years ago by the Emirati to befriend non-Emiratis.

"I often come across expatriates who say they don't have any Emirati friend, even though they may have lived in the Emirates for 20 to 30 years. It breaks my heart,” says the UAE's self-styled culture ambassador who has dedicated his life to "being an Emirati friend for all expatriates & residents who come to the UAE from day one”.

The idea for the web site began to take root when Ali began his career in a hotel and found himself flooded with questions about the UAE by curious visitors.

"How come everyone is asking these questions when the answers should be available online!” he thought at first. Then he began surfing the Net to see if the answers were available and found some were but a lot of the information was incorrect. So to answer people's queries about the UAE — which could be anything from the procedure for getting a visa, how to set up a business, or if one could kiss a woman in public — he started the Ask Ali portal.

Wherever he is and no matter how busy his schedule, Ali finds time to answer the questions asked from all over the world, usually in 24 to 48 hours. In seven years he has answered over 7,000 questions — with tact, humour and lots of patience. The popularity of the site led to an Ask Ali television show and a column in daily.

It also led to two bestselling mini guides that have sold over 125,000 copies — A Guide to Abu Dhabi and A Guide to Dubai. Ali calls them the "first insider guide to the UAE written by an Emirati”. By Emiratis, of Emiratis, but for both expatriates and residents of the UAE including Emiratis as well. This is the USP of the mini guides as well as Ali's cultural consultancy, Embrace Arabia.

He describes what led to the group's inception.

"When I was working in the hospitality industry, a lot of people used to ask me questions about the UAE and indeed, the entire region. While answering them, my Master's degree in branding would encourage me to search for similarities between their culture and ours to explain things to them, instead of emphasising differences. I don't tell people we do something differently. I say, we have a different story. And this feeling of similarity encourages people. It also helps dispel the cultural stereotypes that have grown up.”

Soon he had gathered a team and they had put together a wealth of information. Armed with this information Ali began holding workshops for local and international firms and whoever else was interested in getting the cultural nuances right.

"There were other organisations to provide intercultural training — for instance in hotels, restaurants and government institutions — but that training was conducted by non-Emiratis,” he says. "It's great to see many non- Emiratis interested in our culture and talk about it to others but it's also crucial that we as Emiratis get involved in this field and raise awareness about our culture in the way we believe it should be shared. Wherever we go around the world we would always search for locals of that society and country to share with us their stories about their place and this is what we believe in here”.

So in 2007 the Embrace Arabia cultural consultancy was born, consisting of Emiratis who speak more than one language and can seamlessly interact with people from different countries and strata. Today, Maestro Enterprises has expanded to five companies.

In the midst of this flurry of activities, Ali is still soldiering on with Ask Ali, that now also offers tips for travelling in the UAE, information about Islam, and a crash course in commonly used Arabic phrases.

"There is always a way of making money,” he says, asked why he continues to bother with a venture that doesn't bring in any revenue. "It is not an issue of how much I have in my pockets but how much I can give others. I want to share whatever I have – courage, inspiration, knowledge — with friends, family members and even strangers. It's an issue of changing the world, enhancing what's there.” – Khaleej Times - http://www.khaleejtimes.com/nation/inside.asp?section=todayevent&xfile=/data/todayevent/2014/March/todayevent_March7.xml

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