Gulf countries struggle to adjust in trying times

Wego recorded a drop in the average price for hotel stays of 13%.
Sunday 29/03/2020
A school gate closed with a chain and lock in Dubai. (AFP)
Lockdown. A school gate closed with a chain and lock in Dubai. (AFP)

DUBAI - From closed businesses, hotels and schools, to suspended flights and affected communities around the world, the Middle East is no exception to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

After many European countries went on lockdown, countries in the Arab world worked to ensure their societies remained safe during unprecedented times.

Wego, a travel search website, said massive drops were recorded in the airline industry as Saudi Arabia suspended international flights and the United Arab Emirates halted all flights as of March 24.

Wego recorded a drop in the average price for hotel stays of 13%. The company said the most affected countries on flight searches before the suspension were Iran with an 83% drop and China at 54%.

Hotel searches dropped 76% for Taiwan, followed by China at 53%, Japan and Malaysia by 43%, Thailand and Singapore 34% and Lebanon 42%.

“The policies, procedures and the government initiatives applied globally as well as the International Air Transport Association’s efforts to combat the effect of the virus and revive the economy are promising,” said Mamoun Hmedan, managing director MENA and India at Wego. “We are optimistic and hope to see growth in the (future).”

As schools shut down, some working parents struggled to work from home. Caz Ross, a 36-year-old South African, lost her job as a result and her British husband was asked to take indefinite unpaid leave.

“There’s not enough work,” she said. “It was a hard decision but the right one, business-wise. I was given the option to take a sabbatical or opt for a redundancy package.”

The issue she named with the events industry in the Gulf is that summer is considered a quiet period when work slows.

“It’s just a lot earlier this time,” Ross said. “I have help at home for my children but, if we don’t get jobs, we can’t afford to pay her.

“The scariest part of all of this has been that it’s not a regional thing, it’s everywhere that there are no events running so no jobs globally and it’s quite challenging.”

For Sara Tru, a Jordanian in Dubai, March was meant to mark the start of a new job after two-and-a-half years of maternity leave. Although she started working, she was forced to operate from home with her two young children.

“I never got the chance to start my job properly,” said the PR and communications manager for a FinTech company. “From day one, I had to work from home. I was looking forward to it and it’s very difficult with nurseries and schools being closed and lots of the offices are asking people to work from home when possible.”

Although Tru has help at home in the mornings, she is responsible for her children in the afternoons, restricting her work to three to four hours in the morning and an hour in the evening.

“It’s not realistic for one person to cope with two young children of that age,” Tru said. “We have a system but it’s tough and I can only do it because I have help at home. We can’t go to play areas or parks because they’re shut. We can’t do play dates and children are used to being social. I have to come up with so many creative ideas so you have to put a lot of effort into it so they don’t go crazy and it takes time away from my work.”

Small businesses have also taken a hit. “Leading your team in a small business, in normal circumstances, presents several challenges that are well known such as delegating tasks to others, holding people accountable for their actions and communicating effectively,” said Mike Hoff, CEO of Mike Hoff Consulting (MHC) and regional group manager of the Alpha Group.

“Leaders are finding it challenging to decide which tasks to delegate and tending to take the shortcut of doing everything themselves, leaving their team without meaningful work and concerned about job security.”

Some UAE schools and universities had prepared contingency plans for such a situation. Heriot-Watt University Dubai ensured that students continue studying off-campus, with the faculty providing remote support.

“Key to this remote support is Vision, our Virtual Learning Environment,” said Ammar Kaka, provost and vice-principal at the university. “All staff and students at our global campuses use Vision daily for learning and teaching tasks.”

The system delivers live and recorded video content, sets quizzes, surveys and assignments, encourages online discussion and tracks progress and manages grades.

“We appreciate that this might be an anxious time for some students,” he said. “Professional services staff will continue to work to provide students with all the support they require via email and videoconferencing. Learning will continue and we are confident that we are able to deliver the planned educational outcomes.”

The Emirates’ Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) recently concluded a system-wide e-learning pilot programme to test digital infrastructure as a precursor for the complete online delivery of its curriculum. Earlier in March, 3,260 students at 16 campuses undertook their courses.

As the COVID-19 situation challenges schools and universities in the United Arab Emirates, the new mode of learning has offered a boost to the continued education of students.

HCT President Abdullatif Al Shamsi stressed the importance of EdTech and e-learning for the future and the role they will play in preparing the next generation of UAE students for the workforce.

“This is not a luxury for academic institutions,” he said. “It’s a must.”