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Ask the expert: Senior Associate Max Wrey discusses online reputation management and digital risk in Dubai and the MENA region

June 2022
 by Max Wrey

Ask the expert: Senior Associate Max Wrey discusses online reputation management and digital risk in Dubai and the MENA region

June 2022
 By Max Wrey

Max is an Associate within Digitalis’s Digital Risk Practice, specialising in performing MENA-focused risk and intelligence assignments for government, commercial and HNWI private clients. He takes a few minutes to discuss how his team at Digitalis helps clients in Dubai and the wider MENA region with their unique challenges in online reputation management and digital risk.

  1. Tell us a little about your background, how you came to work at Digitalis, and how your role has evolved.

My background has been dominated by obsession with Arabic – both the language itself and the people that speak it. Ever since, as a schoolboy, I set about deciphering squiggles I had found on a trip to the East that I thought were Arabic but which later transpired to be Urdu, I have been completely fascinated, albeit I am now a little better directed.

This journey coincided with a major transformation in the region, particularly in the eyes of the West, with 9/11 and its resultant “War on Terror”, the “Arab Spring” uprisings, and the emergence of a tech-savvy and internationally assertive class of rulers in the region all ensuring that the Arab world remained as crucial to us as it was during its Golden Age.

My professional career has been heavily influenced by these same factors, with forays in commerce to post-revolution North Africa, a stint with a real estate developer in the early days of King Salman’s rule, a period investigating suspect Middle Eastern financial flows at a London-based business intelligence company, and work as a strategic adviser to several Arab clients.  

I joined Digitalis’s Digital Risk team two years ago, and my first role was providing real-time monitoring and advisory services to a client who had been the victim of a large-scale multi-platform disinformation campaign. The digital risk sphere is constantly evolving, and with the help of our technical team, we’re continually developing tools and applications that enable us to better collect and analyse data. It’s been exciting to be a key part of a team that’s seen such massive growth in size, capability, complexity of work, and purpose over the past two years.

  • What types of clients do you work with, and what unique challenges do they face? How is your work with MENA-based clients different to Digitalis’s work with clients based elsewhere?

The work at Digitalis is varied: our clients come from all corners of the world, and we’ve recently seen a real boom in business coming from MENA clients, particularly those based in Dubai.

The clients we work for include Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (UHNWIs) whose online profiles present natural targets for hostile quarters, and Senior Executives at blue-chip corporates (or companies themselves), whose routine business activities might make them a focus of heightened media scrutiny. We have also helped family groups and private clients whose special situations call for enhanced guidance. Right now, I’m working for two clients that fit the categories above.

In essence, our approach remains the same for our clients all around the world. There are considerations that have to be taken when dealing with Arabic language or MENA situations, but at heart we have a consistent data-led approach in applying technical solutions to online reputational risks.

The most common thread to the challenges faced by our clients is the ever-growing presence of easily-accessible information relating to them online, coupled with the level of preparedness a client has on to how this information can be weaponised and the steps that can be taken to mitigate that.

  • You mention that Digitalis is expanding its presence in Dubai. What has led to this increased presence, and how are you able to help those in Dubai in particular?

Our services are particularly well suited to clients in the Arab world. The digital transformation in the region, as well as the emergence of a new class of business figures, who are not necessarily from the traditional ranks of the entrenched merchant families, has driven the opportunity for Digitalis’s MENA expansion.

Dubai is the unrivalled business, media and communications hub of the region. While there have been overtures made by Saudi Arabia in recent years to attract businesses, Dubai still reigns supreme in this regard. The execution of the Dubai Expo 2020 was a great example of the Emirate’s impressive record for embarking on ambitious projects, successfully delivering them and providing an attractive haven for a wide range of international interests. The city also boasts a bustling financial hub governed by common law.

  • What new and emerging trends are there in reputation management and digital risk, and what are the implications for those based in the MENA region?

Aside from the digital transformation in the region, the myriad of national, tribal and confessional identities play a decisive role in driving many of the social, economic and political conflicts at play. Time and again, we’ve seen issues such as dynastic struggles defining the online presence of our clients in the region. Understanding and managing these issues is a fundamental prerequisite to developing an effective reputation management strategy.

Nowhere is this more pertinent for individuals and businesses than in the Middle East. Those seeking success need to have well-manicured digital profiles and ensure they are telling the right story. Untidy searches dominated by old, irrelevant or incorrect information have the potential to stifle business prospects. Rumours on social media or hostile drop sites can unsettle investors and derail deals. In extreme cases, misinformation may build a perception that an individual holds opposition views, which can be catastrophic.

  • Finally, how might reputation management and digital risk evolve in the coming months and years, and what might this mean for your clients and the wider public?

On the other end of the spectrum are the increasing soft power plays, especially in sports and arts, that have recently come to define the region. Key leaders in the Gulf have spent substantial political capital in promoting their countries as bastions of arts and capitals of culture. One only has to look at the World Cup in Qatar, the Louvre in Abu Dhabi and the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Tournament to see some of the reputational issues thrown up. Contractors and participants face a serious challenge in making sure that they achieve the best possible outcomes when engaging with these initiatives, and managing their online reputation is key to this.

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