Psst!

Ali Alsaloom is the Emirates’ leading man when it comes to explaining the UAE and its Arabic culture to non-Arabs. His engaging Ask Ali guides and website, and his regular media appearances, are helping to build bridges between the Middle East and the wider world by promoting understanding and tolerance

When I first arrived in Dubai, I tried to learn as much about the history and culture of the Emirate that I could, in quick-fire time. I visited Dubai Museum, went for breakfast at the superb Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, and wandered the narrow alleyways of the Bastakiya, and along the Creek, looking to understand, and to gain a deeper insight into, my new home. I lapped up my surroundings, but the more I saw and experienced, the more questions I had, some of which I felt embarrassed to ask my new Emirati friends and colleagues. The interactive information website ask-ali.com came to the rescue. I found that I could ask anything about dress, habits, culture, heritage and religion without making a fool of myself, and nothing was too daunting or too stupid, even the importance of the stick Ali carries, or his beloved Saluki dog.

Wind the clock forward, and now I know Ali, the man behind the answers. To me this is a privilege, because Ali Alsaloom is a young entrepreneur who is building bridges between the Arab and Western worlds, someone who can, and does, replace suspicion with a deeper understanding of Emirati culture and history, and who is able to wonderfully, joyfully, convey his real love of the country to visitors from all corners of the globe.

In addition to running the website, Ali has an increasingly hectic diary. He gives cultural tours, accompanies the occasional visiting VIP, talks to business audiences and conferences about the region, writes a column in UAE broadsheet The National, stars in a television series and is always on local radio. He is also, of course, an author, and his latest book The Ask Ali Guide to Dubai is already flying off the shelves. In fact, today Ali Alsaloom is an ‘A-list’ Emirati celebrity, instantly recognisable in his trademark brown khandoura (the traditional long robe).

Even the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency has ‘Asked Ali’ to become an environment awareness ambassador. In reality, he is playing a much more valuable role for the whole country: one akin to a cultural ambassador; a first-class communicator educating international visitors, and audiences, and often – he tells me – other Emiratis who are delighted to learn more about their young country and its heritage.

In 1998 Ali lost a member of his family in a plane crash, and he became his family’s only remaining male child in the UAE. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ali’s parents discouraged him in the pursuit of his dream job, a pilot in the armed forces. His father suggested an alternative he thought would suit his growing son: a career in hospitality, travel and tourism. And so, Ali travelled to the US sunshine state of Florida to take a BA degree in Hospitality.

On his return to the UAE, Ali’s father introduced him to his first paid employment: “Not to a plum desk job, as I was expecting, but to the role of doorman at the Beach Rotana in Abu Dhabi!

“Of course, it’s unusual to see an Emirati in national dress in that position. A thousand people a day saw me doing that job, and it earned me respect, from them and my colleagues, and I learned a vast amount from my surroundings.

But the learning curve continued ever more steeply. Ali left the Beach Rotana to join his father in Germany, who was in search of a cure for his illness. As a thank you, he gifted his son a supposedly short break to Canada, which the latter clearly hoped and expected would be an opportunity to spend a relaxing holiday with old friends. A short holiday – with clothes to last a fortnight – turned out to be much more, as Ali had been unknowingly enrolled on a one-year Masters’ course in Ottawa, to study Branding and Culture!

It was a move that allowed him to come back to the UAE into a role at the Government Tourist Board. But, when his father died, Ali decided that it was the right time to create his own legacy.

While in the States, he had been the go-to guy for questions about the Arab world and its culture, and the Muslim religion, and he often wrote down the answers. The ‘Ask Ali’ concept was primarily borne out of this, and his belief that “if you think it, ink it”. In a short time he built up a wealth of information and knowledge about the country and its heritage – the answers to some 3,000 questions.

But the defining moment did not come until he had a vivid dream. In it, Ali met ‘Google’, wearing a full moustache and glasses. Together with the dream character, he typed in the words ‘Abu Dhabi’ which, he recalls, generated a million search results, but not one of which led to a website written or compiled by an Emirati. “‘That can’t be right’ I said in the dream. ‘Well, it’s your problem’ replied ‘Google’. ‘And it’s your people’s problem. I can only be the showcase!’”

Following the dream, Ali started investigating how many local people were writing about the Emirates and Emirati culture, and he found that his revelation was true. Not one site or word appeared to be written by a local, and many were actually full of errors.

Ali mapped out the plan for his ‘Ask Ali’ brand on one piece of paper. He drew eight arrows in all, spanning his multi-media ambitions, and ranging from television and radio, to a newspaper column and a book. Today, he is ticking off all of the points on his initial, conceptual brand map, an extraordinary achievement in what is, after all, a very short period. It’s all thanks to his own hard work and business acumen, having reinvested the money he has earned back into the project – without grants, investors or other financial support, together with a seemingly unwavering belief in what he is doing.

His first book, the Ask Ali Guide to Abu Dhabi, was self-published with his own money, and sold 650 copies in the first four days. Now the Dubai edition is out, priced Dh50 (US$13), and it’s packed with valuable information. The guide covers everything you would expect, including history and culture, but it also contains much more, from useful phrases right the way through to tips for female visitors, and a glossary of useful Emirati words. And it’s brave enough to cover all subjects and topics, from alcohol and breast-feeding to cohabitation. In fact, it’s priceless for an ‘expat’ local or a visitor, with plenty of insider tips (or ‘Psst’, in Ali’s parlance, for the useful insider fact boxes in the book).

Ali won the 2010 Khalifa Fund Business Award for his efforts. It befits a gifted communicator who can help convey the UAE, and Arabic culture, to the world.

So what next for the Ali brand? Different language editions of the books, an Ask Ali cultural show on Etihad Airways flights, and a board game, he tells me. But, he says, we must keep the questions coming, from young and old. “A child starts learning as he grows, and from then on it’s an ongoing, life-long, learning curve. We must always encourage people to ask questions. It would help the world!”