The 2,000 delegates to the fortieth World Congress of the International Advertising Association, held last week in the Arabian Gulf construction site known as Dubai, had settled comfortably in their seats.
Many were ready to doze their way through the interminable platitudes of welcoming local and international dignitaries. However, no such pleasant relaxation was in store.
Instead, Obaid Humaid Al Tayer, managing director of the Al Nisr Publishing Group, whose interests include the English-language Gulf News and the IAA Congress Daily, jolted his audience upright in their seats with a speech that few - if any -expected ever to hear at a politically anodyne ad industry conference.
It all began quietly enough, according to the report in the Congress Daily: "What started off as a warm welcome to delegates [by Al Tayer] to enjoy the progress made by Dubai, dovetailed into an analysis of the persistent demands on the Arab world and its people to change - demands from its friendly Western allies, of course."
But thereafter, Rance Crain, editor-in-chief of Advertising Age, claims to have heard rather different utterances by Al Tayer on Arabic-Western relations than those reported in the Congress Daily.
"Here's what I heard him say," wrote Crain.
" 'The West wants the Arab world to stop what [it's] doing and start afresh.' He labeled this Western attitude 'nonsense and ironic' because Arab countries were molded into their present form by the same European countries that want them to change.
"Turning to the media, Al Tayer said the US has one of the 'least free' media environments. 'It's closed to others, but they keep lecturing about freedom of speech. It's a double standard'.
"Why, he asked, is Al-Jazeera not allowed in Iraq? Because it 'won't report what American generals want to report'. Arabs, he said 'don't want to see democracy on the back of tanks and F-16s.' He added that Arabs will address 'the democracy question in our own time, not something forced on us'."
Al Tayer's remarks apparently caused greater distress to business-sensitive locals than Western attendees.
Reports Crain: "One prominent local ad executive told me he was surprised by the remarks because of Al Tayer's role as a businessman involved in luxury brands and automobiles as well as media. 'It's not appropriate for a business person to talk politics at a forum like this'."
Conversely, Joseph Ghoussoub, the new chairman and world president of IAA, was diplomacy personified, opining that Al Tayer had provided "a different angle" on the state of international affairs. "I try not to take sides," said Ghoussoub. "He made some interesting points and it was interesting to think about."
Data sourced from AdAge (USA); additional content by WARC staff