10/16/2012 03:39 pm ET Updated Oct 16, 2012

The Marketing of Dubai: A Brilliant Mirage

It's Difficult to Embrace the Hype While Wading in a Sea of Black.

I flew to Dubai last week to chair a Shopper Marketing conference. Professionally born and raised on the creative side of things, the thought of a) taking a leadership role at an international conference held in the U.A.E. and b) finding acceptable-in-an-Arab-country big girl clothes (a suit from the back of my closet that fit) were equally tempting and daunting. My mother, knowing my penchant for comedic and/or emotive public speaking, pleaded, "Please don't get arrested. Oh, and if you have time, bring me back a scarf." I managed to execute one of the two requests flawlessly.

Dubai was not on my bucket list. When the opportunity presented itself, however, I felt the pull to go. To use an old 7-Up ad line, Dubai is the "un-cola" of more strict Muslim countries. I was told by friends that it was very westernized, a mash-up between Vegas and Houston in the desert. It was described with an endless sea of "ests." The biggest building, the best hotels (even a 7-star), the best shopping, the biggest (at the time) indoor ski slope, the biggest horse race purse, the largest payoff in professional golf and tennis. It even boasts man-made islands that were big enough to hold Atlantis (the resort)! Dubai was billed as the mecca of architecture, entertainment and experiences. The resounding success of the country's ad campaign would make even the most accomplished of Mad Ave's PR agencies swoon.

As we marketers know, however, the product is only valuable when it delivers on its brand promise. It is impossible for me to acknowledge how "westernized" Dubai is with a straight face when women are compelled to cover their own. Seeing the sea of Muslim women curtained from head to toe in black, many with not even their eyes showing, in 110 degree heat (or in a blizzard for that matter) was beyond heartbreaking.

"It's their choice!" I was told more than once, an argument that I simply can't understand and have a really hard time accepting. If it were completely the choice of these women to blanket themselves out of humility to their God, why would they then accessorize with $5000 handbags and designer shoes? Male ruled cultures (religious and political) can convince the world (and sadly even the women they dominate) that subservient roles are right and good. This is an especially easy sell if the consequences for not doing what the males claim "God's will" for women is leads to shunning, jail, beatings and/or death in far too many parts of the world.

From a professional point of view, the region's culture made the conference environment challenging. No Arab women, dressed in traditional black garb or otherwise, attended the meetings. A minority of Muslim men in the audience were noticeably put off when female experts addressed the group, even though the women's credentials were the most impressive in the room. As chair, I spoke to the group several times a day, realizing quickly that there were those who didn't believe I should be speaking (or seen) at all.

Valuable information was exchanged by a host of delegates at the conference who worked in the region but were not from it. I learned that the family size in the U.A.E. depended on how many wives the male head of household has. Number of wives affected number of children, servants, etc. living in the home. Shopping for just about anything in the area is a family affair, and the primary source of entertainment for the family unit. A speaker from the U.K. shared that shopping on-line for home delivery of groceries is growing in the U.K. at a much more rapid pace than in the States, and a Swiss colleague shared that his country doesn't seem to find grocery shopping the least bit entertaining. Most attendees participated, but I left the conference wondering what it could have been if held in a more free-thinking and living society.

I have no plans to ever return to Dubai unless it's for a life or professional death business reason. The shopping is the same or better in Chicago, New York, LA, Paris, London or Milan or even Minnesota's "Mall of the Americas," and a heck of a lot closer. I can visit beautiful architecture in a myriad of places where humans stand on equal (or closer to equal) footing. I spent as little money as possible while in Dubai because I didn't feel right rewarding a government that fell so far short of what I believe is acceptable and decent behavior in a myriad of human arenas (women's rights, gay rights, treatment of non-native workers to name a several few). My time in Dubai reminded me how wildly fortunate I am to be a professional woman based in the United States.

As for Mom, she'll have to make due with the scarf I picked up during my layover at Heathrow. I'm guessing she'll understand.

Sarah O'Leary is the Lead Creative at Methods & Madness, Inc., a Los Angeles based boutique marketing agency. She's an accomplished public speaker and author of "Brandwashed: Why the Shopper Matters More than What You're Selling." She can be reached via email: