12 Tips for Doing Business in the Middle East

Global economic uncertainty is causing some businesses to put the brakes on their overseas expansion plans. But it is precisely this hesitance, combined with the unique business climate of the GCC, which makes now an ideal time to establish your presence in the Gulf region. (Editor’s note: the article below was written in 2010.)

The revelation by Dubai World in November last year that it may have to default on some $60 billion worth of loans sent shockwaves through the business world. Dubai, considered a cosmopolitan symbol of new Arab ambition and wealth, was transformed overnight into a castle made of sand in the eyes of the public. Some executives, wary of the possible knock-on effects of a real-estate crunch, shelved plans to expand into a region that is still, in the twenty-first century, something of a mystery to the western business mind.

Rightly so, no one can be totally effusive about the situation in the Gulf, given the publicity around the problems in Dubai. However, it is important to understand that Dubai is one of seven emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates. The real powerhouse of the UAE is Abu Dhabi – the more conservative, wealthier elder brother to the more adventurous and gregarious younger sibling -Dubai. Following Dubai’s financial problems, it was Abu Dhabi that came to Dubai’s rescue. Dubai captured the heart and imagination of investors during the glory days of 2002-2007. Although Dubai’s economy was built on the back of the oil industry revenues from oil and natural gas account for less than 6% of the emirate’s revenues. The emirate’s share in UAE’s gas revenues is about 2%. Dubai’s oil reserves have diminished significantly and are expected to be exhausted in 20 years. When you compare this to Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s large hydrocarbon wealth gives it one of the highest GDP per capita in the world and Abu Dhabi owns the majority of these resources – 95% of the oil and 92% of gas. Abu Dhabi thus holds 9% of the world’s proven oil reserves and almost 5% of the world’s natural gas. Several businesses that established themselves in Dubai over the last decade have now relocated to Abu Dhabi to take advantage of a more secure, yet still dynamic and attractive business climate. Where you choose to start your business operations in the Gulf region depends on what you sell and who you target customers are.

When assessing whether or not to ‘go for it’ in terms of doing business in the Gulf region, another important indicator to consider and in fact a question many investors and business people ask is, “how easy is it to do business in the Gulf?” The vast majority of expatriate business professionals in the Gulf will recommend investing time and effort to understand the social and business culture across the Gulf. Each of the six GCC countries is unique in their own way, despite several commonalities. Simply transplanting western business practices (however successful you may have found them to be) in the Gulf will not yield dividends. Religion plays such a big role in all aspects of life across the Gulf region and wider Middle East, so spend some time to learn about Islam. Spend some time with Gulf Arabs, pick their brains, exchange ideas and get to feel the pulse of the business and social environment first hand. This will certainly make doing business in the Gulf less challenging. The World Bank also ranks the GCC economies on the ease of doing business by taking a close look at the regulatory reforms that have taken place in the country that make it more business friendly:

EconomyWorld RankGCC Rank
Saudi Arabia131
United Arab Emirates333

It is quite surprising for those of us who have first-hand experience of doing business in Saudi Arabia to see it perched at the top of the GCC list in the ‘ease of doing business’ stakes. While government reforms have substantially reduced bureaucratic red tape in recent years, doing business in Saudi perhaps more than any of the other GCC countries is about planning, influential connections and above all, patiently working the deal. The real challenge newcomers to the Saudi market face is actually closing deals. The typical sales cycle in Saudi Arabia compared is protracted in comparison to the rest of the GCC and one must be patient. Newcomers to the region can protect their interests in the context of an unfamiliar business environment by a) becoming as familiar as they can with Gulf business culture and ethics; b) acquiring a basic understanding about Islam; c) thoroughly researching the companies they do business with in the Gulf (in particular, the company’s track record in dealing with foreign companies); d) securing a reliable local partner or intermediary to guide you early on; d) seeking appropriate legal advice when working on your first few deals.

A cursory examination of the playing field reveals a promising picture of the GCC’s financial climate in 2010 and beyond. Predicted growth of 5.2% by the IMF is well above that of most western countries still recovering from the global financial crisis. Oil prices, the foundation of the Gulf economy, are expected to remain above $75 a barrel throughout the year compared to $30-40 in early 2009, and new initiatives such as the Bahrain Chamber of Dispute Resolution are typical of a region keen to bolster investor confidence and encourage innovation across all sectors. A prime example of this ambition is the opening in January this year of the Samsung Medical Center in Dubai, a state of the art facility that adds health tourism to the great and growing list of sectors in which the GCC now competes at the highest level.

There are two main factors that make the GCC an attractive market for expansion in 2010. The first is that in a time when most banks are still throttling lending, the liquidity provided by rising oil prices gives companies operating in the Gulf more freedom to maneuver. The second factor is decreased competition from cautious competitors in superficially uncertain economic times. Every business leader worth their salt knows that the best time to be bold and invest is when your competitors are hesitating, allowing you to grab a larger slice of the market.

This is surely the view of South Africa’s popular ‘Spur’ chain of steakhouses, currently stealing a march on their competition in a crowded field of franchises by launching their first GCC restaurant this month in partnership with local experts AMA General Trading. No less than four new malls are set to open in Abu Dhabi this year, catering to a growing tourism industry and rising numbers of ex-pats settling in the region, and those folks will need somewhere to eat. They will also be safer than ever thanks to the Abu Dhabi Police Department’s recent deal with Canadian security tech firm EmerGeo to supply emergency and crisis management software. EmerGeo are one of many hi-tech companies enjoying fruitful relationships with local GCC partners, in this case Atlas Telecom. Atlas also works with EADS, Ultra Electronics, Marais Group and Harris in bringing international expertise to GCC markets.

High-tech, logistics and professional services in particular are all booming markets in the GCC, where the rapid expansion of businesses in so many diverse sectors is creating a need for much more developed infrastructure, support services and supply chains. As much as $150 billion has already been committed to infrastructure development in the GCC, which will in turn propel substantial growth in logistics, legal, accounting and other supporting fields of expertise.

For those considering filling that need this year, and indeed anyone contemplating expanding their business into this flourishing market, the most important thing to remember is that in the GCC, it’s not what you know that is important so much as who you know. Connections make or break deals in this part of the world much more than any other. If you have good friends working with you in the region, you can find that the normal rules of business are bent or broken to accommodate you. If, on the other hand, you approach the GCC markets from a strictly formal business perspective, you may find that doors which should logically be open are well and truly locked.

I remember one of my first business experiences in the region, when I worked solidly for months putting a deal together only to have it snatched away at the last moment and handed on a plate to the cousin of the General Manager of my prospective client organization. I had done all the hard graft and developed the entire blue-print of the solution my client was looking for. Little did I know that was just lining someone else’s pockets. Naïve, inexperienced Western business professionals can easily fall into this trap. In the Arab World, all business is personal. Once you have stepped onto the playing field in full awareness of this truth, you can actually use it to great advantage.

With this in mind then, I offer you my twelve top tips for doing business in the GCC:

1. Be careful when selecting and managing local partners. Gulf Arabs are charming to the core. The idea of signing a strategic partnership or Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which is a regional favourite, with a foreign company is very appealing, and thus several less reputable Gulf-based companies will readily agree to become your local partner without necessarily thinking about your expectations of them and the drive to help and support you sell your products and services. Whilst there are several benefits to working with local partners and it is in fact compulsory in many places, do not rely on being flooded with leads and new orders. Local partners can be difficult to manage and generally high maintenance. The best way to approach a partnership is to look for commercial synergy between the two organizations and intellectual synergy between the people from both parties. How does your business compliment the local partner company and what difference will it make to the local partner to be aligned with your firm? What are the incentives for the local partner to help and support you and are these incentives considered a big deal? Can your would-be local partner really open doors for your and do they have the resources and intent to flex their political muscle (if any), or leverage their contacts and market position to help secure new business for you? Have you clearly defined the roles and responsibilities of both partners and is there a clear buy-in from the senior most management tier in the local partner company? Be sure that the people you will be working from your partner company are like-minded individuals with a clear understanding of their operational roles and responsibilities. Always maintain regular contact with the senior most management team in the local partner company. Keep them up-to-date with progress and inform them of good news as well as bad. If you confronted with bottle-necks, give them an opportunity to remove them. The likelihood is that the news they are getting from the inside is that all is hunky-dory. You must ensure you secure and maintain mindshare with the management at all times. You do not want to be working with middle-managers and other staff who you are finding difficulties in working with. It is in your interest to spend some time establishing a rapport with key contacts and stakeholders both personally and professionally, so that you’re confident the partner is someone you can definitely work with before you sign anything. If a Gulf-based organization comes recommended by a foreign company, lawyer or law firm or somebody you know professionally and trust, that’s a good base to work from.

2. Business and personal friendships are one and the same, and Arabs generally prefer to do business with people they know and like. Small talk is more than just a courtesy; it is a way of finding out whether you would be a suitable business partner. Engage in conversation freely and enthusiastically, and have a few stories in your back pocket to break the ice.

3. Gulf Arabs are exceptionally proud of their language, which is a strong, uniting bond right across the Arab world. Learning at least a few words of Arabic is an easy way to demonstrate that a relationship is personally important to you rather than just another business deal. Your effort will be greatly appreciated.

4. Gulf-based organizations can be many-tiered and difficult to penetrate. If you don’t have a business associate or influential friend who can help you find a way into a prospective customer, consider hiring a professional intermediary with clout to save you time, money and frustration in identifying and reaching the real decision makers you want to target. If you can contact one of your prospect’s existing suppliers/vendors or an individual they have done business with in the past, form a ‘sales taskforce’ in order to clinch a deal and avoid bottlenecks, so much the better. Teaming up with experienced, local business people and firms to close a big deal makes a lot of sense.

5. Decisions can take a long time, probably longer than you’re used to. Don’t be impatient, as this will reflect poorly on your character. Be flexible and prepared to accommodate shifting schedules. In fact, patience is the most valuable virtue you can demonstrate throughout your business and social life living and working in the Gulf. You can learn to demonstrate this most precious quality in the most frustrating of business situations, you will surely reap the rewards.

6. Body language is just as important as the spoken word. Your opposite number may be telling you with a raised eyebrow, reclined posture or tone of voice that it’s time to change tack. Your instinct will usually be enough to guide you provided you’re on the lookout for non-verbal signals.

7. Arabs will often speak in vague terms, generalities, stories and metaphors during negotiations. This is not a calculated effort to irritate you, but rather a method of dialogue that allows for communicating ideas without causing anyone else around the table to lose face. Insulting potential business partners through blunt demands or rejections can be fatal to a deal. Be subtle and always promise to consider requests. Likewise, you’ll need to make double-sure everyone in the room understands exactly what is on the table. Arabs may not ask for clarification for fear of losing face, so it’s up to you to make sure every angle is covered. Nobody will sign a deal they don’t fully understand. I recall a key business presentation I delivered many, many years ago in Saudi Arabia. I came out feeling on top of the world hoping to get a Purchase Order the close of the quarter. This was sometime in February. To my dismay, I discovered that my counterparts were expecting to get back to me by the last quarter! The moral of the story is don’t be fooled by several faces seemingly nodding in agreement with you. Avoid overloading senior Gulf Arabs with information. Keep it short and simple, delivered in bit sized pieces. Take extra care and time to ensure you have been understood.

8. The best way to communicate is always face to face. If this isn’t possible, make a phone call. The written word is considered less personal and less important, and you could find your letters and e-mails go unanswered for some time if you don’t at least follow up by phone. This is certainly the case with email. Some countries, like Saudi Arabia, don’t really do serious business by phone with Westerners, so a personal visit is your only option.

9. Know your host. The GCC countries share a common history and culture, yet there are also many differences in terms of their social outlook and approach to business. Treating all Arabs alike smacks of arrogance, and coming across as arrogant is just about the worst thing a western business person can do in this part of the world. If in doubt, err to the cautious and take your cues from the locals. It is always worthwhile hiring an intermediary to help guide you. Local chambers of commerce in the country you are in or a reputable local law firm can always help you out. The trade office of your homeland embassy will also be a smart port of call.

10. If you’re just starting out in the Gulf region, it’s a good idea to put together a few small, quick deals to see which companies are serious about doing business with you. If you want to do business with a particular company and see immense potential for significant business, just hang on before you go and pitch for a mega project. Aim for the low-hanging fruit first. Suggest pilot projects or try and close smaller deals. Once you have established a true meaningful relationship with the client, and have got them to part with some money, you can be more comfortable in spending your time and resources on the more strategic, high-value deals. Remember the story I told above about negotiating a time-consuming deal, only to have it snatched away at the last moment due to favoritism? Working with local partners to grab some ‘low-hanging fruit’ is a great way to get an accurate view of the landscape and enable you to better target your energies in pursuing bigger prizes.

11. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by warm hospitality and civilized negotiations. Arabs can drive as hard a bargain as anyone else, so you should be prepared to be tough, yet respectful. A senior dealmaker will often demand concessions from you in order to demonstrate his authority, so be prepared for plenty of give and take even at a late stage in negotiations.

12. Saudi Arabia is the Golden Goose, but Saudi is a challenging place to sell your wares and deal making in general. Business visas can be difficult to obtain, issued at the discretion of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Saudi Arabia and also local Embassies and Consulates. You may think you have all the paper work in place for a 6-month multiple-entry business visa and end up with a 30 or 60 day visas stamped when you open up your passport! Letters of Invitation now come through electronically via the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs web site. Invitations must originate from reputable companies in Saudi Arabia. Officially backed companies tend to face fewer problems getting people into the Kingdom. Once you can get into the Saudi market, the wealth of opportunity is well worth all the jumping through hoops.

If your business plan is solid, you’ve done your homework and you’re prepared to embrace a unique social and business culture, 2010 is shaping up to be a great year to take the plunge in the ambitious, rapidly-expanding economic zone that is the GCC.

Mohammad Irfan is Executive Director of Xpand Middle East, Global Business Excellence Awards – Winner 2010, a GCC-based sales and business development consulting firm. Xpand Middle East specialises in helping companies all over the world attract clients and win new business across the Gulf region. Xpand Middle East also offers cross cultural training on: Doing business in the Middle East and Selling to Gulf Arabs. For more information email: info@xpandme.com and visit: www.xpandme.com

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