What does Dubai mean to you?
Whether you live here, or you’re planning to move soon, or maybe you’re simply sitting in your office many miles from the UAE, looking at the rain and wondering about a place that will embrace your drive and passion rather than shrug it away… well, the chances are you already have a strong picture of Dubai in your mind.
Like Paris or Los Angeles, Dubai is somewhere that exists in the imagination before you even step off the plane.
So let’s get the basics out of the way: Yes, Dubai has a lot of impressive buildings, endless numbers of cranes dotting the skyline, non-stop sun, and plenty of opportunity. And yes, it even has a Minister for Happiness.
You may have already heard all this, but what about the nitty-gritty of living and doing business here? Everyone has an opinion on Dubai, but the key is to get the right business advice, directly from those who spend every single day helping businesses make that leap.
According to the Dubai Statistics Center report on business sector activity, the city issued 22,369 licenses in 2015. So as the gateway to 1.5 billion consumers in markets across the Middle East, Africa and Asia, it makes sense we should take a moment to examine some of the avoidable pitfalls of doing business in this complex, multicultural and fast-moving environment.
The UAE is the gateway to 1.5 billion consumers in markets across the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
DO: Dress right, play nice and smile
Yes, Dubai residents love their brands but before we fall into the ‘bigger, better, flashier’ stereotype, it should be noted that people here have also become very savvy about subtlety and sophistication. And while Dubai is very Western in some regards, it has strong Islamic roots. Add these factors together and it’s clear that whether you’re male or female, being smart, stylish and modest in your dress is a must. For example, a suit and tie is more or less compulsory for men attending meetings, especially if you’re in the process of looking for a local sponsor.
Happy, positive energy is also a major characteristic of social, entrepreneurial and even corporate trends in Dubai. No one moves here to immerse themselves in gloom. So top your outfit off with a smile.
When dealing with local Emiratis, it is customary to treat any introductions in meetings with utmost respect. You might not immediately know the ranks of the people in the meeting room so best be aware of etiquette when it comes to addressing people and social interaction: For example, never shake hands with the opposite gender unless they extend their hand first, and always use your right hand.
Finally, don’t dive too quickly into business matters. While you may be in a hurry, spending some time to enquire about a person’s day, health, and family will pay dividends. And guess what, when the favour is returned you may just feel a bit brighter and more upbeat yourself. So a good tip is to wait for the other party to start the business chat and keep any European corporate bluntness at bay. Small talk is more than just courtesy, it’s a non-intrusive way of finding out whether someone would be a suitable business partner.
DON’T: Boast about your achievements
Dubai has become overpopulated with show-offs who claim to have the first, the best, the only, the biggest, the wildest. Don’t add to the noise.
The city is now leaning towards modern minimalism, clean design and elements rooted in taste and humility, and quality over quantity. So when disseminating any business collateral – from pamphlets to online event invites – try to market yourself without using overused Dubai clichés.
DO: Get out there
You will not get very far with email introductions and online transactions. Dubai is all about in-person networking events and meet-and-greets. Go to them, enjoy the cocktails or mocktails, talk to anyone in the room and stay in touch afterwards. It’s a small network within each particular industry so close personal relations are key.
Word-of-mouth is also very strong here and making as many positive contacts as possible is key to expanding both your skills and client base. So join groups, networking sessions, conferences and always have a business card handy – with an Arabic language side printed as well.
It’s a small network within each particular industry so close personal relations are key.
DON’T: Expect meetings and negotiations to go as planned
Patience is the most valuable virtue you can build throughout your life and work in the region. Lengthy group meetings can be somewhat chaotic at times: People will often check their phones during discussions, join unannounced and proceed to alter the conversation, or simply show up late.
While this may at times feel frustrating if you’re coming from a European or North American business environment, being patient (and remembering that punctuality is still expected of most expats) will serve you well. Go with the flow and think carefully before you speak – it will help when working with a diverse group of nationalities. Don’t forget that keeping business in the family is a way of life here so that may also change the dynamic of your dealings with companies as well as the speed and style of their decision-making.
DO: Explore the culture and immerse yourself in new traditions
Get into the heat, learn to live with it and embrace its many positive aspects. Complaining about the heat (which can become very intense at 45 degrees Celsius in the summer) is of no use to anyone. It is a desert after all… but this also means breezy nights in epic landscapes, oasis hunting, dune bashing and a whole host of other activities to enjoy.
Find out about the region, show interest in the well-being of local populations, and try to learn a few words in Arabic – it is always appreciated.
DON’T: Forget to research, research and then research some more
This is a must: Before you roll out your brilliant new company venture in the UAE, you should have sound knowledge about the region. Extensive research by yourself or a consultancy can really help in understanding the business conditions found in each different industry.
DO: Remember your manners
Emiratis and other Middle Eastern business people working in Dubai love a good joke as much as anyone and can be uproariously funny. But profanity is a total no-no in the Muslim professional world, so avoid R-rated language and making disparaging comments on Islamic culture. Not only is the latter in particular the utmost of basic respect, but not following this one could result in fines, jail, or even deportation.
DON’T: Forget to take it easy
So you have found yourself in the middle of the fast lane, unhampered by anything but your own confidence level. You’re relishing the competition with some of the most active entrepreneurs in the world, taking advantage of playing in this big pond where the major players uniquely actually all still know each other. So be polite. Take a deep breath. Focus on your goals. That’s the joy of new markets – no repetition, no boundaries, and a huge number of people with faith in their ability to thrive.
AND FINALLY: Welcome to Dubai
With a flourishing business landscape helped by government incentives and an ease of setting up new enterprises, the city of Dubai is an appealing challenge for the business-minded dreamer. Here we find many of the best talents in the world benefiting from this safe, tax-free haven with its socially and culturally vibrant lifestyle. Yes, Dubai has its contradictions and relatively new social paradigms, but the country’s hospitality and progressive forward-thinking strategies reward those with ambition.
Whatever stage you are on during your Dubai journey, taking these points into consideration will help smooth the transition – although engaging with professional advice throughout the process is of course vital.
In the end, Dubai is a city with an unmatched “You can do it” attitude. So with that in mind, it’s over to you.
Neil Petch; Chairman at Virtugroup
With a history of business successes, Neil Petch is well known in the UAE and beyond as a visionary entrepreneur with a passion for helping others establish and grow their own businesses. Neil founded Virtuzone in 2009 and quickly established it as the region’s leading company formation expert, before launching Virtugroup, a holding company that has a wider mandate of supporting startups from establishment; to successful market entry; and all the way through to exit.