Our interview with a seasoned woman for whom doing business in the Middle East is now normale. We have protected her name. I got into the whole business of exporting from the UK to Dubai and the general Middle East, many years ago, in the mid 1980's and I would just like to share some of my experiences of doing business there, to maybe try an clear up some misconceptions that ladies with their own business may have about the region.
The UAE and the GCC, in general, has been driven by the petrodollar due to its vast amounts of oil that exist, primarily in Saudi and Abu Dhabi. Unfortunately for them and fortunately for people like me, that's pretty much all they have and thus they must import nearly everything else. I have heard that sometimes camels and sand are even imported! What is interesting is that as time has advanced more and more local women in the region have their own businesses, and these women really take to doing business with other women. Although this is in the minority it is an eye opener.
The lifestyle is very good and the Arabs are very hospitable to doing business,because it very much is a trading culture, because of the whole import psyche I mentioned earlier. It does take time to cultivate a relationship, and so it may take longer than usual to properly crack the market, perhaps 5 year to really be established, and maybe up to 2 years to get a contract, but it is worth sticking at. The whole thing is based on trust, and if you have put in the effort to build the relationship, then your contract can be ongoing and lucrative for many years, whatever niche that you are in.
I would recommend going to the commercial section of the embassy of your country. I went to the British embassy and they were very helpful, even as far as recommending people I could talk with. If the local people trust the British they will pass on their details in anticipation of a good match. There is a high amount of entrepreneurial spirit! My advice is to not even consider talking about business on the first meeting. It may get mentioned, but if you are meeting a local person, they really want to weigh you up to decide whether it is worthwhile doing business with you. If that is the case, you really have to have something else to talk about! I always like to talk about the country's culture and history. The locals love to talk about the history and will be happy that you asked. However, try to avoid the topics of politics or religion - that could be a breaking point before you even talk about anything!
You're probably likely to be considering the whole region, or areas of it, if entering Dubai, just because it makes sense. That might mean tackling the Saudi market, which is a more conservative. I believe that their framework of values is significantly based on the religious system, and that is worth bearing in mind. While I usually dress smart in Dubai, I make an especial effort in Saudi. You really don't need to wear an Abaya, the long black gown - all you have to do is cover you skin, so I wear a suit, making sure that my top covers my neck, and that my outfit is fairly loose. You should also have a headscarf to cover your hair. That’s all you need.Some very religious men don't like to shake hands, and some won’t even share a lift with you in Saudi and even Kuwait, so aim for a female lift or until it is empty. Another word of advice is if you are in a hotel lobby, for example, waiting on your own for someone; don't accept a drink that is bought for you. Always politely refuse it. You don't really see any religious police or equivalent in Dubai, but you do in Saudi. They are called the Muttawa, so make sure that you adhere to the rules.
In documentation, brochures etc., be aware that your audience may be from all over the Gulf. So even in Dubai, it makes sense to be a little conservative - after all it is always good to respect the culture. I make especially sure that there are no references to religious holidays such as Christmas for example, and I even avoid the Muslim ones as well. The obvious no no would be to not have an pictures of pigs or alcohol and show pictures of women who are clothed, if at all. I always try and get brochures translated into Arabic, and make sure that it makes sense with one of my Arab friends.
There is always a lot of talk about drugs and what you can and can't bring in to the country. I know that codeine and valium are banned in the UAE, and things are stricter in other countries. My recommendation is if you need to take prescription medicine, then rather than take the medicine with you, bring the prescription. That way you won't risk your life. Quite literally, the punishment for illegal drugs in Saudi is just that.
On payment terms, many people talk about the reputation of Arabs as bad payers. What I would recommend is not to ever leave the country before you have the cash in your hand! And always mark up your product, because you will always be asked for a discount if they bought 10. Then you will apply the discount, they will work out the unit rate, and then only ask for maybe 3. A good mark-up over your normal price would be between 25 and 40%.
The UAE and the GCC market, in general, is not a market to take lightly. It is getting more and more competitive, and if entering for the first time, you will need to make frequent visits to develop relationship over a period of years. The upfront cost are high, but, it can work very well to you benefit. One final anecdote; I have seen more senior people here, chairmen and CEOs here in the UAE than I have in the UK - women can do well here, because despite what the outside world thinks, they are respected more!