The Middle East is really a rewarding place to be. In the past (Alhumdulillah) we have won millions of riyals worth of business in the Middle East and in this article, I aim to share my experience. I hope this article can help others do the same.
Before I can do that however it’s really important to understand two common misconceptions that exist about the Arabs.
This is in a stereotypical generalist perception that Muslims in the rest of the world has about Arabs.
Myth No 1 There is a perception that all Arabs are so wealthy (and careless) that if you just walk down the street and smile at one of them, they will hand you a briefcase full of money.
People judge Arabs based on the minority that openly shows their extravagance in London, Kuala Lumpur, New York and other shopping capitals around the world.
However, the interesting paradox is that the Arab community does not like to dispel this perception and is one they rather enjoy having. The reality is quite different, although many wealthy Arabs exist, the manner in which they do business and invest is an interesting phenomenon.
Myth No 2:
Arabs are unskilled and huge risk-takers in business and work environments. they do not like the persona and they feel that the current young extravagant generation is the cause of this.
I have to agree with them because from my experience more or less every major organisation/client that I have sat with, there is always a shrewd, intelligent and powerful character (positive & negative spectrums) in control.
Missing the Mark
If you are new to the Middle East or you are thinking to enter this rewarding market, you need to re-evaluate your perception. Most often than not, you are entering the market armed with your own or other’s assumptions of the market and this is when it starts to get problematic.
Many people come with these perceptions as facts, base their strategies on them and get caught out and go home empty-handed, simply because they did not respect the people who have taken the Middle East to where it is right now in terms of enterprise and commerciality.
Let’s not forget that Dubai is the capital of luxury, Oman has one of the lowest public debt as a percentage of GDP in the world and Qatar is gearing up to host a World Cup.
These feats are not achievable by unskilled people and although there is always risk involved, the commercial and social benefits behind them make the risks worth taking. You can go to www.economist.com/content/global_debt_clock to find out more.
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Alright, let’s get into it. Below are 7 key considerations you have to digest if you are trying to win business in the Middle East.
1. Cultural Sensitivity
Have cultural awareness of the region you are entering. Simply, knowing that they are Muslim and don’t drink alcohol or eat pork, is not cultural sensitivity but rather a carpet-bombing mentality and understanding. Muslim businessmen fail in the Middle East because they are not culturally sensitive, they think that because they are Muslim that they know who the Arabs are. Being Muslim does not entitle you to automatic trust, it still has to be earned.
You need to understand that Saudis are different from Qataris and Emiratis and Kuwaitis, all are different to each other and their cultures differ as well as their national dress (even though very subtle). So you must understand these nuances.
Business, leisure or pleasure? In the Middle East this concept does not exist, all three are rolled up into one. The fundamentals around business here is around relationship building. Every meeting is business and every meeting is pleasure and the first 2 meetings you may not even talk about business and if you do it can be considered rude. Until the host does not start to talk about business you do not start, until you have not drunk some coffee, engaged in niceties and introduced yourself informally. Then a distinct time will come when you then start to pitch and engage.
3. Benefit Driven
Your propositions must be benefit-driven, not dream or vision-driven. If you want to win contracts here then the value proposition must be strong in what it can achieve and this is not just in traditional forms such as sales, it may be in the form of charity reach, exposure or market penetration. Whatever your proposition is, make sure it’s clear what the benefit will be.
4. Manage Expectation
Another common issue is around expectations. The mentality here is around value and so if someone buys £10’s worth and if you do not deliver them £20’s worth the client will not be satisfied. So when putting together proposals it’s essential to clearly list expectations around what can be achieved and the value of that so that the client always feels like they are getting double the amount.
Many contracts in the SME sector are driven because a competitor or friend has done something. Businessmen here pass time by going on their farm holdings and sitting in a majlis (gathering) and socialising around business. They are not happy when someone disapproves of their work or quality and even if it is their fault they will blame the supplier. Quality has to be benchmarked to competitors and then improved otherwise you will miss out on other work.
6. Trial & Games
The first contract is always like a Die Hard movie, there is so much action that just explodes from the second it starts until it ends. If you get through this then the client will trust you with everything and this is when you will win large contracts as you would have passed the trial. Arabs love testing others and playing mind games to judge if you are the right supplier or not.
Having correct people and numbers in meetings is imperative. Previously if you took a British/American into a meeting you would instantly get the trust due to everything that comes with hiring a British/American and the costs around it.
However now due to the localization of markets and the cycle that the Middle East is in, where a flood of information has penetrated minds. Companies need to start distinguishing messages and information and so local representation is as important as international.
Akmal Saleem is the CEO at Rizq, a UK-based alternative Islamic Digital Banking app. Prior to this, he founded Maarij Wealth which aims to revive the tradition of value based propositions that help personal and professional wealth creation and growth.