What on earth was I thinking?

14 November 2014

It started as a mild itch, but after 12 years working in London, my desire for an overseas posting had turned into an all-out rash. So I scratched it by volunteering for a four-year secondment to Abu Dhabi, to work with international companies looking to invest and grow in the Middle East.

But what a bad rep the Middle East gets! If ever there was a region that needed some top quality PR, this is it. Friends and family asked questions I would come to hear a lot: Can you drink? Can your wife go out by herself? Do they have weekends? What on earth were you thinking…?

Sure, it’s mighty different to the UK, and you’ll probably get into trouble if you like canoodling in public, but it’s a real shame that these are the first things that some people think of when you talk about the region. While there are undoubtedly things that Middle East governments, businesses and societies can learn from the rest of the world, there are plenty of things that we can learn from them, too. Wouldn't it be dull if every place was just like the UK?

The purpose of this blog is to offer up some context and opinion about being successful in the Gulf and wider Middle East region. In this region more than any other, I don’t think you can separate individual success from corporate success, so I will look a little at life here as well as business. In my case, my first child was born in the Gulf. His first three years were spent in Abu Dhabi and some of my favourite memories are of him having fun – for example in the 200m high sand dunes of the magical ‘empty quarter’. Life outside work was as varied and exciting as life in it.

I won’t dwell on the politics of the region (after all, if you think you understand the Middle East, that’s because nobody has explained it to you – see this excellent infographic), but I want to share some different views about how businesses can be more successful in these challenging but potentially rewarding markets, with some comments along the way from those who are living and working there.

So, for a start, what is the Middle East? Nobody really knows which countries are in or out because there’s no official boundary. And many of the friends I made from the region don’t even like the term, as it defines the region in relation to Europe and Asia, not as a location in its own right. Nobody likes being described as ‘in the middle’.

It’s not easily definable. The Middle East doesn’t come up top of any emerging market league tables because it’s not a single country. It doesn’t make it into the BRICS, or MINT, but taken together it’s at least 12 different countries with a population of at least 400 million – more than Brazil and Russia combined.

And what a buzz. Modern Doha has been built in roughly 10 years and Dubai in roughly 15. Riyadh, the Gulf’s largest city, has gone from a town of just 150,000 in the 1960s to 6m today – if London had grown at the same rate it would be home to 300m people by now. Etihad, Emirates and Qatar Airways are all in the world’s top 10 airlines but were only founded in the last 30 years. How long have we been debating another runway at Heathrow?

It’s easy to forget that the UAE, for example, is only 43 years old. There is enormous pride in what they have achieved so far, and an enthusiasm about the future that I haven’t seen elsewhere. Many of the issues that define the social and business agenda – that many UK businesses struggle to understand – are a simple function of this pace of change. The UAE has developed a post-industrial society in less than a generation. It took the UK about 250 years.

UK businesses have mixed success in the Gulf. We are only the 8th largest importer into Saudi Arabia, for example, down from 2nd place fifteen years ago. The picture is similar in the UAE, where we have been bumped down to 9th place by countries including Italy, Turkey and South Korea.

I can’t help thinking that the reason is more about mind-set than capabilities. You might not need leading edge technology, but you do need cultural sympathy and the ability to  integrate into the local communities and – most important of all – build some meaningful relationships. That goes for individuals and for companies. The boundaries between personal and professional relationships are indistinct. It’s a more social, more personal and more human way of doing business.

I miss the raw-edged energy and ambition of an environment where projects are launched based on passion or belief, not on the dry-eyed analysis of an investment committee. In particular, it’s the Narnia of big projects – a place where construction or events happen that wouldn’t make sense anywhere else. A 1 km tall tower anyone? A World Cup? Another airport? They might not meet financial expectations in the foreseeable future, but what’s a decade between friends. And in any case, there is a higher agenda that transcends financial returns. It’s easy to be condescending, but that agenda is vitally important. Building nations in double time requires you to take an occasional punt.

Matthew Alabaster | Partner, strategy
Profile | Email | +44 (0)20 7804 9642


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