Having spent 5 years in Jordan, it would be remiss of me not to highlight that this is also a great market to consider if you are new to the Middle East – even with its extremely good English and education levels, keenness on UK education and a thriving ICT sector, it can often be overlooked against the more overt promotion that you see from the UAE, but it can be well worth considering if you have healthcare, business services, ICT and other new technologies to offer.
Sarah Hildersley from Business West talks about her time in the Middle East and the opportunities which exist for UK companies.
I’ve recently returned to the UK to join Business West from several years working with UKTI/the Foreign Office. During that time, I lived and worked in varied Middle East cities as Amman; Baghdad; Beirut; Jerusalem and Sana’a. I couldn’t help but be captivated by the people, the incredible culture and the politics which absorbs everyone right across the region as it impacts upon them daily. I was struck by the way in which relationships, firstly with family and then with friends, intertwine with day-to-day activity. As a friend of an Arab national, being invited to their home is the equivalent of opening their arms to you and trusting that you will support each other in friendship and in business – it’s all part of the mix. Business is only done with people that they like and if that means sitting for 3 hours eating a heavy lunch, that’s all part of the fun.
Here at Business West, it’s clear that many of our companies are growing their business in the Middle East. I’m keen to help drive that forward by helping our customers connect with the right people, both here and in the region, so that they can secure that next deal. Business West’s event last Thursday on Successfully Doing Business in the Middle East looked at the opportunities and challenges of doing business in the UAE. Even though I’ve lived there for several years, I picked up new facts on Bahrain’s position as a platform for doing business in Saudi Arabia and on the massive opportunities developing in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia is diversifying away from Oil & Gas, into Autoparts production; Healthcare; extensive Metro schemes and various Public Private Partnership initiatives. Education, including Vocational Training, offers incredible opportunities there, as the Saudi Government has committed over $1b to support its young population. Reform is well underway in that country and given that Saudis adore UK products, it’s a market that we cannot afford to ignore.
The UAE almost always features at the top of the UK’s most successful Middle East export markets with 120,000 Brits based there, even after the crisis. It’s clear that the UAE is still a vital hub for companies that need great transport and links across the region.
Having spent 5 years in Jordan, it would be remiss of me not to highlight that this is also a great market to consider if you are new to the Middle East. Even with its extremely high English and education levels, keenness on UK education and a thriving ICT sector, it can often be overlooked against the more overt promotion that you see from the UAE. However, it can be well worth considering if you have healthcare, business services, ICT and other new technologies to offer. BioEden, the UK company that develops stem cell technology using milk teeth opened there a few years ago. As a result it is seeing thriving business as a result, through the high standards in science and openness to new technology that exists in the Jordanian healthcare sector.
Oman is another important hub with strong opportunities. For example, in the security and defence sectors, in education and – perhaps surprisingly – in agriculture and food, as they look to become less dependant upon imports to feed their population. Business West has developed a platform to deliver business to business support for companies interested in that market.
It's important to highlight that women can do business in the Middle East. However, you should factor in the need to dress quite conservatively – I used to take a pashmina to meetings in Jordan, where it simply meant there would be less risk of giving mixed messages. It certainly helped reduce unwanted attention in the souks. I found in Baghdad, when negotiating an IBM contract on behalf of the Iraqi company I worked for, I was negotiating with the the Secretary General of the Iraqi National Audit Office, who was a woman. Whilst she took advice from her technical team, she and I made those critical business agreements that led to installing the first online budget-crunching IT solutions that they had ever had to audit the country’s vast Government budgets. The credibility demonstrated by my willingness to visit her in Baghdad, to train her team in Jordan and then in Baghdad, and the proven skills of my Jordanian training team really helped. Ultimately, if you are professional and patient, and you have a solution for their problems, you will win our Arabic friends over!
Understanding local customs is vital to success in any market. In the Middle East understanding wasta is key to doing business. Wasta is Arabic for connections and is part of the culture in all Arab countries. It’s vital when doing business to ensure that you are speaking to the decision-maker, otherwise you will waste a lot of time. We were also reminded at our event that shisha-smoking is a pastime that we should all take up to feel part of the culture! Something that strikes anyone visiting the Middle East is the enormous warmth for British people. The respect that we gain from building relationships and respecting Arabic cultural concerns means that we have a head start in doing business in this vibrant region.
Business West, as part of its year of internationalisation, will be running various events to highlight the opportunities in high growth markets. For more information, and a chance to have a one to one meeting just contact me on email@example.com.
Sarah Hildersley is the Regional Coordinator - South West, Overseas Business Networks Programme, Business West - for the latest updated from Sarah, follow @SHildersley.