Saturday, 7 December 2013

Doing Business in the UAE: Part 1

I'm conscious I haven't blogged much about life at work in recent weeks, so thought I would remedy that this evening, with a few reflections on my first three months with BDO (cannot believe how quickly time is passing).

The first thing to report is that everything is going well, and despite the odd frustration, I am very much enjoying the role. It goes without saying that I'll always be grateful to PwC, because I learnt a huge amount there which is helping me now, but I have to say it is refreshing to have respect for, and feel appreciated by, those I report too, and good to wake up in the morning looking forward to work (most mornings). It seems Jo was right (how annoying!) when she used to tell me I'd be happier in a smaller firm.

Turning to the "odd frustration", the main one is the approach to procurement in some public entities. In theory everything is done strictly by the book to ensure that no firm is given an advantage. In reality it is clear that once bids are in, in some (many?) cases the incumbent (usually one of the big four who have dominated the market for many years) is given every opportunity to reduce its fee as far as is needed to keep hold of the work. Why they would want to do this given how low some of the fees must be, I don't know, but they clearly have their reasons. Of course this was not unknown back in the UK, but it is definitely worse here.

Despite this I'm pleased to say that we have a steady stream of work coming in, and lots in the pipeline, so there is plenty to keep myself and the team busy.

Like in the UK, the key to success is winning work outside of formal procurement processes, and the key to that is having great relationships with potential clients. Relationships are critical wherever you are in the world, but I suspect few places more so than the UAE. For example, it is hard to get meetings with many senior officials unless you have someone who can introduce you, and when you do get in front of someone, it is important to invest time in earning their trust rather than going for a hard sell too quickly. It can sometimes be the fourth or fifth meeting before you can really start talking business.

The first meeting usually includes some local customs, especially if it is with an Emirati. First you exchange business cards, I have never given or received so many! And it is not a matter of just taking someone's card and putting it in your pocket, you must treat it with respect by showing a genuine interest in it. Most cards are in both English and Arabic, and I had an embarrassing moment in my early days when my host informed me that the Arabic translation of "Lead Partner, Abu Dhabi" was incorrect, although he didn't tell me what it actually said (I dread to think!).

At the same time you will be offered some Arabic coffee, served in small cups. Even if you hate coffee, you shouldn't refuse or your host could take offence. It is quite bitter to taste but I'm getting quite partial to it now, it is caffeine at the end of the day! Your cup will be refilled until you indicate you have had enough, which it is fine (I think) to do after just one cup.

The rest of the meeting will then consist of chit chat, in my case mainly asking how I am settling into the UAE and subjects like that, and only right at the end - if at all - will talk turn to business. If it does turn to business, this is a good sign, and usually means a deal can be done pretty quickly.

It seems that time has caught up with me, and I need to stop for this evening. I'm not sure if I'll get chance to add more to this post this week so I will publish it, and do another work post sometime soon.

As always, thanks for reading.



Anonymous said...

What a great time for this one to arrive - me & Kimani were chatting yesterday evening about how you seem happier at work now and more relaxed and we were wondering what your job entails as a result so thank you / this was really interesting and I would love to hear more on work and business when you get chance :) One thing is for sure - I couldn't do business over there as I'd have to refuse coffee so wouldn't get anywhere!! Like your picture on red tape - that's the biggest difference for me in my role here - you have to follow so many processes to make anything happen and it's always fraught with politics - with a big and little P !! Look forward to the next post!cxx

Clare Bolton said...

Enjoyed reading about the work side of things Peter although keep the other ones coming too. It is all most interesting! Clare

Unknown said...

Thanks Clare, was a little hesitant due to couple of the comments in there, but tried to be as diplomatic as possible. And thanks Cal (aka anonymous!), I always like getting your responses.

Unknown said...

Even for someone long out of the business world this was very interesting!
Always look forward to the blogs. Dad