Part 3: Three Ingredients for growing a successful business in the UAE

colored pencils


Success Ingredient # 2:  Stay Relevant by aligning your organisation with the market needs and the underlying Culture of the UAE: 

I recall once catching up for coffee with a successful serial entrepreneur and business coach who had founded and sold around half a dozen entrepreneurial ventures for impressive amounts of money.  Impressed by what he had achieved, I was curious to understand what really his secret to success was and so I asked him.  ‘Alignment’ he answered confidently.  He went on to elaborate to me his answer and explained that to him he always believed that a sustainable business strategy can only be realized through aligning a) What will your customers buy; with b) What are you producing or offering.

As obvious as this might sound, I can say that this simple strategy is often ignored by most business leaders and entrepreneurs who are too immersed and emotionally involved with their products and services.  I see it all too often, international companies who enter the market with their existing products and services with little or no research to validate the market need for what they aim to sell or promote in the country. I find it rather naïve to assume a simplistic and a rather condescending notion that “just because it works where we come from, it should work here in the UAE”.  Yet, many businesses set up in the country believing in the same notion.  As a result many of them fall victim to the ‘pipe dream’ of conquering the UAE market with little or no effort invested in understanding the market and adapting accordingly.

I often advise clients to look at aligning four components as part of their business strategy when entering the UAE market, these are: (1) Their products, services and business strategy (2) The market and consumer needs in the UAE (3) The employees their hire in the UAE and their human capital practices (4) Finally, The underlying values, beliefs and interests –otherwise known as culture- of their customer segment in the UAE in addition to the overall government’s direction and strategy.  The government’s strategy –usually announced or found with the various government departments- provides a highly useful indication to where the country is headed to, what sectors are targeted to play a key role in the country’s present and future, the existing opportunities as well as possibly a gist of government legislation to come.

Wasta, taming the elephant in the room to work for you


Most of the people who have settled in the region are familiar with the term ‘Wasta’.  Wasta literally translates to; a mean or instrument used to help an individual or a group reach a desired position, or attain something.  It can also mean to gain leverage or influence on an issue.  The ‘Wasta’ is most often an individual with the required connections or ability to influence a decision or decision maker.

So much has been said about the ‘Wasta’ phenomenon – privately, yet so little has been written about it.  The term has gained notoriety to some as it is usually associated with the attainment of unfair advantage to win something regardless of the merit or qualification of the party attaining the advantage.

Obviously, not anyone can have or become a ‘Wasta’.  The prerequisites one would need to have in order to qualify for a ‘Wasta’ are; be known as an individual who is trustworthy, reliable, has strong knowledge of the local community’s culture and be well-connected to people of influence.  With this in mind, ‘Wasta’ can be viewed in a more positive light by its advocates.  Its personal nature makes it a less-risky and ideal means of influence in a tight-knit and -to a good degree- reserved community.  A community that puts high regard on personal relationships and trust when taking decisions. These decisions can range from the selection of a spouse, decisions on employment and senior level appointments all the way to business relations.

Businesses can tap in to the power of ‘Wasta’ to help identify opportunities, promote their strengths and services directly to the right people and at the same time build valuable long term relationships.  One way to do this is to seek the right partner locally who can play the role of engaging opportunities and applying influence where needed on your behalf.

Another way that has become increasingly common and adopted mainly by a number of forward thinking multinationals is hiring and empowering the right local talent in strategic roles within the organisation.  Banks for example –local and multinational-have applied this strategy with much success.  This has helped banks demonstrate how committed they are to the local community and the government, build strong and long term relationships with local clients and even roll out products and services that are catered to the needs of their customers making them more relevant and versatile to change.

Three Ingredients for growing a successful business in the UAE

Ingredients for business

Ask most organisations that are based in the UAE, or are thinking of setting up in the country to name what they think can help their companies grow successful in the UAE and you will hear three common answers that usually are in the lines of; “Tapping in to more opportunities”, “Reducing operational costs and staying competitive”, and “Becoming more relevant to their target audience”.   I even know for a fact that some of you would add that “a little bit of ‘Wasta’ would be nice thank you”.  Having experienced work in the corporate life as an employee for 9 years, and after that experiencing life on the other side of the fence as an entrepreneur for another 9 years (coincidence?);  I can say that growing a successful business in the UAE is not straightforward and it is certainly not a ‘walk in the park’ as some mistakenly assume it to be when they first enter this market.

Ever since I had decided to embark on this entrepreneurial journey, I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to setting up and partnering in three ventures so far, in addition to being fortunate to have had the chance to have insightful conversations with business managers and leaders in the private sector, NGOs as well as start-ups over the topic of building competitive and sustainable businesses in the country.  So much has been written and spoken on the subject of ‘success’ and ‘growing successful business’ in general. Granted these are all useful and commendable, however, I have learned that building a successful business in the UAE is achievable if your organisation applies three ‘success ingredients’ and commits to it across all levels and wholeheartedly.

It has taken me years of observing the habits of successful businesses in the UAE, speaking to their leaders and often working close with these organisations until I finally was able to connect the dots and decide to make it my purpose to help people and businesses in the UAE apply this simple formula so that they grow successful and we ultimately build a sustainable and competitive economy.  In the next few days I will be sharing with you a 3-part series of the three ingredients you and your company can adopt to become successful and sustainable in the UAE.

Until the next time, I wish you all a successful day!