1. Be careful when selecting and managing local partners. Gulf Arabs are
charming to the core. The idea of signing a strategic partnership or Memorandum
of Understanding (MoU), which is a regional favourite, with a foreign company is
very appealing, and thus several less reputable Gulf-based companies will
readily agree to become your local partner without necessarily thinking about
your expectations of them and the drive to help and support you sell your
products and services. Whilst there are several benefits to working with local
partners and it is in fact compulsory in many places, do not rely on being
flooded with leads and new orders. Local partners can be difficult to manage and
generally high maintenance. The best way to approach a partnership is to look
for commercial synergy between the two organizations and intellectual synergy
between the people from both parties. How does your business compliment the
local partner company and what difference will it make to the local partner to
be aligned with your firm? What are the incentives for the local partner to help
and support you and are these incentives considered a big deal? Can your
would-be local partner really open doors for your and do they have the resources
and intent to flex their political muscle (if any), or leverage their contacts
and market position to help secure new business for you? Have you clearly
defined the roles and responsibilities of both partners and is there a clear
buy-in from the senior most management tier in the local partner company? Be
sure that the people you will be working from your partner company are
like-minded individuals with a clear understanding of their operational roles
and responsibilities. Always maintain regular contact with the senior most
management team in the local partner company. Keep them up-to-date with progress
and inform them of good news as well as bad. If you confronted with
bottle-necks, give them an opportunity to remove them. The likelihood is that
the news they are getting from the inside is that all is hunky-dory. You must
ensure you secure and maintain mindshare with the management at all times. You
do not want to be working with middle-managers and other staff who you are
finding difficulties in working with. It is in your interest to spend some time
establishing a rapport with key contacts and stakeholders both personally and
professionally, so that you’re confident the partner is someone you can
definitely work with before you sign anything. If a Gulf-based organization
comes recommended by a foreign company, lawyer or law firm or somebody you know
professionally and trust, that’s a good base to work from.
2. Business and personal friendships are one and the same, and Arabs
generally prefer to do business with people they know and like. Small talk
is more than just a courtesy; it is a way of finding out whether you would be a
suitable business partner. Engage in conversation freely and enthusiastically,
and have a few stories in your back pocket to break the ice.
3. Gulf Arabs are exceptionally proud of their language, which is a strong,
uniting bond right across the Arab world. Learning at least a few words of
Arabic is an easy way to demonstrate that a relationship is personally important
to you rather than just another business deal. Your effort will be greatly
4. Gulf-based organizations can be many-tiered and difficult to penetrate.
If you don’t have a business associate or influential friend who can help you
find a way into a prospective customer, consider hiring a professional
intermediary with clout to save you time, money and frustration in identifying
and reaching the real decision makers you want to target. If you can contact one
of your prospect’s existing suppliers/vendors or an individual they have done
business with in the past, form a ‘sales taskforce’ in order to clinch a deal
and avoid bottlenecks, so much the better. Teaming up with experienced, local
business people and firms to close a big deal makes a lot of sense.
5. Decisions can take a long time, probably longer than you’re used to.
Don’t be impatient, as this will reflect poorly on your character. Be flexible
and prepared to accommodate shifting schedules. In fact, patience is the most
valuable virtue you can demonstrate throughout your business and social life
living and working in the Gulf. You can learn to demonstrate this most precious
quality in the most frustrating of business situations, you will surely reap the
6. Body language is just as important as the spoken word. Your opposite
number may be telling you with a raised eyebrow, reclined posture or tone of
voice that it’s time to change tack. Your instinct will usually be enough to
guide you provided you’re on the lookout for non-verbal signals.
7. Arabs will often speak in vague terms, generalities, stories and metaphors
during negotiations. This is not a calculated effort to irritate you, but
rather a method of dialogue that allows for communicating ideas without causing
anyone else around the table to lose face. Insulting potential business partners
through blunt demands or rejections can be fatal to a deal. Be subtle and always
promise to consider requests. Likewise, you’ll need to make double-sure everyone
in the room understands exactly what is on the table. Arabs may not ask for
clarification for fear of losing face, so it’s up to you to make sure every
angle is covered. Nobody will sign a deal they don’t fully understand.
8. The best way to communicate is always face to face. If this isn’t
possible, make a phone call. The written word is considered less personal and
less important, and you could find your letters and e-mails go unanswered for
some time if you don’t at least follow up by phone. This is certainly the case
with email. Some countries, like Saudi Arabia, don’t really do serious business
by phone with Westerners, so a personal visit is your only option.
9. Know your host. The GCC countries share a common history and culture,
yet there are also many differences in terms of their social outlook and
approach to business. Treating all Arabs alike smacks of arrogance, and coming
across as arrogant is just about the worst thing a western business person can
do in this part of the world. If in doubt, err to the cautious and take your
cues from the locals. It is always worthwhile hiring an intermediary to help
guide you. Local chambers of commerce in the country you are in or a reputable
local law firm can always help you out. The trade office of your homeland
embassy will also be a smart port of call.
10. If you’re just starting out in the Gulf region, it’s a good idea to put
together a few small, quick deals to see which companies are serious about doing
business with you. If you want to do business with a particular company and
see immense potential for significant business, just hang on before you go and
pitch for a mega project. Aim for the low-hanging fruit first. Suggest pilot
projects or try and close smaller deals. Once you have established a true
meaningful relationship with the client, and have got them to part with some
money, you can be more comfortable in spending your time and resources on
the more strategic, high-value deals. Remember the story I told above about
negotiating a time-consuming deal, only to have it snatched away at the last
moment due to favoritism? Working with local partners to grab some ‘low-hanging
fruit’ is a great way to get an accurate view of the landscape and enable you to
better target your energies in pursuing bigger prizes.
11. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by warm hospitality and
civilized negotiations. Arabs can drive as hard a bargain as anyone else, so
you should be prepared to be tough, yet respectful. A senior dealmaker will
often demand concessions from you in order to demonstrate his authority, so be
prepared for plenty of give and take even at a late stage in negotiations.
12. Business in Saudi Arabia: Business visas can be difficult to obtain,
issued at the discretion of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Saudi Arabia and
also local Embassies and Consulates. You may think you have all the paper work
in place for a 6-month multiple-entry business visa and end up with a 30 or 60
day visas stamped when you open up your passport! Letters of Invitation now come
through electronically via the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs web site.
Invitations must originate from reputable companies in Saudi Arabia. Officially
backed companies tend to face fewer problems getting people into the Kingdom.
Once you can get into the Saudi market, the wealth of opportunity is well worth
all the jumping through hoops.