How to Succeed in Business in the UAE


Last year, as we were deep in rehearsal for Dubai’s National Day Celebration and the show just days away, I was approached by one of our wonderful actors, Bilal Abdullah, with whom I’d connected in auditions and had a good, friendly relationship…

“So,” he says, “…how have you found it, working in the UAE?”

“I’ve got it figured out, Bilal, and now it’s easy. When I say to my team, ‘rehearsal at 6pm,’ it means that rehearsal begins at 6pm, sharp. When I say  to you, ‘rehearsal at 6pm,’ it’s a suggestion…”

He laughed out loud and said, “Ah, you now understand us…”


There is much going on in the UAE. A very different mix of myriad, disparate cultures, different from and including the West. I see tremendous opportunity to contribute and, ultimately, to push the boundaries of creation of compelling experience and, for just the right (and very patient) investor to make a great deal of profit along with significantly raising the bar in the production of event, ceremony and spectacle in the Middle East…and globally.

Patience in this endeavor will be Key: I will get to that.


I first visited the UAE in 2003. The Emirates had been on my radar for some time, and after Condescending Traveler featured the Burj al Arab on the cover, I sensed that it would not be long before people would stop asking “where’s that?” when I mentioned Dubai.

Meanwhile, in the [themed entertainment and marketing] trades, article after article had been published, citing the amazing, groundbreaking shopping malls, the Family Entertainment Centers and Themed Destinations being installed, there. I wanted to get over there. I wanted to see what was going and and see if I might get my creative hands on a nighttime spectacle or two.

What I found was far from cutting-edge.

I was startled and disappointed to find that these installations were comprised, predominantly, of second-hand, off-the-shelf, carnival-esque kiddie rides; as though they’d been dusted-off and sold to an unsuspecting, ignorant-due-to-non-exposure audience. While there were some state-of-the-art attractions and destinations — Jumeirah’s Wild Wadi Waterpark paramount among them at the time and Ski Dubai / Mall of the Emirates under construction — most of what was being presented and sold wouldn’t get a second glance in the West.

From what I could observe, overall, customers in this part of the world were being sold a Bill of Goods.

It was a very Gold Rush-y time in the UAE, and it seemed to me that a population of Nouveaux Carpetbaggers were on the prowl; selling to [low] expectation rather than to possibility or state of the art.

Which is not to say that there were no Principles or Integrity at play, as well; many trusted, iconic companies were exploring possibilities over there, at the time. A few truly envelope-pushing projects were underway and have since been realized. It was clear to me, however, that advantage was being taken of a lot of local investors. I could not imagine that this dynamic would not come back to haunt the Westerners and Europeans doing business in the UAE.


Returning to work in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in 2011 and 2012-13, I have been witness to what I see as a culture of expensively skewed values; one that has developed in this industry out of the almost profligate culture of the Emirates. While of much higher quality and closer to a Platinum Standard than that merely of Gold, although everything bought is big and grand and “the-best-that-money-can-buy;” most of what is delivered remains, still, an off-the-shelf product.

Everything has, through this, become more sophisticated…as have the customers, in a limited sense. There is cachet to be found in the ability to obtain The [recognizable] Best in the shortest amount of time. Labels are everything. Magnitude is the Measure, and a subtle (or not-so-subtle) one-upmanship seems to underlie a lot of what is bought to be produced.

Hypothetically, it would not be unusual – in fact it is not unusual – for a Client to approach a company with, “I want a party for 1000 in a tent that looks like the Taj Mahal, far out in the desert…next Friday.” And it would happen.

Buying things, flying things in, obtaining the Best of the Best, overnight; that is the crux of Spectacle and Event Production in the UAE. The Culture is not currently attuned to the value of resonant, compelling, engaging original content and Experience. Rather, it is about mounting spectacle with what is, essentially, off-the-global-top-shelf.

Not to downplay; fantastic spectacle is produced in the UAE. Massive stages and overwhelming special effects, huge casts and fireworks and projections… Truly awesome stuff happens, there. Just little that might be considered Original.


I approached one of the principals of a company for which I was doing work, there, in 2011; saying that while it was great to have these giant budgets on projects with shockingly short lead-times, that such structures don’t truly deliver the best, possible result…especially in the context of custom, original Creative.

I offered that, were such projects to be initiated as much as a year out – giving time for actual Creative Development of a given concept – that not only might a great deal of money actually be saved (though, that is rarely a concern) or, at least not wasted, but the product would be far better. Far more value for the money, a far more powerful Experience delivered.

“My people will never think that way…” he said.


Exacerbating this is an Undercurrent of Fear that pervades Vendors and Royal Staff in the UAE. I witness an almost craven approach to client relations on the part of production companies. A fear of rejection that filters any and all original ideas from concept development for fear of frightening-off the potential client and losing the gig; resulting in a near-obsequious tenor of relationship. There is often an eagerness to please and meet the in-reality low expectations and standards of the client that precludes innovation and evolution of Experience.

I get it. There are staffs to support, mouths to feed, doors to keep open.

The source of this problem dynamic, as I perceive it, resides within the staffs of the clients…especially of Royalty. There is a deep-seated (and perhaps borne of historical reality) fear of displeasing the Sheik. This keeps the box very small with respect to program and presentation, resulting in one of two avenues being followed:

  • Bring in Acts that have proven successful elsewhere in the world, and / or
  • Tell the same story told, last year, in a bigger or different way…but don’t change the components.

As I posited in my most recent post; I believe that the Sheiks and Primary Royals, themselves, would embrace something new. These are people who travel, who’ve been everywhere and probably seen some fantastic, original work produced. Personally and professionally, I believe the UAE is ripe for experiencing something with far more substance, originality, connection…the limb is strong and ready to be ventured onto.

I believe, as well, that Emirati audiences are unknowingly currently impressed with what the rest of the civilized world would consider average if not less-than, and would (or will) respond enthusiastically to true state-of-the-art-and-craft, emotionally-connective Spectacle. They simply have not experienced what is truly possible.

We can fix that.


I believe that a company or collaborative that holds the line on quality, integrity of concept, effective and waste-free spending can ultimately be profoundly successful in the UAE.

It is a matter of educating the client, of guiding clients up the pathway and revealing the power inherent in well-crafted, original, immersive and Experiential Storytelling.

The ideal scenario will require a large investment, a great deal of patience and strong commitment to quality over expediency.

Here’s the idea:

Possible Name of Company: Bespoke [Experience]


  • Gather a small group of world-class creatives and producers.
  • Put them on exclusive regional retainer with commitment to be present in UAE on 48-hours notice when called.
  • Commit to Only Doing the Best Possible Work.
  • Open an office in Dubai / Abu Dhabi.
  • Introduce the company with an event of magnitude; possibly a tribute to the UAE, approached from an angle and from a perspective different than the historic…possibly not. Perhaps a “What is Bespoke (or whatever the company is named)?” created by your team, an Experience that is at once emotionally compelling and professionally enlightening. Show what is possible.
  • Be exclusive. Take only clients and projects with the requisite lead time to properly develop and deliver the highest quality. Decline business, no matter what the budget, that would compromise this principal.
  • Make the above Commitment clear: We Only Deliver the Best.
  • Set Decision-making Deadlines, with penalties for lateness and changes.
  • Adhere to these deadlines, resolutely.
  • Be willing to say, “no.”
  • Be willing to wait. A while.

What I believe will happen is that many potential clients will approach within the currently-deemed-acceptable parameters, to be politely and graciously declined with referrals to other companies who are willing to work on short deadlines for lesser result.

This may go on for a while.

Finally, a client will approach with the enlightened wherewithal to obtain the best quality; one who will accept the deadlines, give the appropriate amount of time and be introduced to the rewards of this well-managed process.

Once this first project has been delivered such that it eclipses what has come, before; I believe the gates will open and this company will become The Company (hm, that’s a good name for it, as well) for all who truly want The Best.

It is simple, it is daring, it is audacious, and I think it would work. I’ve run this scenario past a number of Professionals – Arabs, Westerners and Natives – in the UAE to universally enthusiastic response.

It may never happen; as the investment would be large and the patience necessarily great. But, were this to be attempted, it would be successful.



The eBook for iPad, “imho,” is free from iTunes and the iBooks Store.

The First Rule of Production…

YWW Opening Cast

…is that It Is Always Easier to Apologize Than to Ask Permission.

The United Arab Emirates are, essentially, a federation of monarchies. Beloved, benevolent dictators preside over and protect their respective populations who, in turn, deeply respect and revere their Sheiks.

This dynamic manifests in Experience Creation in some subtle and some not-so-subtle ways — each and every one of them unavoidable and simply a part of the process of work in this industry in the UAE.

Predominant effects are:

The most important seat in the House is that of the Sheik. The focal point of any show to be attended by a Sheik is the seat in which that Sheik sits. From that seat, everything must be perfect, and the show must be blocked and choreographed with that in mind, guarding against inadvertent disrespect being shown to the monarch. This translates down to the detail of avoiding the backs of performers being turned toward the sheik.

This makes for meticulous and oft-times paranoid scrutiny and second-guessing, not only during the concept development and creative stages, but all the way through; as successive levels of Executives, from vendor to client to, finally, government, must vet and approve what is being produced…with the Sheik’s Protocol officers making their assessment at the very last minute – usually the day before the show.

This puts a lot of pressure on every level of the production and company.

At showtime; if the Sheik is behind schedule, the Curtain is held until he arrives and is seated. Should he be ahead of schedule, we need to be ready to go within moments; often, with only a 15-minute advance warning. Everything plays off the schedule and position of the Sheik. That’s just the way it is.

Another, more insidious effect of this dynamic is the Fear of Offense this seems to engender, most especially in Emirati (or any employee) working for the Sheik or in the government. There is such a deeply-rooted fear of offending the Sheik that people are afraid to venture out on any sort of creative limb.

Original content is virtually anathema at that level of culture. “Creativity” is applied in the context of lighting and staging, perhaps, and most often at the sourcing of already-proven acts to be brought in and gathered or juxtaposed “creatively” and spectacularly. If an act is a hit elsewhere, the cachet is in the Importing of the Talent rather than in the creation of anything new.

It’s tragic, really; to see so much money spent to bring in “the best,” while overlooking the power inherent in a well-told, originally-created story or Experience. The style may change, though the story tends to remain within one of a few “acceptable” constructs. This, then, explains why the same story seems to be told, over and over, in ceremonies and celebrations in this part of the world: it’s about the magnitude rather than the possibility of deeper engagement.

Actually, there’s the “scary” word: “possibility.” It is the possibility of disappointing the Sheik that seems to keep the Powers That Be from going out on the proverbial limb.

An irony, here, is that these Sheiks are very likely of the most sophisticated, well-traveled, worldly individuals on the planet. Chances are that they’ve been most everywhere and seen most everything and know far more about what is possible than the legions of Deciders and Protectors that surround them.

This is my opinion, of course; I’ve never spoken to a Sheik. I’d be surprised, though, were there not to be thoughts of, “oh, this again?” in the minds of these men as the umpteenth iteration of what’s come before is presented at yet another ceremony.

But. I digress.

So. Yes. The dynamics, creative and detail of virtually any experience or ceremony in the Emirates can hinge on the perceived whim or desire of the relevant Sheik. Ergo, a month before the grand opening ceremony of Yas Waterworld, last month, it came to light that the His Highness was no longer available for a nighttime ceremony; it was going to be taking place by daylight.

When a decision such as this comes down, there is no Appeal. It is absolutely what it now is. Daytime.

At first, there was a Moment of Grief for the beautiful opening ceremony that we’d written…

  • Fireworks: Gone
  • Flaming Poi: Gone
  • Flaming Torches: Gone
  • Giant, glowing Pearls in Procession: Gone
  • Lighting Stunt with the full cast: Gone
  • Myriad, wonderful KO nuance: Out the Window

Then; after that bit of self-indulgence…

  • New Show: Coming Right Up!

This was actually a fantastic opportunity for creativity, and I can say without hesitation that it was the best thing that could have happened for this show. We had to respond nimbly to the change, and what we created was far more suited to our audience and the venue.

In short, it became an “interrupted” ceremony. Beginning as a “formal” ceremony on a wide, “floating” stage before the primary set piece of a beautiful dhow at the end of a specially-built jetty, jutting into the center of the wave pool; the experience rapidly evolved into an invasion of bandits, the theft of the pearl, the kidnapping of our heroine, the rescue of the pearl and the heroine and ultimate safe-placement of the pearl…a placement that sparked a spectacular, six-minute Bigger-than-Bellagio fountain show from behind the dhow and throughout the Wave Pool.

It was a huge hit…and there was one, big, surprise that helped to make it so…

The VIP stage was built out, over the wave pool, and from that extended the stage and the jetty to the dhow. At the Exciting Moment of Transition, when the bandits attacked, these bandits were staged in hiding places throughout the set, including under the jetty. Including under the stage, about 5 feet from where the Sheik would be sitting.

Yes, I’m about to come around to the point of the title of this post.

When the fantastic, rubber-faced Sam the Bandit leapt from beneath the stage, he was choreographed to leap, turn, face the Sheik and shout, “Yaaaarrrrrrggghhh!!!” with hands outstretched. Now, I never actually said to Sam that that was where the sheik would be sitting; I just aimed him toward it.

As this idea had come to me, I thought to myself, “…let’s just see how far we get with this…,” and proceeded through the rehearsals.

Time came to show it to the client execs. They sat in the Sheik’s seats. Sam leapt and shouted. They laughed. I don’t think they put it together. Now, I didn’t actually ask if they thought it would be okay for the bandit to growl at the sheil…but there it was; right?

The Sheik’s Protocol Officers came to see a final, dress rehearsal. Same thing. Again and after, I didn’t actually point out that this blocking might be considered a little unorthodox; I just let them see and approve without extra scrutiny.

I mean, if I know Sheiks (and I don’t), I believed that he would love the surprise. After all, the man’s human, right?


So. Sheik shows up. Show begins. Lots of pretty and colorful people, populating the stage. Slow music. Procession. Cute little Safia carries the Pearl toward the jetty. Suddenly, there’s a resounding crescendo, and the Bandits appear from everywhere.

In one, fast move, Sam leaps up, around and leans, leering, toward the Sheik, arms outstretched and loudly growling, “Yaaaaaarrrrrrgggghhhh!”

His Highness, startled, looks at him for the briefest of moments, then bursts out in a big, unrestrained laugh. BIG laugh. (I’ll bet that no one has said, literally, “Boo!” to the gentleman since he was a child.) He loved it, and continued to chuckle through the rest of the show.

Seeing this, the rest of the cast responded with extra-adrenaline-enhanced performances and the show was a fantastic hit.

Happy Client, Happy Sheik, and I’m Quite Happy to not find myself in a police escort to the airport.

I believe, and will expand on this with the proximate post, that there is great opportunity for the creative production entrepreneur who is willing to hold the line on creating the best experience possible; running a production with a strict set of deadlines (and tangible ramifications for missing same), ample time for creative and committed to raising the bar of compelling connectivity within Experiences produced in the UAE and that part of the world.

That will include enlightening clients to the rewards of original content and the offering of the strategically unexpected. It will be an uphill effort; I believe it can very likely be profoundly rewarding for all concerned.



Download the free eBook for iPad, “imho,” from iTunes or the iBook Store