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.

8 thoughts on “How to Succeed in Business in the UAE

  1. This took a certain amount of cojones to write! But it’s all home truth. Great analysis. Of what ought to be a booming market, if treated right.

  2. Great articles imho. In my few “theming” interactions with the UAE, I keep hearing “If noboby here has ever been exposed to, or seen it before, it’s original to them”. If off-the-shelf is available, originality is a hard-sell pitch.

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