Evolving Business Practices in the Desert

by night...

From an RFP issued by the Dubai government:

“1.10 Rights of the Department

Without limiting its rights at law or otherwise, the Department may:…

…(i) allow or not allow a related body corporate to take over a proposal in substitution of the original service provider.”


What these words mean, in RealSpeak and in practice, is that in Dubai the “Client” can legally accept a full proposal (Intellectual Property) from Company, Agenda or Principal “A” then simply hand that proposal, concept or even a full show to Company “B” for delivery as though it were an original IP of Company “B”…virtually bestowing ersatz authorship and ownership through politics, prejudice, or whatever private reasons the Client may have.

This can be, and is quite knowingly, done with neither the knowledge or agreement of the creator of the IP (“A”) and with absolutely no remuneration to said IP creator.

This is neither acceptable nor ethical business practice.

Moreover, in the eyes of the rest of the world, this unethical business practice is subject to severe legal action, fines and penalties.

In the UAE, the vast majority of agencies and production houses have for years found themselves held hostage to these practices; practices that pervade the culture at every level.

Ongoingly discussed behind closed doors, over coffees and dinners and throughout virtually every gathering of professionals in these industries; these practices are rarely if ever called-out for the unethical practices they are for fear of blacklists and worse. Professionally, this is reprehensible.

It would behoove these agencies (and freelancers) to support one another in not participating in such bid-competitions; to eschew even the possibility of their work being co-opted through some sort to favoritism and given to another without appropriate compensation.

It is not inconceivable, with a transparent system and process, for the “Client” to gather one or more vendors to collaborate ad hoc for a production that might benefit from the strengths of such a consortium.

It is also not inconceivable for “Clients” to nurture relationships with a small number of agencies; using each for the products and productions for which their body(ies) of work best suit.

It is further not inconceivable that agencies be hired based on their history, principals and body of work rather than subjecting numbers of them to invest vast sums of money in pitching in a vacuum.

There are myriad ways that this process can be evolved; all of them with integrity.

While there are some cultures, and parts of some cultures, in the world that still ask for pitches and proposals for creative and design work; be it entertainment, architecture or most anything in between, the best work is done, the most resonant and compelling experiences created, through the contracting of an individual or agency to collaborate with the client in developing concept, project, show or spectacle.

That’s how the Big Boys do it.

The development of a creative concept is expensive; both in terms of hard costs and human resources, costs can run into the tens or even hundreds of thousands and beyond, depending on the scope. The professionals who build these presentations put their hearts, sweat, and long hours into crafting a presentation to communicate a concept, show or idea. To then hand that work to another vendor to deliver is, quite frankly, theft.

It may be legal, it is unethical.

If, perhaps, concerns exist as to delivery on concept, perhaps an examination of the body of work behind the contributing principals of the most desired concept. If the client believes a partnership or consortium of vendors might better deliver a given show, building or product; ask for that partnership. There are myriad solutions to Doubt that do not embrace dismissing the creatives of the original work.


It is imperative that any client respect those who have been asked to offer solutions. Ethically, any idea, show, drawing or concept presented by an individual or agency belongs to that person or agency until the client has paid for it. The entire system must be respectful of all participants in it, else the authors of that system cannot expect to be respected, themselves.


In the unique context of this part of the world, a place where thousands of years of culture are embracing the opportunity to evolve quite rapidly not only into participating membership in the modern world but, in fact, into a position of leadership…of iconic leadership, in the vision of Sheik Mohammed; there are bound to be roiling and obstructive currents as the confluences of custom, culture, philosophy and – in this particular conversation – business practice crash into one another.

It makes sense that there would be missteps as anachronism moves toward making reality of grand vision. It will take assiduous acuity, focus and humility to bring deeply-ingrained practices into alignment with the rest of the world; especially if the idea is to lead.


In four years of working and living in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, what has been most striking has been the startling undercurrent of cynicism expressed by professionals across the ExPatriot spectrum toward the manner in which business is done.

“Well, that’s Dubai…” can often be heard in the above context. Corporations, institutions and agencies of every size and specialty regularly encounter (or participate in) concept theft; it’s almost part of the Cost of Doing Business…a regular risk.

One comes to know which agencies are most prone to accept IP created by others and can begin to decline to participate in bid processes that include such companies. If the field ain’t level, few want to play.

Until recently, the general population of Creative Individuals and Agencies in this part of the world have been hesitant to call-out the perpetrators of and participants in such under-the-table practices. To be the whistleblower is rarely the most secure position; and in a country where so many contracts and projects originate from so few places, such calling-out can result in significant drying-up of work.

The doors must remain open in order to pay employees and keep families fed.

This, though, is changing… In order for this part of the world to be Respected by the rest of the world – beyond grand curiosity and opportunism – the UAE must deliver. And, in that delivery must conduct business as the global leader to which Leadership aspires for Dubai to be.

There are many businesses and business leaders in Dubai and the UAE who are committed to conducting business respectfully and responsibly.

Most notably, the International Live Events Association (ILEA), has been working diligently in this area in espousing and advocating a strong code of ethics in the context of respect for creative work, creativity and, most critically, the intrinsic and necessary value of respect for ownership of Intellectual Property (IP) in the bidding and development processes. This organization advises, nurtures and strives to set examples of globally-accepted business practice; as they know that in order to be respected, an individual or agency must be respectful.


Sheik Mohammed has a beautiful, well-articulated, clear-sighted vision for Dubai. Brilliant professionals from all over the world come – beckoned by glistening towers and tales of visionary projects that will make the UAE a worldwide destination for decades to come. What many of them have found on closer inspection is the visionary dream is often undermined by dissonant agendas, founded in self-interest or borne of ancient custom of taking advantage and “winning” over collaboration to best result, that can ultimately obstruct the vision of His Highness and deplete the patience and creativity that abounds here.

Many of those who have come here to create and help build, to help realize the vision, end up devolving into cynical business people who’s primary interest is just to make big money and get out “…before the next crash.” This tragic dynamic is borne of what seems almost a purposeful absence of integrity in business practice and lack of commitment to quality in delivery of projects, spectacle, architectural iconography or essential destination experience.

While Dubai is known for massive projects of great vision; the sad (and rarely acknowledged) fact remains that not one of these projects has ever been completed as originally announced, on time or on budget. Many do finally open, still incomplete. Some simply never open. Yet, there is no acknowledgment of these failures.

To fail to acknowledge failure is to fail to learn from it.

This is the Humility Part. Whether it is Pride or some other thing that stands in the way of Learning, there seems a cultural resistance to acknowledgement of lack of practical experience and the need to address and embrace that lack on the part of intelligent and aspirational principals new to these industries: not as a failing, simply as opportunity to learn without losing face.

This would make for far more successful consultancies, were the advice of experienced professionals not resisted when said advice doesn’t seem to align with predisposition.

Reality rocks.

It seems as though an executive force of such truly bright though inexperienced new professionals may stand between Sheik Mohammed and his vision; people who are inexperienced in the responsibilities they hold, yet too proud to be seen to seek advice, too proud to be seen as “learning,” too proud.

Time and again, the word of the Creative or Production professional is dismissed because – despite foundation in study, experience and fact – the “budget” was created in an unrealistically dictated vacuum.

One cannot buy gold for the price of sand…no matter what one wishes to pay, the object or project will cost what it costs.

Very public projects on the ground in Dubai, right now, are being cut to virtual ribbons as money has dried up. What the experts, early-on, asserted that these projects would cost is what they are turning out to be costing; but the money is not there. And, the money is not there due to budgets being shaved and cut with numbers designed to please a client, not to build a project.

This is a pronounced lack of respect for the actual thing being built and the people who have committed their professional lives to the Creation of Experience or the Making of Place in any of these contexts…and to the audiences who will be coming to Tweet and Instagram and Snapchat and Facebook and Blog about their experiences at the very moment they are having them.

The best leaders in the history of the world have led best by knowing and acknowledging their own weaknesses, by gathering knowledge and surrounding themselves with people with relevant experience…and then heeding those who know more about what needs to be known.

Taking Picasso’s paints from him and handing them to another is not going to yield a Picasso. If the best is what’s wanted; the best needs to be paid for, planned for, organized and the source must be respected.

The best athlete in the world isn’t going to quibble about the cost of her equipment; she’s going to find a way to pay for the best, then expect that equipment to support her.

Asking for a bespoke suit, made on the cheap and in a hurry, is going to yield a cheap suit.



So, what happens to the vision?

Addressing and eliminating these obfuscatory dynamics can smooth the way for Dubai to fully rise well above the level of a new place of curiosity and financial opportunity and truly become the New, World Power and Destination that is envisioned.

Dubai and the UAE currently enjoy being the glamorous debutante on the world stage. Pretty, sparkling, shiny, new and led by a visionary father-figure; businesses, professional consultants and short-term residents flock to the country to participate in building this.

Yet the ultimate manifestation of this vision, the results of this gold rush, stands to be overshadowed and is being risked in a very real sense by what might be seen as centuries of “Barter Mentality” that marries Pride to Getting the Best Price; leaving the quality of Guest Experience – in the case of the industries of show, event, theme park & Expo 2020 destination experience building and place-making – as potentially dismissible, expendable and often not even a part of the conversation.

Unless and until what may be considered unethical business practices in the rest of the world are removed from the codes and conduct of Dubai and the UAE, the rest of the world will see this place as a place to make money – as an opportunity for gaining and taking advantage; of playing an ancient bartering game with little regard for quality of product…

…but there will be no Respect for Dubai in that equation.

If Respect is sought; the Act must be cleaned-up. There is a beautiful future to be built. Let us make it so.



“IMHO: Creating Compelling Experience” is a free downloadable eBook on the tenets and methodologies we use to…create compelling experience. Find it in the iBooks app on any Apple device or in iTunes at this link.

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