Women Doing Business in the Middle East

Sarah Hildersley
Market Specialist - Latin America | Department for International Trade - South West
22nd October 2019

Sarah Hildersley from Business West talks about her time in the Middle East and the opportunities which exist for UK companies.

A few years ago, I returned to the UK to join Business West from several years of working with UKTI/the Foreign Office. During that time, I lived and worked in such various Middle East cities; Jerusalem; Beirut; Sana’a, Amman and Baghdad. I was always captivated by the people, the incredible culture and the always complex politics which absorbs everyone as it impacts daily. 

Doing business in the Middle East is wholly reliant on building relationships. To an Arab businessman or woman, family and friends intertwine with day-to-day activity and as a foreign friend, you are an honoured guest - being invited to their home is the equivalent of opening their arms to you, and trusting that you will support each other in friendship and in business – it’s all part of the mix. Business is only done with people that they like and if that means sitting for 3 hours together eating a heavy lunch, that’s all part of the fun.

Here at Business West, many of our companies are growing their business in the Middle East. Helping our customers connect with the right people in the region so that they can secure that next deal is in our DNA – through our colleagues in the DIT Middle East offices and the Overseas Business Networks that have been established, there is a soft landing for those who are unsure about the prospects. It might take time – a lot of time in some instances - but the opportunity is out there. For example, the Great British Food Programme, an initiative delivered by Business West, recently took a delegation of food and drink businesses to Bahrain to explore the opportunities available for selling their produce to the Bahraini market. By attending this trade visit, Somerset-based ice cream manufacturer, Granny Gothards has won a £200,000 a year contract with their latest innovation PROice for the health conscious Bahraini market. Amanda Stansfield, Owner of Granny Gothards, had this to say about the market:

"Our new orders are an exciting step in our export journey. Trading with Middle Eastern countries like Bahrain has some real benefits, as the year-round warm and dry climate means we can maintain sales outside of the UK’s peak summer season. The warm climate also means the ice cream market is flooded in Bahrain, which is why Alosra was keen to find something different to stock in its store. They loved that we had a very clean list of ingredients and, as there’s a growing focus on fitness in the Middle East, the high-protein nature of our PROice range was also a big draw. It’s likely we wouldn’t have made it to Bahrain if it wasn’t for support from the Great British Food Programme team at Business West and the local Department for International Trade team. Between them they have helped us with everything from addressing cultural differences to meeting new partners, and I’d encourage others to make the most of the support at hand. If we can export, you can too."

The UAE always features at the top of the UK’s most successful Middle East export markets; with 120,000 Brits based there, it is a vital hub for companies that need great transport and links across the region. There is also massive demand and development in Saudi Arabia - as reform is well underway and, given that Saudis adore UK products and technology, it’s a market that we cannot afford to ignore. The programmes that the Saudis have to build dozens of high-end hospitals and numerous Smart Cities illustrates the scale of the opportunity. 

As UK education is seen as world-leading for a global perspective, there is huge demand for educational products and programmes in the Middle East. Bath-based ScienceScope was awarded a grant from Expo 2020 Dubai to build an IoT school project at two schools. The schools will receive IoT weather stations and IoT development kits as part of a pilot scheme which could be rolled out to other schools in the Gulf region.

Having also spent 5 years in Jordan, I would highlight this as a great market to consider if you are new to the Middle East – they are keen on UK education and they have a thriving Jordanian-based IT sector, which allows companies to develop programmes that can be Arabized and sold across the region. Jordan can often be overlooked against the shiny newness of bustling Dubai, but it’s more of the authentic Middle East; it could be worth considering if you have healthcare, business services, ICT and new renewable technologies to offer.

Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain offer substantial opportunities and the High Value UKTI campaigns where we identify the routes to securing business with the huge infrastructure projects really help UK companies to assess which piece of the pie they can realistically home in on. 

Janet Sawyer, Managing Director of LittlePod, has had in the great success in Qatar and points out that the Middle East is keen on innovation: 

“After finding success in Qatar, now is the ideal time to tap into new markets within the UAE and establish our brand to new audiences. Our new non-alcoholic vanilla paste was developed as a direct response to increased demand for real vanilla in the Middle East. For any company with innovative and exciting products, everything’s to be gained from exporting – if we can do it, so can many other local firms.”

Understanding local customs is vital to success in any market. Understanding “wasta” in the Middle East is the key to doing business: wasta is Arabic for “connections” and is part of the culture in all Arab countries. Cultivating the decision-maker is vital when doing business, otherwise you will waste a lot of time.

Something that strikes anyone visiting the Middle East is the enormous warmth for British people – the respect that we gain from building relationships and acknowledging Arabic culture means that we have a head start in doing business in this incredible and vibrant region. 

As a woman, doing business in the region was easier than I expected, and I’m sure Amanda and Janet felt the same after hearing about their successes. I would adapt my clothing; no short skirts or low-cut tops to confuse messages and I dressed more conservatively than usual; wearing smart suits and looking professional is seen as a mark of respect for your potential customer. Dressing down certainly reduced unwanted attention in the souks. FCO Travel Advice on security can be obtained prior to travel, should you have any doubts about visiting a particular country – always worth checking these in these difficult times of worrying instability in some areas.  Rest assured that business tends to continue, despite the difficulties.  

I found in Baghdad, when negotiating an IBM contract on behalf of the Iraqi company I worked for, I was negotiating with the Secretary General of the Iraqi National Audit Office – a woman. Whilst she took advice from her technical team, she and I made those critical business agreements that led to them installing the first online budget-crunching IT solutions that they had ever had, to audit the country’s vast Government budgets. It did take a while to nail the deal, but it was worth the time and effort! The credibility demonstrated by my willingness to visit her in Baghdad, to train her team in Jordan, and the proven skills of my Jordanian training team, really helped.

Ultimately, if you are professional, and patient, and you have a solution they are interested in, you will win business and some new friends in some of the most interesting places in the world!

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