Building Rome in a Day: Dubai For the Uninitiated

Published: Jun 16, 2022  |  

Chairman and founder of Right Angles, Podcast Partners & New Thinking

Finally, I did it: I left “this scepter’d isle” for the first time since the pandemic sealed the UK off from much of the rest of the world. My destination: Dubai. I met a client for whom my public relations practice has been working for months, but whom I had not yet met in the flesh. Departing grey and misty late autumn England for the unrelenting Dubai sun felt rejuvenating. It was also a jarring reminder of the great world which Covid had shut out. I felt incredibly lucky to reacquaint myself with life beyond London someplace so breathlessly global and cosmopolitan. 

Aside from the interruption of the pandemic, for the past 20 years, I’ve been travelling regularly to Dubai. However, I have never stayed longer than a week—and each time I return, the skyline looks completely different. Each time I visit, I marvel at its unique mix of people; I never fail to renew my fascination with the place. I would like to take this article to outline a few facts I’ve gleaned over the years—and offer a few tips of my own.

Remarkably, 80% of the population are expats; the entire city is keen for work. Only an estimated 15-20% of locals are native Emiratis; the rest have moved there to do business. The large Indian and Pakistani communities are reminders of the Gulf location and the ancient trade routes on which Dubai once stood as a mere fishing village—a status changed profoundly and irrevocably by oil. 

While a good many tourists breeze through for the shopping and nightclubs and beaches, for me Dubai is strictly a place for business. And it’s no wonder: the city has gone out of its way to engender a very open business culture. A number of the expats one meets in Dubai are ambitious global multinationals in their mid-30s, seconded by their corporations to run the Dubai office. These types set a certain tone in the city, one that is open and progressive about new ideas like cryptocurrencies. 

Moreover, because Dubai is eager to attract and retain entrepreneurs, it has adopted a policy of zero red tape. The government makes it as easy as possible to open up shop. This lack of “fuss” encourages massive innovation. As local officials hope to diversify away from oil, they employ ample tax incentives to lure new kinds of commerce and trade. 

The flipside of this laissez-faire attitude toward attracting business is zero tolerance towards any law breaking, large or small. An example of how crime-free and trusting the local culture is can be seen in how the country’s petrol is delivered—which is straight to your house. In the US you go to a gas station. In the UK, you stand there holding the hose. In the UAE, petrol is delivered to your door. To accomplish this feat, you leave your front door and car unlocked and delivery men come to fill it up. 

Similarly, I once left my wallet and phone in a hotel lobby; when I returned 20 minutes later, they were still there. The law is so absolutely draconian when it comes to crime that you CAN leave your door open and be fine. Most Emirate houses and flats are unlocked because the penalty for stealing is something you wouldn’t even want to consider. In Dubai, you are encouraged to  take risks in business. But, if you’re dishonest in any way they come down on you like a ton of bricks. This, however, is good for business because it dissuades people from taking advantage. 

If honesty is valued, manners are utterly prized in Dubai. The mix of Western culture and Islamic culture is a fascinating juxtaposition. You need to show respect by wearing a modest shirt and tie. Again, this is a city that loves entrepreneurs: if you have a positive energy, it will be well received. That said, they don’t like show offs. Rather, mutual praise is how one moves the conversation and bonding forward. If all goes well, Emiratis will praise YOU lavishly—and you ought to do the same. But, do not boast about your own achievements. This conversational dynamic, in my experience, has driven a good amount of deal-making. 

(Note: whatever your concept of manners may be, never, ever ask anyone to put out a cigarette or smoke elsewhere! Smoking is technically banned in restaurants but most are outside where everyone smokes. It is not considered rude at all to light up during a business meeting, but it would be mercilessly rude to ask someone to NOT smoke. So you have to pretty much accept you’ll be around secondary smoke—and suck up that dry cleaning bill, while you’re at it.) 

Most importantly, Dubai is a profoundly internationalist city. For this reason above all others, I love being there. Emiratis have a global outlook like I’ve never seen before. To say they’re outward-looking is an understatement. From a business point of view, they consider Dubai their base to trade with the world. Emiratis work with people from everywhere—Australia, the US, the UK, South America, Asia, you name it. They see themselves as quite friendly from a timezone perspective to Australasia, but they also have won many West Coast clients, and will tough out any time zone difference to win business. 

Dubai is a city that rises up from the desert where it meets the sea. It is an immaculate metropolis where you get in a car and travel from spotless building to spotless building through roads that are being built as you drive along them. Cranes rise up as quickly as new gleaming towers rise to rewrite the skyline on a relentless timeline. I cannot say where all this growth is going or even what the city will look like when I see it again, but I know that the energy that builds Dubai upwards toward the sky will be what powers tomorrow’s economic engines.

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