Letter from Dubai: chemistry meetings

Chemistry meetings

It was a hot, sunny October day in Dubai as I welcomed my colleagues from the European, Asian and South African offices of Roth Observatory International, into this city of a cultural ‘melting pot’ where people from 200 countries pursue opportunity.

My fellow international colleagues were here to support the launch of the Dubai practice of the network and were eager to understand the nuances of doing business in Dubai. With lots of pertinent questions at hand, I had to take a moment to remind myself how differently business is done in the UAE and the larger Arab world.  

While most of the bigger multinational companies have set up a base in Dubai for regional outreach and have certainly brought their best practices along with them, the reality is that business practices in this region are heavily influenced by Arab culture.

Individuals are more important than institutions and relationships drive business. If a client has confidence in your capability and trusts you to give the right advice, he will work with you irrespective of the company you are associated with. Business is deeply personal and meetings typically begin with qahwah (the traditional Arabic coffee) and extended pleasantries about the weather, general business and even your family.

As recently as 20 years ago, contracts were sealed with a handshake. The practice continues to influence business to this date. Clients expect service providers to initiate work on large projects and the legal agreements may follow several weeks later. To compel an Arab partner to sign on the dotted line can often be taken amiss, and while the new generation understands the need for legally binding agreements, the DNA of business in this part of the world is ‘trust-based partnerships’.

Roth Observatory understands the importance of ‘chemistry meetings’ and the role it plays in gauging whether two parties should work together. Arab business culture has its own version of ‘chemistry’ and this factor often trumps other criteria that may be more important in the business capitals of the West.  

As the day came to an end, I offered to organise a special round of golf for some of the colleagues at the Montgomerie Golf Club, where the launch of the Dubai edition of Roth Observatory was taking place. While I’m sure they were duly impressed, the reality is that I only used some of my wasta (or connections) but more on that one later!

Rahul Kalia is a Partner at Roth Observatory International, MENA, based in Dubai.  It is the network’s 11th office.