Top Tips for Success in the GCC

gigcmo
28/06/2021

For companies considering expanding their market to territories within the GCC, understanding the different regional characteristics is essential to your marketing and your organisation’s success. 
 
Brand and marketing expert, Rasha Ezzeddine, has lived and worked across the GCC for more than 15 years. Here she shares some key insights and top tips that companies need to be aware of, whether they are entering a market within the GCC for the first time or are planning to expand to additional member countries. 

Take time to understand the local culture

Perhaps the most important thing that businesses and marketing experts need to understand when trading in or with the GCC is that each member country is proud and individual. Therefore, you should tailor marketing to the local audience. 
 
For example, Kuwait is more conservative than Dubai, the use of language and imagery is not received the same way from one region to the next, and the local language is not the same in each area. Different industries can also require slightly different approaches; for example, oil companies are typically very conservative and traditional environments.
 
The role of culture also carries through to the way you address people in meetings. Taking the time and financial resources to do a proper market analysis for each territory that you’re thinking of entering is the difference between offending and not offending, succeeding and failing in these parts of the world.

Respect the role of tradition in business

Tradition plays a significant role in the different cultures within the GCC nations, which carries through into business. There is an almost ceremonial approach that hinges on family, respect and manners. Recognising the role of tradition - national holidays, the importance of family and cultural practices - is a big part of making trusted connections with business leaders and organisations.
 
For example, if someone invites you to join for a meal, it is considered polite and a statement to accept it. Socialising is important. The majlis (also known as diwaniya in Kuwait) is a traditional and cultural social gathering point for men and a networking haven with business colleagues. They may simply be socialising, eating, playing cards etc., but this is the environment in which trust is built, and decisions are influenced and often made.  These offer great platforms to get feedback and launch ideas.
 
Hosting and gifting are also important aspects of local tradition. You can’t have someone sit down with you without offering them tea and coffee. Sending small gifts or acknowledgements is also considered gracious. It shouldn’t be ostentatious, but it is about good manners. 
 
Even the holidays have a role to play in business to some extent. Ramadan is perhaps the best known holiday; the holy month of fasting and many religious rituals, is also a month of gatherings, eating together, sending dishes and inviting people to celebrate the holy month. Asking people to your house is a big thing and different days have different significance. 
 
While the opening period of Ramadan is spiritually and religiously precious, it’s also family time. In more recent years, it involves a lot of socialising with events like ghabqas, facilitating organisations in creating personal connections with one another and being part of the local culture and the Ramadan activities.

Change your perception of planning 

Understanding the Middle Eastern approach to planning and timing is also helpful for both your scheduling and avoiding any misunderstandings or miscommunications. On a practical note, the weekends in this part of the world are Friday and Saturday, with the working week beginning on Sunday. 
 
There are also many holidays, which some businesses can find frustrating when they first enter the GCC market. However, as mentioned, it’s important to respect them, plan for them, and remember that they play a role in your relationships with other companies and individuals. In Dubai, this can have less of an impact on business, but it’s more prevalent in other countries.
 
On a day-to-day basis, when planning meetings, timing and scheduling can also be a little different to European practices. The approach to communications is more reactive and more flexible. You may find it helpful to go to a meeting with a plan, but make sure you allow for people to be running late (this is not unusual), for the meeting to run over, and for the time at the beginning for social niceties. Those moments where you ask people about their family, how they are and generally get to know one another are vital.
 
I have also seen this cause confusion regarding scheduling - whether it’s payments or other management planning. Processes are not always as linear or defined in the GCC as they are in other parts of the world. 
 
It’s not a point of rudeness; it’s simply how they do things. Making expectations clear and being realistic about them is an integral part of not misunderstanding one another. Helping to navigate these cultural habits is where a marketing consultant with regional expertise can be beneficial.

Empower the locals in your marketing 

This emphasis on tailoring your marketing messaging and your general approach to business to the local audience, and from there using market segmentation to tailor it to industries, genders and so forth, is essential. It would be best if you made plans for and with each audience in mind. It would help if you understood who they are, where they go, what they do, what they eat etc. For this reason, it isn’t a bad idea to have a regional marketing expert or marketing consultant on the ground to make sure you’re properly engaged. 
 
As a case in point, in broad terms, each industry in every GCC country is likely to have one dominant family behind it, and each of these families will have its own way of doing things. The name you’re engaging with will tell you a lot about what’s expected and the best way to communicate. That history, that background - it’s essential for you to respect and understand. 
 
While you might not cause active offence by approaching one group with the same message as another, you may well find that recipients are less engaged with you as a result.

Understand the social clusters

The different social clusters are central to the GCC society and working environment.  These clusters are social, geographical, and unique to every country in the GCC and different areas. Therefore, you can’t target or communicate in Abu Dhabi the same way you would in Dubai.  One area is more cosmopolitan than the other.

It’s also important to note that there is a huge community of Arab National ex-pats that form a part of the GCC community, including Egyptians, Iraquis, Lebanese, Palestinians, Syrians and more, who are deeply rooted in the regions.

Common mistakes when entering the GCC

The most common mistakes made by those entering the GCC tend to fall into three categories, covering the areas I have mentioned:

  • Not understanding the social clusters. 
  • Not taking the time to understand the individual country and its mentality. I have also seen companies from other GCC nations make this mistake.
  • Attempting to use a blanket approach for each GCC country.
  • Trying to fit agendas to a Western schedule. Please don’t assume that a process will take a certain amount of time because that’s the way it works in Europe or America. Some things will go at super-speed and others very slowly.  In GCC countries other than Dubai, where everything is made exceptionally easy, you may find it helpful to enlist the support of a personal concierge (mandoob) to help you get practical things done, such as setting up accounts. They can be very expensive, but they can also save time trying to understand processes.

If you are considering expanding your business to, or within, the GCC and would like to speak to a marketing expert or marketing consultant, contact the team at gigCMO.

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