5 business lessons from the UAE
Note: This article also appeared in Entrepreneur Middle East, and can be viewed on the site here. If ever there was a place from which to draw inspiration for the way you run your business, the UAE may just be your ideal candidate.
The tactics it has used to grow into a cosmopolitan, global hub over the past decades can teach entrepreneurs some valuable lessons. Indeed, if the country were a business startup it would be considered one of the most successful in the history of startups.
If we look at Dubai in particular, a step back to 1990 reveals a city that was more or less a rather barren landscape. In other words, just a short, 26-year journey back in time shows us how much and how fast this city has grown.
The story of Dubai's and the UAE's rapid growth started, as we all know by now, with oil. The region began exporting in the 1960s, and in so doing started on a journey to open up its doors to the world and establish itself as the major international business hub that it is today.
If the UAE were a business startup it would be considered one of the most successful in the history of startups.
But as we also know, diversification has been a mantra of the UAE from day one. While other countries in similar situations have come up short in their efforts to lay down a sustainable plan for economic growth, the UAE has shown how to implement policies way ahead of the predicted decline in oil supply that foster the right trading and business environments. That said, anyone who has lived in the UAE long enough knows that there is much more to its success than can be summed up by using the single word "diversification".
There are some incredible business minds and leadership skills at work here, and a closer look at that mindset and the key tactics used can provide the entrepreneur with some valuable business insight. So what can business leaders learn from the success of the UAE?
Let's take a look at five standout lessons that show us how building for the short-, medium-, and long-term is done.
Lesson one: Multiple revenues are better than one
What is startling when looking at the UAE is the boldness and scale of the strategy for bolstering a wide range of business sectors. Dubai in particular is a great example. The emirate has significantly less in the way of oil reserves compared to Abu Dhabi, and given its ambitious nature this meant there was more urgency to build up other sectors for revenue and growth.
As a result, Dubai saw a growth in real GDP of around 9 percent per year between 2000 and 2013, compared with a GCC average of 5.6 percent. It nurtured trade, construction, finance, real estate, tourism and manufacturing, while its exports grew at an attractive pace. This provided a proven template for other emirates to follow, and the UAE as a whole is now adopting this ethos of nurturing multiple sectors as its key to a bright future.
Lesson two: Adapt to thrive
The old saying is ‘adapt to survive’, but the UAE has gone one better by "adapting to thrive". In a rapidly evolving global environment, the country has achieved a micro-climate that best nurtures success. To cultivate sustainable development, its leaders have needed to take a broad view and re-write the plans. As such, the UAE has come a long way in adopting progressive methods for getting things done.
Embracing modernisation in line with global trends has been an essential component to its success, and the UAE has had to do all this while finding the balance that would take into account the traditional values and methodologies ingrained in the fabric of its culture.
Actions that have counted include the changing of rules so companies can enjoy more freedom, making regulations for business and foreign investment as favourable as possible, embracing the latest technology, investing in infrastructure, learning how to become a cultural junction for international trade, and much more.
No doubt all this has involved not only a great deal of flexibility, but sacrifice as well. The payoff, however, is clear, as the economy, now tightly integrated with international markets, is in a position to feed from a spectrum of industries.
Lesson three: Lay down the infrastructure
There can be no business without places to do business and physical infrastructure to support it. What’s more – if you are going to build, make it appealing, make it a statement piece, make the world look at what you are building and let out a ‘wow’ in response. Construction is the one industry that the UAE is most famous for.
The rate of building not just new houses, hotels, shopping malls, and skyscrapers – but entire new urban areas – is breathtaking. Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Cultural District dedicated to the arts and culture is a great example of this approach of ‘going all out’.
Nearing completion, the sprawling district will boast many iconic museums, including the Louvre Abu Ahabi, Zayed National Museum, and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. The physical buildings of the museums are paragons of design themselves. This district will attract people from around the world to not only visit but to exhibit, perform and to make Abu Dhabi a region that international artists flock to.
The UAE is making itself synonymous with grand development projects, creating visually compelling stories in the world media that are hard to turn away from.
Another example: Dubai’s mega construction projects which built whole new islands in the shapes of palm trees, the most famous of which is of course the Palm Jumeirah. These projects made world news for their daring and awe factor and played a significant role in putting Dubai on the world map, quite literally, as the new land masses are now effectively an extension on the coastline.
Quite simply, the bigger and flashier the project, the more people will be interested in a stake in it – or at least coming to see it with their own eyes. This also represents marketing at its best. The UAE is making itself synonymous with grand development projects, creating visually compelling stories in the world media that are hard to turn away from.
Lesson four: Build the brand
Carrying on from lesson 3 we can say that the image of success is a truly powerful one and hard for those investors and tourists alike to resist. In the land where the police drive Lamborghinis and five stars are not enough to describe a hotel’s luxuries, brand UAE is all about living the high life as a way of life.
There’s nowhere else in the world that enjoys luxury or puts luxury on display quite like the UAE, and with this comes an intrinsic appeal to the kind of investors who can make a difference to the UAE’s economy, as well as the many tourists who contribute to the economy.
The UAE has certainly laid down the foundation for this. It hosts many world events, conventions, and exhibitions and has a strong sports presence with international venues for golf, tennis, and Formula 1 racing.
There are also many major theme parks in operation or on the way, including Legoland, Motiongate, Bollywood Parks, Six Flags, and Warner Bros. And of course it boasts the world's tallest building (with an even taller one on the way), the world's biggest shopping mall, the seven-star Burj Al Arab Hotel (even though we all know it's not really a seven-star hotel), and, truly, so much more.
Reasons to come to visit the UAE as a tourist are multiplying every year, and Dubai has its own specific goal, expressed through its Tourism Vision 2020, which aims to see it attracting 20 million visitors per year by then, and also tripling the revenue that tourism brings to the city.
Dubai has set a goal of attracting 20 million visitors by 2020 and tripling the revenue that tourism brings to the city.
Lesson five: Create a culture of innovation
Innovation is of course part of creating and building, and for such a young country the UAE deserves a lot of respect in this regard. Not only has that innovation been a key ingredient in its recipe of success thus far, but it is also clear that the UAE wants to ensure the next generations carry such a mindset forward. To be sure, for the UAE innovation is more than just a word.
In 2014 the National Innovation Strategy was launched with the aim of ensuring the UAE becomes one of the most innovative nations in the world by 2021. How is this done? Through a mix of technological infrastructure, supportive laws, explicitly laid out goals for entwining national culture with entrepreneurship and innovation – and, above all, education.
As the UAE Minister of Culture, Youth, and Community Development, His Highness Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, said at a conference in 2015, education is the "primary pillar" on which all sustainable and human development processes are based.
The skills to make things happen
The history of the UAE over the past decades indeed presents great lessons for entrepreneurs. To recap the above five and how they should apply to your business:
- Diversify and dare to seek out new revenue streams.
- Do not fear change, but embrace it.
- Build the infrastructure for growth.
- Don't underestimate the power of the brand.
- Encourage a culture of innovation through knowledge building.
Important pillars, clearly, but what we should also make clear as we wrap things up is that there are no real secrets when it comes to identifying the path to success.
The techniques above are well known, well established, and proven. What most business leaders and country leaders are not so good at, however, is the execution, because that is where intelligent planning, discipline, and first-class communication and leadership skills are called for.
And so while we can drill down to specifics and take a lot of great tactical lessons from the UAE model, we must not overlook the very simple fact that there is, as management guru Peter Drucker so famously stated, a huge difference between "doing the right thing and doing the thing right."
To build a successful business, a successful country – a successful anything – you can't do one without the other.