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Q&A: International trade with the United Arab Emirates

Home to more than 8m people, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is made up of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al Quwain. Before joining together to become the UAE in the early 1970s, their economies relied upon fishing and pearls, until oil exports increased massively in the 1960s, which was an economic game-changer. The Emirates has since grown to become a key regional trade and tourism hub.

British Centres for Business (the BCB) is a Dubai-based business-to-business professional services company that provides operational support and market-entry services in the UAE to British companies.

According to its founder and CEO, Joe Hepworth: “We work alongside the British Government to deliver on-demand trade services, providing practical assistance, guidance and orientation for UK exporters and, through our unique incubators in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, direct market-entry support.”

So, why should would-be exporters in the UK consider the UAE?

Does the UAE offer good trade opportunities?

Joe Hepworth (JH): “Yes, it’s the UK’s eleventh biggest export market overall and third biggest among non-EU countries. While the UAE is a large market in its own right, it’s also the gateway and hub for the wider MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region and the massive opportunities that exist across Africa, the Middle East, the CIS states, India and Pakistan.”

Which sectors offer the best opportunities?

JH: “Many, but if I have to highlight a few where UK companies have enjoyed real success I’d say healthcare, education, infrastructure, creative, tech and consumer/retail. In these sectors, there’s not only strong demand, but also UK companies are seen as market leaders thanks to their expertise, intellectual property and commitment to quality.”

Why choose the UAE instead of other markets in the Middle East?

JH: “It’s the region’s most accessible market, with the most developed infrastructure, physical and ‘soft’, to support international businesses. The UAE is an excellent place to start doing business in MENA and the ideal stepping off point to other markets, too.”

Do UK products and businesses generally enjoy a good reputation?

JH: “Very much so. ‘Brand Britain’ is associated with high quality. We always recommend that UK firms play to their provenance and UK origins. There’s a fondness for established UK institutions and heritage, just as there is for new tech and creative quality.”

Are there any obstacles that UK firms should be aware of?

JH: “Many Brits have come here on holiday and leave with the positive impression of a place with a relatively westernised culture. However, the UAE is a traditional Arab country with a way of doing business that’s very different from in the West. UK firms should be aware of this, absorb it and appreciate it if they want to succeed.”

What’s the best route to market for UK businesses?

JH: “There are many options, so, you must find the right ones for your business. Onshore or set up in a free zone? Limited company or overseas branch office? Registered agency? Some UK firms might simply need to find a local distributor or sell directly to UAE customers via a website. You should certainly seek advice from a lawyer here, while we also specialise in helping UK firms through this maze.”

Is English widely spoken in the UAE?

JH: “Yes, it’s the dominant language for international business, but the UAE is very international, so you’ll also hear Urdu, Hindi, Farsi, Gujarati, Tagalog and many other languages. You don’t need to speak fluent Arabic, but I recommend that you learn a few basic words and phrases, it shows international business etiquette and it will be appreciated.”

Is the business culture in the Emirates much different to the UK?

JH:Very different. First and foremost, local business people want to get to know you before your product or service comes into play. You must invest time in building relationships and becoming known and familiar. Things that we take for granted, such as email communication, PowerPoint presentations, etc tend to have little importance here.”

How can a UK businessperson make a good impression in meetings?

JH: “Patience and presence. Don’t expect to fly in and do a deal. Come to the UAE showing that you’re committed to the country and prepared to develop a long-term presence. The UAE is wary of foreign firms with no plans to commit to the region, who just see it as a cash cow. So, you must show you have the plans and appetite to be here long term.”

How can your organisation help UK businesses?

JH: “We provide market-entry support services in the UAE. We’ve developed a unique incubator platform in partnership with the Dubai Government that gives British firms a 24-month ‘soft landing’ in the market. And our trade services division has helped more than 180 UK firms over the past two-and-a-half years with commercial orientation, introductions, research and in-market horsepower. We want to help many more UK firms to be successful in the UAE.”

Read more:

UAE: Land of opportunities

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Market and sell overseas

Trading with ASEAN: Q&A with Ross Hunter

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Exporting for growth: Top tips for SMEs

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