Throughout 2014 the Dubai business scene has been sending me two distinct messages and typically for this confusing nation, they are contradictory. I guess this means that nothing much has changed in the last six years and few lessons have been learned from the recession that the Emirate is only now digging itself out of.

Despite the polished exterior Dubai reality, like the surprisingly tatty interiors of many of the shiny buildings, is more shambolic, which may be why some onlookers think that the green shoots of economic growth that are now emerging may be a false dawn. I have to say, if the feedback I am getting is a true reflection of the way business here is thinking and behaving, they might be right, but if this is so, a second dip will be entirely self-inflicted.

The first of the two messages proclaims a rosy future. And why not? We have the World Expo due to run for six months from the end of 2020 and, for the first time in the event’s history it’s expected to bring more foreign than domestic visitors. That’s all good for a nation that is desperate for the world to see it as a serious international business centre. If they can make that a reality they just might pull it off, however if the local business scene remains in the same hands as now its going to be a tough sell.

The event promises loads of business for local support industries. Exhibition design and build, catering, transport, hotels, retail outlets along with pretty well everyone else is expecting a boost to their business. However, things aren’t that simple. While local firms are sitting back and waiting for the new business to roll in, foreign competitors are eyeing up the opportunities and planning their attack. This means that local firms have to go out and fight for this business. It isn’t, as so many of them seem to think, going to come knocking on the door and this is why.

Local businesses are generally second rate. They’ve achieved a measure of success, sure, but only because it was easy in a boom market and their competition were equally average. The reality is that these are the companies who failed to manage the recession here and in no small part contributed to the original crash. Most of the businesses I encounter simply lack the skills and experience to survive a full-on battle with today’s world class competitors. In fact most are incapable of delivering a best-in-class product. Then, to make matters worse, they are complacent.

New arrivals on the other hand, won’t be used to a bar that’s set as low as that of Dubai and they won’t be of the frame of mind that seems prevalent in these parts, that its sufficient to do just enough to win. As I keep telling my clients, winning in today’s business market is about making sure your competitors are dead and won’t get up and come after you again. Be sure there’ll be a new competitor to battle with tomorrow and you can’t afford to have to deal with these and the walking dead!

Businesses that will arrive in the next few years will be fighting fit. Used to the cut and thrust. They’ll be smarter, wiser, better equipped and have much higher standards than the old guard. Frankly, as things stand, it’s not going to be much of a fight. Locals that historically have pitched price rather than quality will fail because their clients, those who will be front and centre at the Expo, will know that looking good simply isn’t enough, you have to look absolutely fabulous AND back it up with real, genuine smarts. There’s no hiding place, no Sellotape fixes. This is hard ball.

Despite all the optimism, false though it may be, the second message I am getting is far more troubling. Maybe some local businesses are recognising that they aren’t really up to the fight, or maybe, as they tend to insist, its just prudence, but there’s a definite reluctance to go and get it. I’ve spoken to many business leaders over the past six months and the message is frighteningly consistent. Commitment to growth initiatives is very weak indeed. They are talking about them, planning even, but when it comes to signing them, off and pushing the button you can hear the same comment echoing around the boardrooms of Dubai. “Let’s just wait a while and see what happens”. This is a recipe for failure.

Most businesses here have more work than they realise just to get in shape to compete. Then there’s the fight itself. Business leaders have to wake up to the fact that they aren’t going to be able to just turn it on. They need to start working now and working determinedly. And then there’s the elephant in the room – “What happens after 2020?”.

To some extent that depends on the success of the event itself – another reason to put in the effort now – but questions remain. There’ll be far more businesses in town in every sector, purely because the Expo will have created demand, but that demand won’t be maintained once the event is over. What then? I think we should expect a high failure rate post 2020 with a few, but not many, acquisitions by the stronger players (yet another reason to make sure you are going for it full-on for the next five years). However, struggling businesses won’t be able to rely on a buy-out because everyone will know by then that the gravy train will have hit the buffers. This Expo will only work if local firms can use it as a springboard to international markets – and THAT means, from the first visitor to the last, setting out to convince them all that you are truly world class.

So what can you do to ensure you come out on top? Here is a quick six-point guide.

1. Define your brand.

You can’t do this yourself. You need an outside perspective and specialist skills to create your brand model.

2. Develop your transformation strategy

This is part of the brand development process. The same specialist should be able to take you through this. Be sure they have the tools to help you identify all the initiatives you need to get your business in shape.

3. Do your internal marketing.

This is the key to brand building. Bring your brand to life in every corner of your business BEFORE you take your promise to the marketplace. Every employee has to understand your objective and your promise and understand the role that they play in the delivery of your brand promise.

4. Fill the gaps in your skills and experience

The brand development process should reveal where you are lacking. Use the criteria you develop during your brand development for other initiatives to define your HR strategy.

5. Raise your bar

If you have defined your brand correctly and brought it to life as you should this will happen automatically, but check and challenge. You probably can’t afford to maintain the standards you are used to.

6. Take it to market.

The biggest mistake any organisation can make is to take a promise to market that it can’t deliver. It may cost you ten times as much to acquire a new customer than it does to sell to an existing one again, but disappoint them by not delivering and it will cost you a hundred times as much to entice them back, if you can at all.

Good luck!

First published on LinkedIn December 2014

Phil Darby
August 1, 2018

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