An Arabian Odyssey – An 18 day business trip to the Middle East

For those of you who don’t know, I am the Managing Director of m2r Ltd and we devote most of our time to working with companies in the Middle East, helping them fill critical roles. I have been traveling, virtually every 4 months to the region to see our clients and of course, drum up new business. Normally I tend to base myself in just one location but this time I decided to ramp things up a little. Below is what I got up to on my travels:

The master plan this time around was to visit 4 countries in 18 days, meeting as many companies as humanly possible and showcasing not only my company but also Wakefield.

On the 25th April, armed with my suitcase, numerous folders, business cards and a bad back, I set off. The bad back was not a planned accompaniment, I hasten to add.

After a 7 hour wait in Dubai airport (exactly the same time as it took to actually fly to Dubai), I arrived at my first destination, Muscat in Oman. This was my first ever visit to Oman and one I was looking forward to. Unfortunately, as well as my unwanted bad back, I also appeared to have brought the UK weather with me. Well, the rain at least.
I had arranged 6 meetings in Muscat, 2 with current clients (our only 2 in Oman) and 4 were new business. However, I always start any business trip with a day off. I land at the beginning of the weekend, giving myself one day to get sorted out. I have learnt from bitter experience that jumping straight into meetings without a day’s preparation and reoccupation is never the best idea.

Muscat Corniche

Muscat Corniche

With typical Middle Eastern hospitality, I was invited to spend my day off with the COO from one of my clients who acted as my tourist guide and showed me around Muscat. I try to make a point of seeing as much of a country as I can, without it turning into a Judith Chalmers holiday programme. As we are in the business of expatriation, I cannot ethically discuss an opportunity in another country if I have never actually been myself. I am asking people to change their whole life and therefore I need to be able to give them as much information as possible. It really amazes me how many organisations who do business overseas never actually bother to meet their clients. If it too much hassle, then seriously, do something else.
Old Muttrah Souk

Old Muttrah Souk

A trick I always use is to start a business trip with a current client meeting, get warmed up first and test the pitch and get some local market knowledge. I always tell them where I am going and whom I am seeing, invariably I will pick up some nuggets and sometimes I can get two or three new meetings from referrals from my first one. I then build up to the really important new business meetings, the ones that can turn a trip from good to great. My first trip to Oman ended up this way.
An Omani fishing village

An Omani fishing village

Oman, like most countries in the GCC are heavily focussed on the nationalisation of jobs and therefore getting expat visas can be difficult. This information is essential for my line of business.
After some exploratory appointments where the aim of the game is to build that new relationship by sitting with decision makers without being too pushy and ‘salesy’, I ended up at my key meeting of my short stint in Oman.

I was told that the Middle East is a ‘village’ and should be viewed as such. This never really struck home until this particular trip. In my final meeting of the day, with another brand new client, it transpired that not five minutes before I turned up, one of their partner companies in Dubai had called and suggested they use m2r for their recruitment. The two on the phone had no idea I was literally walking into the building in Muscat. It was a pure coincidence but fantastic for me. After a great meeting I walked out with a signed agreement, and a raft of positions within oil & gas training. I am a big believer in making your own luck and this was proof. So a great end to the day and set the precedence for the rest of the trip.

Presenting 'Experience Wakefield' to Primedia Oman

Presenting ‘Experience Wakefield’ to Primedia Oman

My initial observation was that Oman, as well as being the most mountainous country in the GCC, is also the most laid back. Driving is not as suicidal as in, say, Saudi Arabia and no one uses their horn. The Omani people are excellent hosts and I can see why the expatriate community love living there.

I left Oman, quickly followed by the rain and headed off to Bahrain, a 90 minute hop. I will certainly be returning to the Sultanate as I see a lot of potential and the feedback I received was extremely positive. Just the effort of travelling 3500 miles to see companies can sometimes secure the business. You then have to deliver.

Bahrain is a country I know very well. I have worked with companies there for the past 5 years and been to the island over 20 times. We handle the recruitment needs for most of the major Bahraini trading families, the Formula One circuit and a couple of 5* hotels and our client list just keeps growing.

Contrary to the international new reports, Bahrain is not a war zone, I didn’t need an escort or a tin hat. In fact I walked around, on my own! With 20 appointments in Bahrain in 4 days and lots of business to be done, it is all go, from dawn til dusk every day, seeing clients, meeting clients socially and of course, pitching for new business. I am pretty well known there and I am glad to say that my reputation does precede me, in a positive manner. I deal with quite a few large Bahraini families and due to the culture, they all know each other and share information. Therefore I have to be careful about delivering a consistently exemplary service as bad news, in such a small island, can travel very fast.

The hospitality I receive from my regular clients in Bahrain always humbles me. Nothing is too much and help is always at hand if I need it. My name is passed around between companies and we receive a lot of business through referrals now. Obviously to get to this level has taken a lot of hard work. This time I was invited to the house of the Chairman of one of the most well respected companies in Bahrain. His house, or should I say, small palace, was incredible. I was treated to a sumptuous meal, wonderful company and at the end a gift as a thank you for the work I had been doing. Most business is done over dinner / drinks so these events for me are treated as an opportunity to really build the bond. In Arabic culture, friendship comes first, then business.

Flooding in Bab el-Bahrain Souk, Bahrain

Flooding in Bab el-Bahrain Souk, Bahrain

I also take gifts for my clients, as a token of gratitude for the business they give me. I know that I have absolutely no right to work with them and our relationship only flourishes due to the service we provide. Why else would a company 3500 miles away give us vacancies when there are local recruiters that they could use? Currently in the Middle East, it is the place where I feel most at home, probably due to the size of the country and the relationships I have developed there. Having lived in Wakefield all my life, I am not a great lover of huge cities and the personalities that invariably end up there.

I left Bahrain after a great four days, my suitcase weight was increasing rapidly due to the gifts I was amassing, from F1 memorabilia to cufflinks and fold up binoculars, hopefully someone would present me with another travel case as a present pretty soon! Thankfully, the rain (which flooded the capital whilst I was there) seemed to have given up following me, my poor back unfortunately made it through immigration. Damn.

Country number 3 was Saudi Arabia. Size of Western Europe, very secretive and a nightmare to get in. Well, by air at least. You can drive to Saudi from Bahrain, across the King Fahd Causeway, a 16 mile long bridge across the Arabian Gulf. In their wisdom, the Saudi government have decided that on a new visa, entry has to be by air. So a 30 minute drive can turn into several hour long trek, of which only 20 minutes is in the air. It took me 2 hours to clear immigration in Dammam Airport, Saudi Arabia. Getting into Saudi through the airport is extremely stressful but my advice for anyone wishing to do business in Saudi is just grin and bear it.

Sofitel Hotel, Al Khobar along side a beautiful mosque

Sofitel Hotel, Al Khobar along side a beautiful mosque

Due to the sheer size of the country and awful traffic, it is difficult to cram lots of meetings into one day. Also, in true Arabian fashion, meetings to tend to get rearranged at the last minute so remember to exercise patience, be flexible and appreciate that this is just how things are done. So, I started my Saudi leg with 5 meetings and ended up with 7. I always make people aware that I will be in a certain place at a certain time and by providing a local number, I invariably get calls from companies wishing to meet me. The local British Embassy Trade Office are a great source of information and I have a good relationship with them, so when a company needs a recruitment firm, I often get passed the details.

Again, Saudi has a tarnished reputation. But this is generally created by people who have never been and base their opinions on one sided journalism and hearsay. I like the Kingdom. It is friendly, crime free and I do not feel threatened or intimidated at all. Admittedly my experience in only of the Eastern Province but it is still more than most people. All the clients I work with are very accommodating and currently, make up around 50% of our overall revenue. Yes, it is a pain to get in and constant follow up is needed but the rewards are amazing.
We work with a large number of companies in Saudi Arabia, mainly in the Eastern Province but also in Riyadh and across in Jeddah. Again, I am always afforded unbelievable hospitality and nothing is too much trouble. Of course, this level of relationship means you have to deliver. No excuses. This time I was taken out for dinner every single night, had 2 lunches in the space of 3 hours and presented with gifts that really drove home the hospitable nature of the Middle East and also how well we are respected by our clients. If it wasn’t for the call to prayer, where everything shuts, I would have received even more gifts. It can get rather embarrassing as our culture is too cynical to accept grand gestures.

Dammam Heritage Village

Dammam Heritage Village

Kabsa anyone?

Kabsa anyone?

By the time I left Saudi, I had picked up work with 2 new clients, confirmed a number of projects with current clients and the vacancy count before arriving in Dubai stood at over 500. So the stress of getting in and constantly chasing clients to reconfirm appointments was certainly worth the effort. Again, leaving Saudi is just as traumatic as arriving. Another 2 hours wasted in immigration, just to leave!

Dubai from the Air

Dubai from the Air

My final stop was Dubai. A total and utter contrast to Saudi Arabia. Bold and brash, Dubai is still a huge draw and thousands of British expats live there. I finished the trip with another 3 meetings, one was a continuation of a meeting in Saudi but this time at the head office. Again, they were very grateful that I had bothered to make the effort.
A perfect representation of all things Dubai.

A perfect representation of all things Dubai.

So, after 18 days, was it worth the effort? My back had been given a state burial somewhere in Saudi, I was exhausted and missing home. The results are below:
• 30 meetings
• 18 days
• 4 countries
• Over 7000 miles travelled
• 40% new business appointments
• Over £200k worth of recruitment projects secured / won

Let’s put it like this – I am back in September to do it all over again…..


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3 Responses to “An Arabian Odyssey – An 18 day business trip to the Middle East”

  1. Rishad Says:

    Great article Munir; I enjoyed reading sounds like a very busy trip – how’s your back, hope feeling better now!

    Take care,

  2. Tariq Chaudhry Says:

    A really good read, enjoyed your Yorkshire frankness coming through ! Informative and engaging, look forward to your next trip report.

    Regards Tariq

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