Meeting on an Arabian night

The Middle East can certainly be a memorable conference choice – just take your pick of the locations in the region, say Chris Pritchard and Claire Muir

Loaded with exquisite sights and experiences to enhance small meetings and major conventions, the Middle East promises exotic locations and views that can be undeniably important in making would-be delegates decide whether or not to attend.

This isn’t true for the whole region, of course – Syria, Iraq and Yemen are conflict zones where conferences involving foreigners are but a memory. Iran, world-renowned for antiquities, is suspicious of foreigners and presents access problems for some. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are peaceful and affluent but show minimal interest in touting for meetings.

Therefore, if your boss is heading that way for business, you’re most likely to be sending him to one of  the following locations…

Dubai and Abu Dhabi
Dubai, with its broad boulevards of high rises, is a corporate favourite and some visitors contend it’s locked in a New York-Los Angeles type of friendly competition with Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and is the richest emirate. It boasts an impressive investment portfolio financed from oil and is currently developing industrial cities, property developments, hotels and an airport expansion. It’s also been selected to house the secretariat of the International Renewable Energy Agency – the first time an international organisation has chosen a Middle Eastern city for its headquarters.

Dubai, however, has a much higher profile. Famous for its man-made offshore developments and deriving its wealth mainly from a service-based economy, it’s extremely accessible with more than 8,000 weekly flights operated by 140 airlines from over 270 destinations.

UAE’s public transport system is said to be one of the best in the world with a widely connected network of buses and taxis – but the metro is the preferred mode of transport in Dubai with state-of-the-art facilities, easy access and cheap fares.

The capital, Beirut, is doing its best to shake an undeservedly poor reputation rooted in past outbreaks of unrest. But contemporary Lebanon is a largely middle-class society and a heavy police presence ensures most areas are safe for strolling.

Conference facilities are uniformly good, from the large exhibition centre to the many hotels – some in global chains – that attract small to medium-sized events. And if the boss is entertaining, look for Centre Ville and the busy street called Hamra – both offer numerous fashionable restaurants that are packed night after night.

After hours, delegates commonly visit close-to-the-city ski fields, Roman ruins archaeological treasures, vineyards and shopping malls.

Traditionally known for breeding Arab horses, Oman is adored by visitors and the aroma of frankincense (a national obsession) is everywhere. Here, the economy is relatively diverse (and diversification is a government priority) with tourism the fastest growing industry – but it’s still dependent on oil exports.

Whilst major conventioins are hosted in Al Ifran (conveniently close to the airport), the many resort hotels in the capital of Muscat and the southern Omani city of Salalah are also much in demand for meetings and events.

Culturally, Oman has developed its own subsect of Islam, known as Ibadhism, so bear in mind the importance of Ramadan and other festivities when arranging a visit.

A visitor’s first impression is of money, and lots of it. In just 50 years, the tiny peninsula has gone from a poor fishing country to one of the world’s fastest growing due to oil and gas exports (mostly the latter). Here, almost all economic activity occurs in Doha, the small nation’s fast-growing capital where Dubai-like high rises create an impressive skyline.

Qatar is considered one of the safest countries in the world and most visitors rely on taxis to get around – they’re widely available and reasonably priced, but car hire is possible too.

And, if the boss is looking ahead to a visit in 2022, make sure they avoid November and December – the World Cup means the country will be awash with football tourists.

Although still suffering from a downturn in 2011 following the revolution that unseated President Hosni Mubarak after almost 30 years’ of ruling (recent travellers report lower prices since Egyptian tourism nosedived and it’s said to now be easy to drive a hard bargain for a conference in one of Cairo’s hotels, or in the resort cities of Alexandria and Sharm El Sheikh) the Egyptian economy is fairly stable and enjoying average growth. It depends mainly on agriculture, media, petroleum exports and tourism, with Alexandria the country’s most important harbour for imports and exports.

The region is known as a place where the rich are a few and the poor are many – and have little. Street crime depends on where you’re walking at night, as in any city, but heavy-handed policing ensures Cairo (the capital, where the majority of the nation’s commerce is generated) is safe and the boss will be left alone.

Feeling the heat
The climate in the Middle East is fairly consistent throughout with only two seasons – winter and summer, which are jokingly referred to as ‘hot’ and ‘hotter.’ Rainfall is almost non-existent so tell your executive not to bother packing a brolly. Between September and November, and March and May, daytime temperatures are a little less humid (and more bearable!) than other times in the year.

Currency conversions

  • Dubai and Abu Dhabi – the dirham/AED/Arab Emirate Dirham, also commonly abbreviated to Dhs or DH
  • Lebanon – the Lebanese Pound
  • Oman – the Omani Rial
  • Qatar – the Qatari Riyal
  • Egypt – the Egyptian Pound

Don’t forget the Middle East customs:

  • Executives encountered in Egypt, Lebanon and the UAE will probably be well-travelled and aware of western customs. Conservatism holds greater sway in Oman and Qatar.
  • If your traveller to can toss a few Arabic words and phrases into conversations (remembering that accents and use of language vary between countries, as in English) it’ll be much appreciated.
  • The local host’s lead should be followed in deciding whether and when first names should be used.
  • Major gaffes are unlikely since local residents tend to work hard to keep the mood friendly.
  • Punctuality is a one-way street. Whilst foreign visitors are expected to be on time, they can also expect to wait to be seen. There’s no intention to be rude; it’s just that the host doesn’t think punctuality applies to him…
  • On that note, it’s far more likely the person your boss does business with will be male – although women are slowly becoming more prominent in Arab business circles.
  • In relation, men should merely nod and smile when introduced to a female executive, unless she extends a hand to be shaken.
  • Tell your manager not to panic if their meeting is interrupted by visits from the host’s friends and associates, or if telephone calls are taken – no insult is intended.
  • Agreeing a big deal? A handshake is as binding as signed documents, which generally follow.
  • Make sure your manager packs plenty of business wear as, even in hot weather, shirts and ties are expected for men and female executives should ensure their arms and legs are covered.
  • Arab businesses’ weekends are Fridays and Saturdays but there’s s trend among small and medium-sized businesses to open on Saturday mornings.
  • Before booking your exec in, check out whether their trip falls on a religious holiday – this is when businesses close, public transport is erratic and amenities for visitors can be difficult to access.