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Five Business Lessons Entrepreneurs Can Learn From The UAE 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.

By Neil Petch

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

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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.

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% per year between 2000 and 2013, compared with a GCC average of 5.6%. 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 microclimate that best nurtures success.

To cultivate sustainable development, its leaders have needed to take a broad view and rewrite the plans. As such, the UAE has come a long way in adopting progressive methods for getting things done. Embracing modernization 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 favorable 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 Dhabi, 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.

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.

Related: UAE Vision 2021 Goals: The New Rules of Engagement

Image credit: Shutterstock.
Lesson Four: Build the brand

Carrying on from the above lesson, 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-hotel, Burj Al Arab (even though we all know it's not really a seven-star hotel), and, truly, so much more.

The reasons to come 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.

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 innovation been a key ingredient in its recipe of success thus far, 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 H.H. 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:

  1. Diversify and dare to seek out new revenue streams.
  2. Do not fear change, but embrace it.
  3. Build the infrastructure for growth.
  4. Don't underestimate the power of the brand.
  5. 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, really– you can't do one without the other.

Related: Learning From Leicester City: Business Lessons From The Premier League Champions

Neil Petch

Founder and Chairman, Virtugroup

Neil Petch actively assists over 300 entrepreneurs and startups to conceive, plan, and build their businesses on a monthly basis.

After launching Virtuzone as the first private company formation business in the region over 10 years ago, Neil has led the company to set up more than 16,000 businesses, making it the largest, fastest-growing and best-known setup operator in the Middle East.

As the chairman of the holding company, Virtugroup, Neil also leads VirtuVest, an in-house angel investment vehicle; Virtuzone Mainland, a provider of directorship services, corporate sponsorship and facilitator of local Dubai and Abu Dhabi company setups; and Next Generation Equity, a citizenship-by-investment firm. Virtugroup has invested in and supported the growth of multiple companies and delivered passports in over 10 different jurisdictions. Virtugroup also enjoys partnerships with Dubai FDI, the Chamber of Commerce, Dubai Holdings (ARN), VFS, Regus, Etisalat, KPMG, Aramex and Beehive, and has received awards from Arabian Business and Entrepreneur Magazine, among others.

In addition to starting up businesses, Neil has held leadership roles in several companies. He helped establish ITP, the largest media publishing house in the Gulf, which he oversaw growing from two to 600 employees. At ITP, he spearheaded the launch of over 60 digital and print titles, including Time Out, Harper’s Bazaar, Arabian Business, Ahlan and Grazia.

As Managing Director of ENG Media, Neil launched the Coast FM radio station and numerous magazines, including MediaWeek. For the last seven years, Neil has also served as Chairman of GMG, the world’s first interbank financial brokerage based out of Dubai, with offices in DIFC and London. Due to his extensive knowledge and expertise, Neil has been appointed a member of the ‘Ease of Banking’ panel organised by the Chamber of Commerce.

Having lived in over a dozen countries and with a career spanning over 25 years in the UAE, Neil has the ability to merge astute cultural insight with fresh thinking, leveraging his seasoned business acumen, intuition and black book to repeatedly bring ideas to living, breathing success stories.

Neil has appeared in BBC (Dubai Dreams) and ITV (Piers Morgan) features on Dubai, as well as programmes on BBC World and Sky. He has participated as a judge on the radio programme Falcons’ Lair, an entrepreneurship reality show loosely based on the BBC production Dragons’ Den, as well as a similar TV competition hosted by MAD Talks. He now hosts Starting Up on Dubai Eye 103.8FM, the only national weekly show for the startup community in the world’s startup capital.

Neil also lends his in-depth market insight to fellow entrepreneurs and helps cultivate Public Private Partnerships as a Task Force Member of the Advisory Council, a coalition of key decision-makers and prominent movers of the UAE business landscape, led by EMIR and the Ministry of Economy.

He is also a regular speaker, panelist, and economic commentator, specialising in the SME sector.


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