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Dubai: the city behind World Expo 2020 and how you can prepare for business

World Expo gave Paris the Eiffel Tour in 1889, and Melbourne it’s Royal Exhibition Centre in 1880. The next iteration of the event will be held in Dubai from October 2020, making the United Arab Emirates (UAE) the first Middle Eastern country to host the event.

EXPO 2020

With 190 countries, including Australia, and over 25 million people expected to participate, World Expo 2020 is an exciting business opportunity.

Held every five years for six months, the World Expo has a long history of unveiling exciting new inventions. The idea is to bring together people from all over the world to share ideas and innovations.

Already boasting the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, Dubai is a city of worldly ambitions as well as tradition. It’s home to many expatriates, currently making up over 90 percent of the emirate’s 3,192,275 residents (2018 estimate by the Dubai Statistics Centre). Its geographic location by the water and in proximity to many other countries makes it a natural trading and re-export hub. The Emirati Government is encouraging this, investing heavily in diversifying the economy (from oil and gas dependence) and building infrastructure ahead of World Expo 2020.

LEXIGO spoke to Dr Fiona Hill, Project Cultural Coach and Owner of Almanar Consultancy ( and Victoria State Chair & National Board Member of the Australia Arab Chamber of Commerce & Industry (AACCI), about the city behind this global event.

LEXIGO: What opportunities does Dubai and the UAE present for Australian businesses?

Dr Hill: It is exciting, there’s so much opportunity! Australians are known to be flexible, innovative, open, sometimes a little too loud. We have no cultural baggage such as colonial attitudes, we’re egalitarian, we take everyone as they come. That makes us very popular.

One thing the UAE has that Australia doesn’t is proximity to the rest of the world.

It’s a central, geographic location on an ancient trade route. Not all businesses think about that when doing business internationally.

The UAE is Australia’s biggest trading partner in Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, because they re-export. It’s is an entrepot for Europe and Africa, with easy air and road access to lots of countries.

Australian products and services are keenly sought after in the UAE. While traditionally imported, value added, and re-exported into other Gulf Arab countries, Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Europe, the strategy now is to encourage businesses to set up in the UAE with the ability to retain 100 percent of profits generated.

To this end the UAE Government has established instruments that guide and incentivise businesses to set up there. The Dubai Government’s Foreign Direct Investment office, for example, provides practical help on all aspects of business decisions and management, from determining the best legal structures to identifying investment opportunities and introducing a vast network of government and private sector contacts.

The Dubai Multimodal Commodities Centre (DMCC) provides physical, market, and financial infrastructure for businesses locating in the UAE. It helps you register your business and have the use of glamorous office space for about A$10,000 without any obligation to move your entire operations to Dubai. In other words, you can drop in on your Dubai office as often as you prefer and do not have to live there to do business there.

LEXIGO: What are some things to keep in mind when doing business in the UAE?

Dr Hill: If you’re dealing with people based in the region, you have to operate based on local customs and traditions. It’s very relationship based, as all good business is. Australia and the US are all about the process and the contract, and far less about the personal relationship. That’s fine but sometimes there can be a mismatch with the other side.

If you find you have attracted some serious interest in your business offering, it’s best to go back into the region to revisit that than to try to finalise things by distance. Even if you’re operating at government level, that’s a good idea.

Too often Australian businesses go into the region without a crystal-clear idea of what they want and what success looks like for them.

[Australians’ egalitarian attitudes] can occasionally lead us to make mistakes by putting trust where we shouldn’t. Speak to Austrade, your State Government office and other people, especially Australians, in the region before you sign a contract.

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. You’re unlikely to land a deal on day one. Do your due diligence before you give over all your information. Your natural desire to trust can get you in trouble.

Constantly gather information about where you are, what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

LEXIGO: Communication is about more than language, would you agree?

Dr Hill: English is a shared language, not a shared culture.

[Islam is the official religion of Dubai and the UAE. Many expats are also from Muslim majority countries]

Recognise where you are. What are the locals’ key motivating factors? In the UAE, if you’re in the food industry, you need to think about Halal certification and understand what the most important festivals are. For example, Ramadan effects consumer behaviour.

It’s about trust and familiarity with the market. The more you can show you’re familiar with these key motivating factors, the better.

It’s a great place for women. It’s not a man’s world anymore. It’s very women-friendly and women-focused in the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the political and economic alliance of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman].

Dress in business attire, the same as you would wear to a business meeting in Australia. Rule of thumb is to show respect for your own body. You will see some interesting outfits on international tourists because there is no policed dress code for visitors. But men and women doing business should have their upper arms and most, if not all, of their legs covered.

Women can travel on their own but just as in Australia should be sensible and aware of surroundings. There are conservative elements that will emerge if you get into trouble, for example with the police.

Alcohol is not part of local culture. All alcohol in the UAE is consumed within hotels. There are no bars or pubs unless they’re part of a hotel, but it won’t necessarily look like a hotel. Liquor licences are managed through hotels. You can’t have alcohol in a public space. You can’t possess alcohol without a licence. Hotel-independent outdoor restaurants and cafés won’t have alcohol.

LEXIGO: Why should Australia business consider participating in World Expo 2020?

Dr Hill: Australia has a strong presence at World Trade 2020. Our dedicated Expo2020 team led by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and Austrade has developed a highly collaborative model that matches businesses with others globally to create the best infrastructure and services.

There’ll be people from EVERYWHERE – it’s huge. The last World Expo was held in China and the majority of visitors were Chinese. Dubai is more global and over 70 percent of participants will be visitors from outside the country.

Given the global nature of the expo, you may believe it will be less critical to know about Dubai or Gulf culture, but people always notice authenticity positively because it shows awareness of where you are and a sense of place. If you can show your product matches consumers’ need in terms that make sense to them, it will have greater resonance no matter where people are from.

LEXIGO: What are your favourite things to do in Dubai?

Dr Hill: My favourite places are along the Dubai Creek [which runs through the centre of the emirate]. I’ve been going to Dubai since before the tall buildings. It looks totally different to how it did in the 1980s and 90s when there was lots of sand and only a few tall buildings.

The city landscape is exquisite, but my favourite building still is the Dubai Museum in the fort near the creek. It gives you a view into where Dubai came from, and I believe that’s helpful, and important for people to know.

From there, definitely take a water taxi across the creek to the Spice Souk and the Gold Souk.

Dr Hill’s final piece of advice: go now!

Dr Hill: World Expo 2020 is a global event. For Australians looking to be involved in Dubai, I recommend you go in advance of the World Expo hype and have a look around. You don’t have to do hard research. You’ll get a sense pretty quickly just looking around and talking to people. After that, you’ll have a better sense of what questions to ask yourself in your business planning.

There are many energetic and enthusiastic Australians dedicated to helping other Australians shine. The Australia Arab Chamber of Commerce & Industry (AACCI) is partnered with the Australian Business Groups of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. So if you have a real interest, I encourage you to drop Australian Business Group ( Chairperson, Kate Midtun, a line:

Written by Sophia Dickinson, LEXIGO: Sophia is a writer and communications consultant with 10 years’ experience in the public service and not-for-profit sectors. She has also taught English in France and spent a year working at a local NGO in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. She is passionate about writing, intercultural communication and languages (she speaks French, Indonesian and is learning Spanish). Read more about her experiences here.