In the six months that I have been here, the most common question I receive is “Why Abu Dhabi?” And believe me, it is something I have asked myself with equal frequency.
My curiosity with the region began after my time on the 2009 Frankfurt Fellowship. As timing would have it, I sold a large shipment of books to a friend in the UAE at the same time as one of my fellows was convincing me to come and explore the 2010 Abu Dhabi Book Fair. Geographically challenged, I actually had to google Abu Dhabi, and I’m sure the book freighters did too.
Abu Dhabi is everything and nothing you expect: it is immediately evident that the city is abundant in wealth and is on a path of rapid growth. But it struggles to bridge the chasm between chaotic growing pains and a vision of prosperity which appeals to the rest of the world.
The Abu Dhabi book Fair 2010 was only my second book fair after Frankfurt, and to me it epitomized all that the Abu Dhabi market is: opportunity, confusion, boundaries, hope, promise… and a sense of Arabic business that I have come to love. There were times at the fair I wasn’t sure anyone knew what was going on: the Sheikh was late to open the fair, some stalls hadn’t received their books and as a trade visitor I walked around in circles before I found the right room to hand over a bundle of dirhams and receive my trade badge. People said “Insh’Allah” a lot. My phrasebook was as mystified as me.
I spent two weeks in Abu Dhabi in March 2010– partaking of the fair and then exploring the area and investigating opportunities. And it seemed to suit me… I met some influential people, I learned about the underdeveloped publishing market and the changing educational market, I even enjoyed the chaos of the city that is growing too fast for itself.
I was offered the opportunity to return and set up an office for our company here. The rest – except with far too many tales to tell – is history.
The second most common question that people ask me is “why isn’t the market saturated with publishers fulfilling the demand?” Particularly educational publishers. And it’s a question I can only answer now that I have been here for six months. Firstly, the bureaucracy is beyond belief. I’ll probably get in trouble for saying that, or blocked from numerous internet sites. (Yes, certain terms and sites are blocked – including Skype).
Think about how easy it is to establish a company in NZ: an accountant, a little internet time on the Government Companies website and the next day you’re trading! Now think of the opposite extreme. Welcome to my current world.
Also, the lifestyle isn’t suited to everyone – or sometimes even anyone. Summer is 50 Celsius + with humidity like you wouldn’t believe. Plus that is the time that Ramadan kicks in and you cannot eat or drink – water and chewing gum included – for 13 hours a day. Break it publicly and imprisonment ensues. Of course most westerners sneak into the toilet to steal a sandwich and a swig, but I seem to have landed myself with an affinity towards Islam that saw me sticking to Ramadan – and resultantly almost bailing on my expedition here a plethora of times throughout summer. I have a whole new found respect on a myriad of levels.
So there’s bureaucracy, there is heat and I am sure I don’t need to mention the language barrier, never aided by our twangy kiwi accent. And although the UAE may be considered a less conservative Islam nation, it is all comparative. Abu Dhabi is less conservative than Saudi Arabia, but more conservative than Dubai and Egypt. There are times I can wear a short sleeved shirt and long shorts – and there are times I wouldn’t wisely enter a meeting room without being covered shoulder to toe. I am becoming more au-fait with when to wear a head scarf – the mosque, meeting with people from certain countries, or generally when I just want to feel like I fit in. There actually are Image Police patrolling the streets.
Possibly the greatest challenge – and maybe deterrent – for businesses wanting to establish in this market is the notion of permanence. Dealing in big contracts; the proprietors want to see you are here to stay and really trying to become a part of the culture. Branding is important. I am about to spend a fortune redecorating my new office with my company logo plastered exorbitantly over my office walls. It shows the local decision makers that our company is serious about staying put here. All you read about cultural diversity in business? It matters. To the Arabic culture they need to see a face. They need to know if they want to discuss a contract you can call by for a coffee at 10 pm (another thing – I’m naturally an early bird and I have had to drastically adjust my body clock and caffeine tolerance). They want to know you’ll stay around for a good amount of time and drink their diabolically strong coffee. They want to know you’ll invoice them on local terms from a local PO Box. (We don’t have physical addresses.) They want relationships, not email.
To me, the way of business here seems to sum up the dichotomy I referred to at the beginning. The Arabic market has a plethora of opportunities, in which they want the world market involved. But they also want to hold tight to their business behavior and cultural comportment. In order to make some semblance of success here, you have to play both cards in a fine-tuned balance. It is one I work on continuously – through days of despair and delight – but I am here to stay and try to perfect it.
My acquaintance with this market thus far has taught me much. It has also introduced to me the potential for New Zealand resources in a region underdeveloped in published sources. Initially I set up a company here to publish resources specifically for the MENA region but I have come to realize that there is also a role for a distributor and translator of quality Australasian resources.
I’ve also learnt to say “Insh’Allah” a lot and to expect things to occur in what is pleasantly referred to as Arab time.It has also introduced to me the potential for New Zealand resources in a region underdeveloped in published sources. Initially I set up a company here to publish resources specifically for the MENA region but I have come to realize that there is also a role for a distributor and translator of quality Australasian resources.
We’re approaching the International Abu Dhabi Book Fair in March, and any publishers from our corner of the world who would like representation – please get in touch and we can have a chat about it. I’ll exhibit New Zealand with pride. Twangy accent and all.