The Gulf is moving towards becoming a dominant global economic powerhouse and a player in geopolitics – fueled by soft power and political influence spanning East and West. Major opportunities in the region wait to be seized, along with notable challenges that will need to be navigated.
European companies and investment funds venturing into the region enter a landscape rich with opportunity and simultaneously restrained by regional nuances and complexities. Currently transitioning from an oil-based economy to a more diversified one, the Gulf offers fertile ground for European innovation and expertise. But this demands a careful approach to ensure commercial success, smooth operations, and cultural integration into new markets. Strategic communications need to be an essential part of any business’ expansion or migration plans in the Gulf.
For a successful market entry into one or more of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, European businesses and investors should heed the following six considerations:
Embrace economic diversification with European flair
The Gulf's shift towards a diversified economy opens avenues in renewable energy, technology, tourism, healthcare and more. With much of the emphasis historically having been placed on firms seeking to secure capital from investors in the region, the Gulf is becoming a destination for businesses looking to develop their activity on the ground. As European companies expand to the region, they need to communicate how they can accelerate the development of these sectors, and create sustainable employment and upskilling opportunities, aligning with initiatives like the UAE's Vision 2031 or Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030. Showcasing a commitment to sustainable and innovative business practices will resonate strongly with local stakeholders.
Engage governments and sovereign wealth funds
Despite ongoing privatization programs, key entities remain in government or quasi-government hands across the Gulf. Engaging with governmental entities, regulators and sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) is critical. European companies need to demonstrate an understanding of the local business environment, compliance with regulations, and a willingness to make long-term investments to establish trust and secure valuable partnerships. Building effective relationships with SWFs, in particular, can fuel growth and investment.
Establish a presence
Positioning your business at major industry events and in the media on key issues is a good place to begin building awareness. Ultimately, however, success in the Gulf requires more than just temporary engagements; it calls for a permanent presence. To signal long-term commitment, European businesses should establish local offices with dedicated teams, gain an in-depth understanding of local market dynamics, and foster enduring relationships with key stakeholder groups.
Navigate bilingual media
Foreign organizations tend to default to engaging with English-speaking media such as The National and Gulf News when communicating. However, effective communications in the Gulf involves mastering a bilingual media environment. Indeed, a significant segment of the population prefers to source their news from media outlets in their native tongue. With that in mind, European companies must adapt their messaging and content to resonate with both Arabic and English-speaking audiences, understanding the nuances of local media, including the influential role of social media. This means ensuring your spokespeople are equipped to engage across a broader media range.
Position with religion and culture
Sensitivity to Islamic culture and traditions is essential. European businesses should align their practices with local customs, such as observing Islamic holidays and understanding social etiquette, to enhance business operations. This brings with it additional complexities when conducting business across the Gulf; while the work week has shifted in the UAE from Sunday-Thursday to the West’s typical Monday-Friday workweek, it remains on the Sunday-Thursday schedule in other GCC countries.
Align with visionary policies
Aligning communications and commercial strategies with the Gulf countries' respective "vision" policy programs is pivotal. Countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Oman have outlined ambitious plans for economic transformation, focusing on innovation, sustainability, and diversification. By tailoring their strategies to these visions, European companies can demonstrate their commitment to contributing positively to the region's future. This involves not only understanding the specific goals and initiatives of each program, but also communicating how their business objectives and operations align with and support these visions.
For example, if a European tech company is entering the Saudi market, aligning its strategy with Vision 2030's emphasis on digital transformation and innovation can create synergies and open up new opportunities. Similarly, a European renewable energy firm would do well to align its operations with the UAE's Vision 2031, which emphasizes sustainable energy.
For many European businesses, the Gulf region is not only a dynamic and promising market, but also an increasingly competitive landscape and complex environment. In seizing the opportunities presented by the Gulf, European businesses need to consider not only their peer group activity – and what sets them apart – but also the importance of orienting with Gulf nuances. These considerations need to span economic diversification and “Vision” policy frameworks, and understanding key stakeholders, including their cultural, linguistic, and religious norms. If carefully navigated, European firms may not only thrive, but can also contribute to the Gulf's plans for a diversified and sustainable future.