Dubai – Larger than Life

Dubai is expanding, literally, each day. Ambitious land reclamation projects have turned this once desert emirate into a global business destination.

It’s hard to imagine that not so long ago Dubai was a tiny settlement in a tranquil desert but when you scan the skyline today it is jam-packed with high-rises as a mark of its status initially as an oil-rich nation after the discovery of oil in the 1960s.

Leigh Van Zyl has first-hand experience of this transformation. Before arriving here in 2015 to take up the post of Head of Region, MENA for Wings’ expanding Middle East division, she had last visited two decades earlier.
“I arrived in Dubai not knowing what was awaiting me and driving down Sheikh Zayed Road I felt like I was in a scene from the futuristic movie The Fifth Element,” she recalls.

Of the seven emirates that comprise the UAE at the base of the Persian Gulf, Dubai stands apart, with the last vestiges of authentic Arabia overshadowed by first world modernity. Probably the most cosmopolitan and liberal of the Arab states, Dubai has in recent decades successfully shifted its dependence away from oil towards the lucrative tourist dollar.

The fast-changing skyline is testament to the rush from the world’s major hotel players wanting to open their doors here. The jewel in the crown is the world’s tallest offshore structure in the sail-shaped, seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel, while back on land its equal, in terms of tourist attractions, is the 160-storey Burj Khalifa skyscraper, the tallest structure in the world. Then there is The Palm, an artificial island off the coast, and shaped like a palm tree, with Atlantis, The Palm and One & Only The Palm hotels the two lynchpin properties. Best and biggest seem to be Dubai’s bywords.


“Dubai has put itself firmly on the business map. Surveys place Dubai in the top ten of most popular business destinations, alongside powerhouses such as Hong Kong, London, Singapore, Tokyo and Shanghai”


Moreover, Dubai has put itself firmly on the business map. Surveys place Dubai in the top ten of most popular business destinations, alongside powerhouses such as Hong Kong, London, Singapore, Tokyo and Shanghai.

Dubai will always feature on any shortlist of incentive, conference or meetings destination and it’s easy to see why. Dubai’s infrastructure is excellent, in terms of roads, port facilities, an international airport – which is the world’s busiest by international passenger traffic – a national carrier that serves over 120 destinations, a wide range of hotel accommodation, conference venues, wi-fi, a skilled workforce and several Free Zones where foreign investors can enjoy 100% foreign ownership of their companies.

Oil only accounts for 10% of GDP today as Dubai has successfully diversified with the major part of its economy being international investment in areas such as tourism, transportation and logistics.

Conference and incentive organisers have a field day filling agendas for high-achieving employees with white-knuckle desert safari experiences in the dunes, nights under the stars in a Bedouin tent, falconry shows, camel races, F1-style motorsport activities around Dubai’s 5.39km circuit, dhow river cruises, deep sea fishing, visits to traditional souks, art galleries, or
the Dubai Museum. Alternatively, travellers can relax on the beach or on the golf course.

All this is wrapped up in warm weather between October and April but best avoid visits between May and September when temperatures soar above 30 degrees C, with high humidity on top.

Van Zyl says that activities are driven by seasons in the UAE. During the cooler winter months hiking, cycling, snorkeling and diving are popular. “Basically anything that is impossible to do during the scorching summer months,” she says. “Trying not to melt is a hobby all on its own during our hotter months,” she adds.

Hotels have fierce air conditioning to keep cool but it does mean that walking outside feels like walking into an oven.

Dubai is an international business hub and doing business here is relatively straightforward and much like anywhere else. “The biggest difference is how diverse the cultures are as there are over 200 nationalities residing in Dubai,” says Van Zyl.

“The business culture roots remain largely based on local values and traditions. Like any cultural environment, gestures towards local culture are greatly appreciated. One of the most important principles I had to apply was to be flexible. It is known that meetings may not always begin in as timely a fashion as other countries, but it is still always important to arrive on time but with a good amount of patience.

“Dubai is a networking hub and relationship-building is vital in the working world and verbal agreements carry significant weight.”

Furthermore, Van Zyl cautions that businesspeople demand value and are price sensitive. “It keeps us on our toes,” she quips.

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  • Cream-colour Dubai Taxi cabs wait outside the airport for the short trip downtown for around 50 dirhams (approx £10 / $14 USD) or take the Dubai Metro from T1 and T3
  • Over 200 nationalities reside in Dubai accounting for 85% of the population
  • The population is 3.192 million, making it the largest and most populous emirate in the UAE
  • Gift giving is not a normal part of British business etiquette
  • Dubai’s police force drive Ferrari, Aston Martin and Lamborghini cars
  • Dubai has the largest indoor shopping mall in the world (the Dubai Mall), the biggest aquarium (inside the Dubai Mall), the tallest hotel (Burj Al Arab), the second-largest indoor ski park (Ski Dubai, part of the Mall of the Emirates and second only in size to Shanghai’s Wintastar) and the tallest building in the world (Burj Khalifa).

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  • The working week is Saturday to Wednesday, 8am-1pm, then 4-7pm
  • Smart business attire is expected
  • Business cards are essential and one side should be translated into Arabic
  • Avoid religion and politics in conversation
  • Use marhaba (welcome) and shukran (thank you) as they go a long way
  • Business entertaining will begin late, usually in a hotel restaurant but do not order alcohol
  • Do not show the soles of your feet


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