First Steps for a Middle East Strategy

The Middle East is primed for economic growth, and in industries beyond oil and gas. An association expert in the region shares his recommendations on taking your first steps there.

Is it time to think about the Middle East?

As a growth opportunity for your association, that is. Not as a source of concern about international relations.

A report earlier this month by MCI Group says that many nations in the region, particularly the Arab gulf states, are increasingly primed to attract the kind of members and customers that associations are looking for. The GDP of the Middle East-North Africa region is poised to increase an average of 4.9 percent annually in the next 16 years, according to the report.

The focus in the initial years needs to be on building a stronger brand outreach, membership loyalty, and good product demand.

Moreover, writes Ajay Bhojwani, deputy managing director of MCI Middle East, the region’s economic growth will be increasingly driven by more than oil and gas. Among the growth industries in the region: utilities and transport, financial services, manufacturing, healthcare, education, and technology.

None of which makes entering the Middle East market easy. In 2012 Associations Now’‘s Samantha Whitehorne wrote about the opportunities associations have to serve in a standards-setting capacity after the Arab Spring, and associations can succeed in the region with premium pricing for events and services. But as Bhojwani points out, the volunteer culture there is not as altruistic as it is in the United States, and as with any global initiative, a lot of initial homework is essential before launching chapters or selling products.

So what should you think about before you dive in? Bhojwani answered a few questions via email about helping a Middle East initiative succeed:

For associations that are brand-new to the region, what suggestions do you recommend for deciding whether building a chapter there is right for you?

For associations new to the region, I would recommend to first get a better understanding of the region and define a strategy based on that. Having a chapter works for some associations and not for some. The model is suited in some markets and not in some. Associations sometimes choose to enter markets based on a product strategy wherein they push their products like certifications, training, etc, to build revenues as well as stronger brand recognition in the region. In some cases, moving in the market through an event strategy is also good and has proved to be successful for some associations. The focus in the initial years needs to be on building a stronger brand outreach, membership loyalty, and good product demand.

Are there particular technologies that are of strong interest there?

The region is absolutely open when it comes to new technology. In fact, quite a few [countries] are investing heavily in technologies around key industries, including healthcare, education, and more. Dubai as an example is working towards being the world’s first complete Smart City by 2020, a vision laid by the ruler of Dubai. Saudi Arabia, which is restrictive, has the region’s largest users of Facebook and other social media.

What can an executive tell an anxious board that’s concerned about the economic and political stability in the Middle East?

From an economic point of view, the best data to look at is that some of the world’s fastest growing economies are from the Middle East. Cities like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Doha are not only growing rapidly but also are amongst the leading cities when it comes to development and building of new infrastructure. Saudi Arabia, which is a closed-door restricted economy, is the region’s largest infrastructure developer in the region.

From a political point of view, a few countries in the region might be unstable. However, most of them, especially the gulf countries, are the main economic drivers for the region and drive the business in the region. Associations need to look at these markets for building business in the region.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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