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Unleash Your Business DNA – Understanding Cultural Codes In Emerging Markets

by Keerat

By Reg Athwal, Founder & Chairman – RTS Global Partners


Do you have a product or service that can add value to a new ocean of customers in new global markets?

Back in 2004, I had a chance to speak at a conference in Dubai-UAE and ended up meeting by chance an owner of a 4th generation family business from Saudi Arabia. Eventually this resulted in visiting the country for the first time, and subsequently expanding my business from London to Dubai, setting up a new HQ and focusing on an expansion plan across Africa, Middle East and South Asia. Fast forward to 2021, across three of our businesses we’ve added value to clients in 65 countries with our advisory and educational services for family businesses and family offices. It has been a great rewarding journey, however full of surprises, upsets and delays.

With the current pandemic, it has opened up plenty of opportunities or in some cases forced businesses to use online communication tools to speak to new people in foreign lands, who they can meet with post-Covid. However, many businesses have not leveraged this opportunity yet and still waiting for their local markets to open up instead of thinking GLOBAL.



One of my first lessons when trying to do business with local nationals in the United Arab Emirates was people are not built the same as you, don’t think like you, don’t dress like you, don’t work at the same pace as you and when someone responds with a YES! it can really mean NO! It took almost 2 years to understand that every country and city has its own Cultural Codes and that greatness and reputation takes time to build.


What are Cultural Codes?

Think of Cultural Codes like unwritten ground rules, things that are invisible, you can’t touch it or feel it or really know it, unless you invest the time to understand people and be patient. Every person has their own DNA O/S. Think of it like an operating system in their mind, built upon all their accumulated life experiences to include: upbringing, the home environment, past influence from parents, habitual family rituals and also their religious believes.

This DNA also has a blueprint with all frames of reference, personal likes and dislikes, stereotypes and biases. This Code is unique to people who live in that city or region or country. If you visit Dubai and then Abu Dhabi in the UAE or Nairobi or Mombasa in Kenya or Mumbai or Delhi in India, you will notice that everyone has different Cultural Codes. Just because someone is British or Indian or Arab or Kenyan or South Asian, it doesn’t mean everyone is the same and does business in the same way.

In 2004, I wanted to do business with an Arab local national from Abu Dhabi. Meeting after meeting, nothing happened. It felt like I was getting interest after every meeting, but nothing was confirmed in writing, no signed contract and no commitment to really engage. Eventually after eight meetings, I invited the gentleman to our home to meet my family and have dinner with us and mentioned I wanted my family to meet an Emirati, whose country we are living in. He was delighted with the invitation.

It ended up being a very special evening, as he engaged with my four children and my wife, shared stories about the United Arab Emirates, the history, the culture and how to communicate with local nationals, and explained how religion played a massive part to how decisions were made and helped us understand a saying that I never understood fully, that is ‘Inshallah’, meaning God-willing or sometimes expressed as NO this is never going to happen!

That evening he looked up at me, and said “Dear Reg, today I would like to say I am so happy being here and I’m ready to do business with you, so please let’s agree how to get started”. I asked him out of curiosity, “How come at this 9th gathering over 2 years you have decided this today?”. He said, because I trust you, I’ve met your family, shared food with you and met you in different environments over 2 years to see your true personality and tonight has confirmed we share similar family values and I’m ready to do business with you for the long-term.

Our trusted relationship has continued to grow stronger and stronger, and approaching now 15 years, with lots of private family gatherings, profitable business engagements, regular investment deal-flow, new venture partnerships and lots of referrals provided to do business with other wealthy families across the Gulf region, including access to Royal Family members, all because of one person and a trusted relationship built over time.


5 Questions To Consider

I can share many stories like this from different parts of the world, however for now, I would like to summarize with the following 5 questions for you to consider and reflect on, if you are seriously looking to expand your business into new markets for the long-term and understand their Cultural Codes.

1. What new countries would you like expand your business to and why?

2. Are you prepared to visit that country at least 5 times over 5 months for 5 days at a time, with no guarantees of doing any business and to simply meet local nationals and learn about their culture first?

3. Are you prepared to be patient and take time to build trusted relationships and hold back on doing any big sales pitch?

4. Are you prepared to follow-up and keep your word?

5. Are you open to offering a product or service for free for a period of time to build trust and gain some references that you can leverage?


For more information visit www.regathwal.com.

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