In November last year, Dubai won the bid to host Expo 2020. As an announcement, it possibly passed much of the world by. But to the relentlessly ambitious United Arab Emirates, it was a major moment. Why? Partly because people see it as confirming the good times are back. And partly because it embodies the two passions that fuel things here: bringing the world to the UAE and taking the UAE to the world.
Everyone knows the story of Abu Dhabi and Dubai: their buzz, their buildings, their bling, their… um, brands? When it comes to brands, the country is full of them, but most still lack global punch. Can you name a UAE brand with international impact? Emirates is the obvious answer, but even it does not make the top 100 lists compiled by Forbes and others. And beyond Emirates, the roster remains even more regional.
Going global is therefore high on the agenda. Unlike the previous boom, leading players are taking a more sophisticated tack than simply trying to be "the Middle East version of XYZ". They are using their unique qualities as the launch pad.
Banks are vying to become the global leader in Islamic finance. The concept of ethical banking has universal potential. It’s also spreading internationally: the market more than doubled between 2006 and 2011. Be the bank that leads this trend, the logic goes, and you become the world’s ethical bank brand.
Everyone knows the story of Abu Dhabi and Dubai: their buzz, their bling, their...um, brands?
Similarly, travel brands are turning the UAE’s strengths to their advantage. Dubai International Airport, for example, has catapulted to global number two on the back of an emerging role as "the world’s crossroads". But, to the company behind the airport, this isn’t the end goal. Its ultimate ambition: become the world’s leading airport operator, transforming travel in multiple markets. It opened a second airport in Dubai last year. Be the brand that reinvents aviation, the logic goes, and you become the world’s future travel brand.
Next, shopping – something the UAE loves more than anything else. In 2013, the Dubai Economic Council confirmed retail had become the leading driver of national economic growth (who needs oil?). To date, that has largely meant global brands coming here. The next step: a local retailer going to the world. Be the brand that does this, the logic goes…
And on it goes, across every sector. In telecoms, for instance, Etisalat is already the leading emerging-markets brand and now has global ambitions. The story is the same in business-to-business markets.
Take Global Foundaries – already the world’s second-largest semiconductor company, it is determined to become a truly global force.
So next time you think of the UAE, don’t just think of a skyline of buildings. Watch this space for brands.
Roger Gray is the strategy director at StartJG Middle East
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