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Selling Abroad - Lessons Learned From My Early Business Ventures In The Middle East

Selling abroad can be an exhilarating endeavour, opening doors to new markets and cultures, but it's not without its challenges. As someone who ventured into the realm of international business, particularly in the vibrant landscape of the Middle East, I quickly learned that success hinges not only on product knowledge and sales tactics but also on a deep understanding of cultural nuances and business etiquette.

In this blog post, I'll candidly share the mistakes I made when I first embarked on business ventures in the Middle East. From the bustling streets of Dubai to the boardrooms of Riyadh, each encounter taught me invaluable lessons about the importance of cultural sensitivity, effective communication, and building meaningful relationships in foreign markets.

Join me as I reflect on my initial missteps and offer insights into navigating the complexities of selling abroad, highlighting the pivotal role that cultural awareness plays in fostering successful business endeavours.

Selling abroad, the mistakes I made when I first started doing business in the Middle East

This is selling abroad - the mistakes I made when I first started doing business in the Middle East:

When taking on a senior commercial role for the EMEA region at a 'Data Classification' manufacturer (Whatchful Software), I quickly realised that the region most advanced in the adoption and enforcement of compliance rules forcing public and private entities to adopt 'Data Classification' strategies was the Middle East region, especially what we know as the GCC countries (KSA, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain).

Having identified the target, now it was time to work on it.

I landed in Dubai for the first time in my life in October 2013, right in the middle of GITEX.

The first impact was strong. A fantastic city skyline, an incredible number of cars, fantastic weather (in October), and all the typical exoticism of the region that a European feels upon arrival. At the same time, I found a great maturity, vast know-how, and high skills among the clients and partner ecosystems.

So, let's roll up our sleeves and let the games begin.

This is where I started making the first cultural mistakes (and trying to learn from them so as not to repeat them). Here are some examples:

1. Wanting to schedule too many meetings in one day

Yes to the strategy of using time logically and maximising it, but scheduling too many meetings for the same day, without taking into account travel time between different locations and without calculating factors such as traffic, parking, finding the right building, led me to arrive late for many meetings and even miss some of them. I entered a spiral of unnecessary stress and left a bad impression to the clients/partners who were expecting me.

2. Wanting to rush through meetings (to move on to the next) and refusing anything that would "waste my time"

Another big mistake. By not considering the client's pace and their (always incredible) hospitality, I would refuse coffee, tea, or water kindly offered by the clients, not realising that by refusing, I wasn't being courteous and polite. In new meetings in the region, there is always an 'ice-breaking' period, which is precious for discovering more and getting to know each other better and especially for finding the right 'tone' for the meeting.

3. Not paying attention to the meeting's stakeholders and hierarchy

The most caricatural example of this error was when I was in a meeting with over a dozen people from the client, who were gradually entering, and to whom I was introducing myself and handing a business card. One of the people I had introduced myself to, and already given my business card to, said to me:

"No Sir, I just want to take your order, do you want coffee or tea?". After a few seconds of silence, the whole room started laughing (including me).

4. Trying to reach significant end clients without a Channel Partner.

When a new manufacturer starts operating in the region, there are two questions that clients always ask:

A) Where are your facilities in our Country?

B) What are your customer references in our Country?

Obviously, those who are just starting out usually can't answer these questions. However, if you're associated with a local, credible business partner, the answers to these questions are minimised, and what seemed like an objection before may now be an advantage.

5. Presentations with Passion make the difference.

At one point, we had the objective of closing a valuable deal with an important client in the region. Our competent Partner had already had numerous technical and commercial meetings, but there was no way to close the deal.

During one of my visits to the country, a meeting was scheduled with the aforementioned client, and I gave my concise presentation of the benefits of our solution to the client in question.

At the end of my presentation, the client said to me:

"Excellent presentation, congratulations, we will proceed with you on the project."

We were all ecstatic, of course.

When we left the client's office, our Partner, who had made a considerable effort, asked me: "Joao, help me understand this. What you said to the client is exactly what my team and I have been saying for several weeks, and now you come here, say the same thing as us, and close the deal?"

My only interpretation (and my response to him was), I certainly said the same thing as you, but I communicated with greater belief, conviction, enthusiasm, and passion, and that made the difference and clicked with the client.


In the dynamic world of international commerce, every misstep is a learning opportunity, and my journey in the Middle East has been no exception. Through trial and error, I've come to appreciate the significance of cultural competence and adaptability in transcending barriers and forging lasting partnerships across borders.

As I continue to expand my business horizons and explore new territories, I carry with me the lessons gleaned from my experiences in the Middle East. By embracing cultural diversity, respecting local customs, and approaching each interaction with humility and an open mind, I am confident in my ability to navigate the intricate tapestry of global markets and achieve success on an international scale.

May my reflections serve as a reminder that in the realm of selling abroad, humility, empathy, and cultural fluency are not merely options but indispensable tools for building bridges and fostering mutual understanding in an increasingly interconnected world.

We possess expertise that transcends these narratives, and we're dedicated to assisting you in effectively manoeuvring through the complexities of international sales.

Contact us now, and let's commence a journey to enhance your sales effectiveness collaboratively. Reach us via email at


About the author

João Beato Esteves is the CEO of United Channels Consulting. He founded the company in 2017 after 20+ years of working in the IT and cybersecurity industries developing channels and leading sales teams for prominent companies such as Symantec and disruptive start-ups like Watchful Software.

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