How To Close A Big Deal In The Gulf
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How To Close A Big Deal In The Gulf

How To Close A Big Deal In The Gulf

Nicolai Tillisch reflects on what separates success from failure when doing business in the region.


The potential for landing big contracts in the Gulf is amazing. Zawya estimates that there will be about $300 billion worth of infrastructure projects in the pipeline for the remainder of this decade in Saudi Arabia alone.

You can add other types of investments and the costs of other initiatives and zoom out to the rest of the Gulf. The region’s first Expo world exhibition will hopefully add to this.

Success vs. stress

It is much easier to dream about your big deal than actually close it.

Anyone from a sales manager to a top executive can be kept awake at night when progress is not as expected.

The associated speculations and stress are subjects that clients frequently raise in my sessions as an executive coach.

You can very well know what good leadership looks like, but still have a hard time getting your thoughts and emotions right when the deal that separates success from failure is at risk of not materialising.

Personally, I was lucky to join a strong team and win a $190 million deal in one of my first engagements in the Gulf. This was a strong reason why I was asked to move here.

The deal meant that Nokia Networks, which is today NSN, built most of the radio network and managed services for du, the UAE’s second telecom operator.

The right thing to do depend on the specific situation. There is no simple, universal recipe for how to win.

The way big deals are made is evolving globally. Sophistication is increasing in terms of buying, selling and delivery. However, there is one common stumbling block for foreigners doing business in the Gulf.

With this in mind, I am happy to share some of the many wise words from colleagues, customers and friends that helped me along my steep learning curve.


“We are very passionate people,” was Hossein’s diplomatic statement when giving feedback to my draft of the executive summary of the company’s complete proposal. I had been recently hired by Nokia Networks to build an organisation that could advise strategically important customers and help its account teams create the most value for them.

Together, Hossein and I had held workshops with several representatives from his customer. While I had, earlier in my career, been trained according to the highest Western standards for how to deliver a presentation and write a proposal, he could not any longer hide that my sharply structured approach needed to be cheered up.


Yousef, a director at another large customer, was dramatic when declaring: “Nicolai. You must never come to Kuwait without visiting me.” The hospitality of Arabs continues to makes me very humble. It goes so deep that poor Bedouins served coincidental guests like there was no tomorrow, even though this enlarged the risk of such a fate.

The generosity extends to time and attention. International business people tend to fly in and out of cities according to meticulous schedules.

There are not many destinations where you are greeted by good listeners, who genuinely desire to understand you, and regularly wish your entire family well.

On the other side of the same coin, I have seen too many companies that concluded the Middle East to be unattractive simply because they had not been willing to invest proper time and presence on the ground.


The importance of trust was emphasised more strongly by my friend Ahmed than he probably intended during our conversation about business people from abroad. His face took on an expression of momentary clear-sightedness when he melancholically noted: “They are only after our money.”

We discussed his words some years later in the light of the international credit crunch. The smartest and fastest business partners do not guarantee your success, especially when they are above all selfish and short-sighted.


At the same time, tradesmanship is practiced as an art form and source of personal amusement in the region. From a young age, children are shown the magic of bargaining by their parents. If you show up without knowing anybody and with an offering similar to that of your competitor, you have a tough journey ahead of you.

“Do not take a decision before you need to,” was Walid’s way of synthesising one of his core principles in business. This was said in one of the few places on earth where the culture unites deep respect for authority with a long tradition of consensus. To this very day, the decision-making process at the very top of governments and family-owned groups can be tortuous as a consequence.

Opposed to this, multinational corporations enthusiastically introduce and refine sales processes and checklists and are eager to forecast and track progress. This can backfire when your counterpart patiently waits for openings to squeeze more out of the terms and conditions after having invested time in really getting to know you.

The bottom-line typically flourishes through a business relationship that creates value to both parties over time.

Nicolai Tillisch is the author of ‘Effective Business in The Gulf: Mastering Leadership Skills for Greater Success’ and the founder of Dual Impact, the Dubai-based executive coaching and consulting company.

The book is available via Amazon Kindle, bookstores throughout the region and Books Arabia.


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