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Lessons learnt: How Covid-19 has impacted the British business ecosystem in the UAE

Lessons learnt: How Covid-19 has impacted the British business ecosystem in the UAE

Gulf Business speaks to John Martin St. Valery, chairman of the British Business Group for Dubai and the Northern Emirates, on coping with the crisis, impact of Brexit and plans ahead

British Business Group

How has Covid-19 impacted operations for British Business Group (BBG) and your members?
As a community, we all experienced the collective operational, financial and HR obstacles that have resulted from the Covid-19 pandemic. A core aspect of our business model is providing members with the platform to cultivate business opportunities through face-to-face networking, and with movement restrictions in place, we had to diversify the way in which we continued to provide value.

Our first responsibility when implementing our shift in focus was to ensure we extended genuine empathy for our members. Our priority was to reach out in person to each business to reassure them of our continuing support as they refocus their long-term business strategies. In total, we spoke to over 70 per cent of our database and found 19 per cent were redesigning their supply chains to mitigate future risk and 51 per cent were looking to digitalise their proposition.

Have you seen many members alter their business models to cope with the crisis?
During the early stages of the pandemic, we saw members adjust to the accelerated adoption of technology and the sole objective for many was to survive the period of uncertainty.

Many of our members are rooted in traditional industries where, prior to Covid-19, technology had perhaps taken a back seat in their operations, so the transition was not easy.
However, over the past two months, we have seen members pivoting their entire business model with great success for long-term implementation and commercial benefit.

From a BBG perspective, how have you adjusted your calendar of events to suit the new normal?
Taking stock of the many webinars available, we made a conscious decision not to overwhelm members with additional online events and instead, carefully selected credible, existing content from within our business ecosystem. Working with our sponsors and members such as HSBC, Fragomen, PwC, The Fry Group and Barclays, we were confident that the content we were endorsing was valuable for our members.

We worked with the British Embassy and Her Majesty’s ambassador, Patrick Moody, and Her Majesty’s consul general, Andrew Jackson, on an address to the British business and expat community in May, attracting an audience of over 250. We also held our annual general meeting as a virtual event to allow all members the opportunity to attend.

When we hosted our first live event post-movement restrictions, we were overwhelmed by the interest and the event was fully booked within three days. Our calendar of events for the remaining months of 2020 will continue to facilitate the growth of our members by providing them with useful content and networking opportunities, while being mindful of social distancing guidelines.

One of our key social events, the Battle of the Business Councils golf tournament, is taking place in October and we have extended the day to include morning tee times due to its
popularity.

Regionally and globally, do you believe the partnership model has been strengthened by Covid-19?
Now more than ever, we are working closely with senior stakeholders within our business ecosystem, including the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and as part of the Multi Nation Task Force (MNTF), a collective of all Dubai and Abu Dhabi based international business groups.

Our already proactive voice has grown stronger, and we have developed our role as an authoritative voice of the British business community to collate and ask the pertinent questions on behalf of our members.

What are the biggest challenges and the greatest lessons learnt from the crisis so far?
Alongside the uncertainty, I believe we are all becoming more empathetic, creative and collaborative with our business models and approach to industry relationships. The sudden shift in focus allowed us to take stock and identify areas of improvement, bringing us closer to members and stakeholders, despite the lack of traditional face to face networking.

During our member outreach, cash flow was highlighted as an immediate concern for many and the team mobilised to offer support, where possible, by providing direct contacts within the banking sector. As chairs of the finance and funding working group of the MNTF, we are also in direct contact with the UAE Central Bank, sharing insights gained through the forum with live case studies and ideas around initiatives aimed at supporting the SME community in particular.

We also worked closely with the British Business Group Abu Dhabi to launch a microsite that served as a collective source of verified information and qualified contacts to support those struggling with financial, immigration, HR and legal issues. This was an inspiring exercise that saw the British spirit of cross-industry peers helping one another and exchanging best practice.

Looking at the UK, the Brexit transition period ends this year. How has the situation been so far and what are your projections looking ahead?
Prior to Covid-19, we saw a significant increase in trade mission activity as British businesses explored their trade options beyond the borders of the European Union. This has not
changed and, if anything, the appetite for business opportunities in the UAE has increased during 2020 as we move closer towards the end of the transition period. We are now able to connect businesses that are yet to establish a presence in the region with relevant contacts within our membership to ensure conversations remain alive and opportunities are seized.

Post-Brexit, do you anticipate any major changes in bilateral relations between the UAE and the UK?
The BBG has been apprised of great changes in momentum in business and trade opportunities emanating from the UAE-UK bilateral relationship, which we fully support through
the activity and engagement we have with the British Chamber of Commerce, and our awareness of planned actual and virtual trade missions organised by the Department for International Trade and UK regional Chambers of Commerce.

The recent appointments of the UAE-UK Business Council co-chairs, Minister of State, Ahmed Al Sayegh, and the British Prime Minister’s chief strategic advisor, Sir Edward Lister, demonstrate the importance of this trade relationship at the most senior level.

Lastly, what are your expectations for the rest of 2020 and the way ahead post the Covid crisis?
There is an enduring willingness within the British business community to continue operating in the region, retaining the established commercial success for British business in the UAE and to build even stronger relationships with our host country.

As we continue to build on our proposition of being a welcoming, business ecosystem creating valuable business connections for British companies in the region, we will adapt to the economic and social landscape, listen and respond to our members and work hard on behalf of our sponsors. We remain hopeful we will be able to hold our highly anticipated key social events, the Great British Day Out and the BBG Christmas Ball in some capacity, during the rest of the year.

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