(Photo: Reuters)
(Photo: Reuters)

The world's media has turned its attention once more to the political unrest and uncertainty erupting in the Middle East.

Little more than a year after the election of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has been removed from his position following mass protests in Tahrir Square.

While some businesses might be put off by such unrest, or by reports of the misadventures of western men and women when they fall foul of strict laws in Middle Eastern countries, there's another side to the story.

There are many Middle Eastern countries that deserve wider recognition for the opportunities that they present to businesses looking to invest overseas.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a good example.


(Photo: Reuters)
(Photo: Reuters)

Last year, the UAE maintained its top 10 position within the BDO Ambition Survey's Global Opportunity Index of most attractive investment destinations.

Our survey of more than 1000 globally-aspiring Chief Financial Officers (CFO) from mid-sized companies found that in 2012, CFOs were continuing to cite the UAE's market size, access to new customers, proximity to hub markets and stable economy as the driving forces in their decision to invest.

With easy access to markets in the East and West, an entry route into Africa and a huge domestic infrastructure investment that has created a legacy of strong economic growth, it's not surprising that many CFOs are attracted to the region.

But, as with any expansion overseas, with great opportunity also comes an element of risk.

During my recent visit to the Middle East I met with several of my colleagues, including our new CEO in Bahrain, Ali Jawad Habib Jawad and Gerard Rahman, CEO of BDO UAE.

One of our discussions centred on how businesses can make the most of what's on offer.

Don't Be Fooled by Appearances

(Photo: Reuters)
(Photo: Reuters)

Despite hubs such as Dubai and Doha looking western in appearance, in reality these glittering cities are less than a generation old.

Business culture in the Middle East continues to be dominated by traditional values of relationships and trust.

The handshake, for example, still holds a great deal of weight when sealing a deal.

Those organisations that attempt to assert purely western businesses practices on them run a higher risk of failure.

Local Knowledge is Key

While it's tempting toexport teams of internal colleagues when expanding abroad, it's vital not to underestimate the importance of having access to people with regional and local experience withinyour team.

Not only will this help you get to grips with local customs and business culture more quickly, it will also accelerate the pace of return on investment.

Don't Assume that All Countries - and Emirates - Are the Same

It sounds obvious, but multinationals too often assume that doing business in Abu Dhabi is the same as doing business in Dubai or elsewhere within the region.

Each country and emirate has its own culture, rules, regulations and ways of doing business.

It's imperative that businesses have local people in each region so they can tailor their approach and get it right.

Consider Intelligent Partnerships

One way to mitigate risk is to consider a partnership with another like-minded business or organisation.

If you choose the right partner, joint ventures can help deliver a more reliable and better return on investment.

Key factors to consider include choosing a partner with on the ground experience, channels and networks.

Patience is King

True success in the region will only be delivered by firmly establishing the business and reaping the benefits that patience brings.

If you try to move too quickly, you're likely to underestimate the challenges of doing business in a foreign country.

And, as with any form of international expansion, it's vital that your main driver is the needs of your business, rather than of the market.

As I have seen first-hand, the Middle East can open the door to a wealth of opportunities worldwide - but true value will only be achieved if those opportunities are genuinely right for your business.

Martin van Roekel is the CEO of accountancy and consultancy firm BDO International