Sunday, October 13, 2013

Hot, hot summer days in the Middle East

By moving abroad to work with a company that has a vast international presence, I thought I would have significant opportunity for extravagant business travel.  Unfortunately, Samsung has greatly disappointed in that respect. However, I did finally get a chance at a unique travel experience in August while working on a project for Samsung's construction company, Samsung C&T.  We were working on a market entry strategy for one of the company's new businesses and we needed to travel to the Middle East to discuss opportunities with other companies.

The Samsung business team: me, Steve (from Canada), Fabio (from Italy), and VP Fuad (from UK)

August was probably, however, the worst time to travel to this region.  Daytime highs every day were 38C (100F) and above, and many expats take this time of year to escape on their summer holidays.  Additionally, Ramadan 2013 ended early in August and many of the locals take long holidays in the feast days following.  So scheduling business meetings was very difficult!  I lost track of the number of people I contacted who asked, "Could you come back in September?"

Project deadlines being what they were, we departed nonetheless for Dubai on August 11th.  I had visited Dubai on my around-the-world adventure in 2010, calling it "bizarre" and observing all the excesses of the Emiratis and the rigid class distinctions.  In the wake of the financial crisis, the place had felt like "a college frat party that just emptied its last keg of beer," but in 2013 the construction cranes seem to be moving again and the place again has a feeling of something being built where nothing should be.

My Samsung team of four people spent a week in the Emirates, pulling on our suits to exchange business cards and talk shop with construction companies in the country.  One big advantage that the Gulf region has is very robust air conditioning. It was ironic that I felt much more comfortable in a suit in the UAE than I would have in Seoul during the summer, where air conditioning is almost non-existent inside the Samsung offices.  At the beginning of just about every meeting we would be offered tea and coffee, and some lowly staff member from India would be dispatched to bring us our beverages.  I think every company in the UAE has a "tea boy" on staff!

However, in some buildings we were greeted with the stench of pungent cologne – I couldn't understand why Emiratis like these awful fragrances.  In one building I was so overwhelmed by the smell that I almost felt like I was suffocating.

There was little time for exploring during the week but after Thursday evening we were able to enjoy our weekend a bit (the Middle East work week is Sunday to Thursday, with holy day on Friday).  We had time to smoke shisha and drive around Dubai.  I also ascended the Burj Khalifa a second time (a project partly managed by Samsung C&T) and was similarly unimpressed with its absurd height.  The Burj was clearly built just to be super tall, but doesn't look particularly elegant in my opinion.  Again I saw Mall of the Emirates and introduced my non-American colleagues to the ridiculous portion sizes at the Cheesecake Factory. The nightlife I saw was disappointingly dude-heavy. Dubai felt artificial and expensive for no good reason.

My team also visited Abu Dhabi, which is a short 90 minute drive from Dubai through the vast desert, for a day of business meetings.  It is sleepier but feels considerably less artificial than Dubai.  However there is no reason to visit AD as a tourist.

On Saturday evening, we left Dubai for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  About the best thing I can say about Dubai is that it is *way* better than Saudi!!  You cannot do anything in Saudi ... no touching women, no drinking, no nothing. Such a boring place.  You cannot even smoke shisha in Riyadh.  Our only nightly activity was bowling at the Intercontinental Hotel.  Riyadh is a place that feels ready for a construction boom, but it's not clear whether they have the competency to organize it.  For instance, the Samsung office sits in the 2nd-tallest building in the city, standing alone in the desert on the north end of the city. Why put a building there?  Most of the expats in Saudi live in compounds, which have relaxed rules towards womens' dress and the like, but those must feel like prisons to them.

Thankfully after two days I escaped to Qatar, which feels like "Saudi lite" – more conservative than UAE but you can still drink in hotels and women do not face the same restrictions as in Saudi.  Doha was nice but quiet and it feels like the whole city is under construction.  Clearly the place is very wealthy, and a ton of money is being put towards projects to impress the global citizens who descend on the country for the 2022 World Cup (though it would be sheer madness to play during the summer months). You can only drink at hotels, but we did happen to have a nice lounge next to where we were staying at the Crowne Plaza.  But Doha is quiet and the expats seemed pretty bored there too.  I prefer Korea much more!

Samsung vs. Apple, in Riyadh

Upon returning to my expat home in Korea, I did miss my daily hummus at the breakfast buffet and the easy ability to converse in English in places like Dubai and Doha.  I also missed good air conditioning.  However, the Middle East is not the place for me – too hot and flat and sandy and expensive.  I'm hoping business travel takes me to other parts of the world!

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