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Export opportunities: exhibitions and trade shows.

Trade fairs and exhibitions have become the mega-marketing tool of the 20th century, unsurpassed as a means of promoting products and increasing exports in the international arena. Exhibitions of a wide diversity of products, including arms, construction materials, jewellery, petrochemicals, telecommunications systems and business and financial services, are among some of the main attractions to be staged in the Middle East this year. But the trade fairs and exhibitions business is by no means a one way street, as scores of foreign companies travel to the Middle East to display their wares, dozens of Arab exhibitors are travelling in the opposite direction, competing with international producers in a variety of markets.

London-based Overseas Exhibition Services, which have been around in one form or another since 1895, pioneered trade fairs and exhibitions in the Middle East region back in the 1970s. Gerry Dobson, a director of Overseas Exhibitions and Services with responsibility for the Middle East region, recalled how, during the mid-1970s, the opportunities for doing business in the Middle East were almost limitless. "The price of oil was over $30 a barrel and the producing nations were awash with petrodollars," recalled Mr Dobson.

Entire infrastructures were being established in most of the Gulf states, including schools, roads, hospitals and telecommunications networks. Overseas Exhibition Services launched itself into the regional market with a building show in Bahrain. This was followed by a telecommunications event and later the first in what was to become a series of Middle East Oil Shows (MEOS), the 11th of which was held in Bahrain at the end of February, attracting visitors from government and private sector institutions from around the region.

In the 1970s, as Overseas Exhibition Services' Gerry Dobson recalled, there were none of the multi-million dollar exhibition centres boasted by most of the major cities of the Gulf in the 1990s. "Our first exhibitions were held in a series of tented structures in Bahrain. Later, we were invited to move into the municipal market halls in the centre of the city." Eventually, obviously recognising the potential offered by hosting such events, the government decided to build the Bahrain International Exhibition Centre, today one of the most modern in the Arab world.

While interest in some sectors has grown and developed, others have assumed a diminishing importance in international markets.

Now each Gulf state has its own cement construction industry, with all the related spin offs, all but the largest building trade fairs have given way to exhibitions featuring, for example, the latest in the fast moving telecommunications industry.

This year Overseas Exhibition Services will run a number of trade shows in Bahrain, among them Middle East Broadcast 99 in March, for the radio, television and programming industry and Jewellery Arabia 99 in November.

While Overseas Exhibition Services is happy to utilise the facilities offered by Bahrain, these days many Arab states are in strong competition for exhibition, conference and trade fair business. The importance of the "right" location for an event cannot be over-estimated one trade fair veteran confirmed. "Destinations such as Bahrain and Dubai are visitor friendly. The hotels are good, the restaurants are cosmopolitan and the general atmosphere is relaxed. The foreign visitor will find plenty to do and plenty to see. While some conservative states shy away from opening up to conference and exhibition business others, such as those I have mentioned are bending over backwards to accommodate foreign guests."

Certain issues have held some conservative Middle Eastern cities back from participating in the lucrative exhibitions and trade fairs business - cultural, religious or gender intolerance is obviously a problem when competing in international markets. "Of course there can be problems but a good conference or exhibitions organiser would anticipate anything that may be disruptive," commented one leading British organiser. "For example, women and business are inseparable now in the West; women head up multi-million dollar corporations and are at the cutting edge of most decision-making. They need to be able to feel relaxed in their working environment and in their hotel when work is over. Obviously, for an event which would include women - and that would be most of them - this would have to be taken into account. Although, generally, it is the destinations that have what might be termed 'universal appeal' that attract the high profile events."

In May Chem Systems and First Conferences will hold a conference in Abu Dhabi concentrating on the opportunities for investment and technology transfer in the petrochemicals industry. The conference will cover a number of issues specific to the regional industry including the impact of the private sector on the petrochemical industry; the effect of the Asia crisis on the Middle East market, the Middle East producers role as part of a global petrochemical strategy and the EU-GCC free trade area and its likely impact on the Middle East. As Chem Systems Mike Webster explained to The Middle East this week: "One of the most important elements of holding a conference in the Middle East is that it allows people from the region to discuss the issues that are most important to them. The petrochemicals industry in the Middle East is quite separate to the petrochemicals industry in Europe, where there are different areas of interest and concern."

Trade fairs and exhibitions are now regarded as an essential international stage for products and services and have removed many of the barriers business people as recently as 20 years ago had to deal with. "It seems inconceivable now," one London organiser recalled "but not all that many years ago, between 20 and 25 perhaps, companies anxious to do business in Gulf would send out a salesman who arrived at the airport with nothing but a suitcase of lightweight clothing and instructions to read the local equivalent of Yellow Pages (the advertising section of the telephone directory) for his leads. I like to think we are rather more sophisticated that that these days."
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Title Annotation:United Arab Emirates hosts the 1999 International Defense Exhibition
Comment:The 1999 International Defense Exhibition (Idex '99) held in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE) on March 14-18 reaffirmed the reputation of the Middle East as the world's largest buyer of arms.
Author:Taylor, Julian
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Mar 1, 1999
Words:987
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