UNLOCKING THE MIDDLE EAST: The information gleaned during a journey abroad shows a fruitful future in the Middle East.

Author:Johnson, Eric

When the opportunity presented itself to travel to Dubai in November to attend the Global Restaurant Leadership Conference (GRLC), I didn't expect how much I would learn over a short trip, and much of it well beyond the scope of the conference.

I embarked on the journey knowing I was to look for a Marhaba agent on arrival in Dubai. Deplaning, I saw people meeting their Marhaba agents. There was not one waiting to greet me, and at 2 a.m.; this was exceedingly disconcerting looking at the massive immigration lines. Quickly correcting this with Marhaba customer service I learned my hotel did not finalize the clearing arrangements, and by just asking I received the service and was cleared outside the airport through a priority line. A relief, to say the least, though I know now to always confirm these service arrangements.

This was the most inconsequential thing I learned on this trip. I was meeting a delegation of Iraqi entrepreneurs at the conference who had been upskilling their knowledge of U.S. franchising dynamics and systems. I had met a number of these entrepreneurs on their previous trips to the U.S., one of which shared discouraging news they had received on a brand system in which they wanted to invest and bring to Iraq. The franchisor had relayed that Iraq didn't fit into their current development plans. Leaving the dialogue here would have left to chance any future exchange.

Naturally inquisitive, I asked more questions about how the communications came about. The entrepreneur had met the brand at a major tradeshow in New York and spoke briefly through an interpreter and sent several email follow-ups.

Knowing my contact did not speak English, and how quickly conversations transpire at tradeshows, I explored further this contact's business operations and alignment in the Iraqi fast casual food segment. The company had aligned a rather impressive and growing vertical system with food production, delivery fleet, real estate, and their own multi-unit concept. I also learned they had not conveyed this full story, and reached out to set a meeting between the entrepreneur and the franchisor.

All franchisors have development plans, and expansion deviations require a compelling reason. Sitting down with an interpreter, myself playing middleman, we were able to share enough information on both sides to warrant further review by the franchisor's executive team. The Iraqi market, particularly in Baghdad, is experiencing a solidly developing...

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