‘You’re taking the Dubai elective, why?’ My colleagues, professors, and friends repeatedly asked when I mentioned my February plans. Cass Business School was offering its MBA students electives around the globe, starting with one that explores cultural diversity in the UAE.

Coming from Saudi Arabia, it may sound like cheating to take the course, as the Arabian culture is very similar, and I kind of should be familiar with it already… I also visited Dubai multiple times where my extended family reside. But, like many visitors, I knew the malls and the cafes, but not much about the history of the city, or why, like in Saudi, nationals wore white and black garments for men and women, respectively.


From the outside, the Middle East may appear to have its own caveat of culture and lifestyle almost non-relatable to everywhere else, and many go by the notion of ‘it is what it is’. Although I speak Arabic fluently, I myself wasn’t aware why the city was called Dubai in the first place, and on a personal level, I didn’t know that my last name, like many Arabic names, is an adjective with a very cool meaning also. All of that illiteracy was about to change, as we packed our sunglasses and made our way to Dubai for the late winter elective.

Perhaps I should start by explaining why I chose the elective first – going a little beyond the ‘…. I need the sun!’ statement. Because, you can imagine how an analytical MBA student normally approaches their networking prospectuses; they would systematically expand some spread-sheet of contacts by exploring new places with different people. In my case, I guess I intrinsically adopted a different strategy of business networking altogether; one that lends itself to something we learnt during the last elective we had in medical school. At the time, we travelled to New York and had visited Columbia University whilst sightseeing. I met their MBA administration team, one of whom casually laid down some resonating advice:

‘I’ll tell you something they don’t teach at business school… for free.’  he began to say…. and, after pausing for impact, he then continuedYour network? it isn’t about who you know and how many, it’s the people who care about you… the old lady down the road? The one you help out with her groceries? She can have better intentions for you, and really help you, more than all the CEOs whose business cards you keep on file… why? because she cares… and has you at the forefront of her mind when opportunities come by’.

As years passed, I found myself doing an MBA in my city of London, a metropolitan place where everyone is truly culturally unique, and where I have grown up and studied university. But the experience of leading a busy life teaches the importance of family, and valuing the incredible people who have always been kind, giving , thinking of you despite the distance and always seem to want the best for you i.e. ‘family’ (in my case just don’t ask me how we’re all actually related, it gets complicated when you’re from the middle east!). However, being a student again is a great opportunity to reconnect and invest in our ‘networks’, and following the advice from Columbia University, we can do so beginning with our roots, as well as then exploring the organisations and institutions that expand our horizons. Furthermore, understanding what makes us all ‘culturally unique’ helps us bring in a different prospective to the global world we live in and makes us better global citizens able to share our heritage. So, in my case, that’s the full story of why I wanted to go to the Middle East, despite what they normally teach at business school! Now I present to you the story of what was learnt from the journey through our – eventful – elective in Dubai and the Emirates.

When you travel to Dubai, you expect to see people from all over the globe who somehow gravitated to it following its economic boom in the last couple of decades. However, the city has actually been a natural port and meeting point of travelers for thousands of years. ‘Trade’ and foreign exchange is in the DNA of the local Emirati people, previously known for pearl diving – a precious commodity back in the day. Thus with the economic prosperity, they were well poised to be a global trading ground, with a sense of luxury. From our elective, we have come to know how much the city has developed. Perhaps if you were to say two decades ago that Dubai will be hosting the World Expo, no one would believe it! But in less than 3 years from now, that is exactly what is on the agenda. Still, many would say that Dubai ambitions are unrealistic. Yet, I find it fascinating how in the meeting points of diverse travelers, whether it is Dubai or other global ports such as New York, group thinking is bravely overcome, and assumptions are routinely overturned. This special and forward looking mind-set of ‘nothing is impossible’ is in the air, and as I got to know, highly contagious.

On landing in Dubai airport on this occasion, I found myself catching the bug, and somehow went from the girl who is most in her element in the ultra-hygienic environment of labs, reading books or drinking gluten-free-hot-chocolate-made-with-soya-milk, to the girl who would be riding camels, getting a henna tattoo and booking Skydive Dubai. Little did I know, collecting my luggage at DXB – that I have optimistically filled with summer clothes in the middle of February – I would have all of that to look forward to, never the less, that I would also explore another side of the pristine city, get caught in a sand-rain-mud storm of some kind, then deeply understand the culture – my culture – and how it’s actually very much connected to the world; so much so, that the garments we traditionally wear are in fact one of the gifts of our international friendships. Finally, I would also find out what my last name actually means, and how it became my guide in choosing my career. But, I’ll tell you more about all that in part 2 of this blog 🙂

 

Mashael Anizi
Full-time MBA (2017)