Category: Electives

My eye-opening experience on the UAE study tour

I had just dropped off my children at school. Pulling out of the school’s driveway, I took a right turn, abandoning my familiar route to the office. Fifteen years after my first degree, here I was, driving myself to school too. I relocated to Dubai in 2017 as an expat from my home country, Nigeria. Shortly afterwards, I enrolled at Cass Business School for the Executive MBA in Dubai programme.

My cohort recently completed just over one year of “academic workouts”. I have to say, writing exams with a pen after a decade and a half of using computers required “workouts” on a digital level (think finger digits), not to mention juggling work, studies and family commitments.  I was all too glad that the first phase of the MBA was over, and we were moving on to international electives, such as the UAE Study Tour.

Members of the Cass Executive MBA in Dubai cohort on the UAE Study Tour

This elective presented an opportunity to gain practical insights into how businesses operate within the UAE’s cultural, economic and regulatory environment. Being a resident of Dubai, I was quite familiar with the general cultural and regulatory framework. Therefore, I was more interested in learning about the economy of the UAE. The UAE stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best countries in many aspects, including tourism, security, infrastructure and leadership. I was curious to learn more about how they did it in a relatively short space of time.

Not long after handing over my car to the valet service at the Roda Al Murooj hotel, I bumped into Professors Steve Thomas and Roy Batchelor in the hotel lobby. The duo would chaperon a class of 20 odd MBA students, on an exciting four-day tour of selected parts of the UAE. Rain showers on the first day, a rare occurrence in these parts, set the ambiance for the week, peeling off the rustic silhouette of dust from the surrounding Arabian desert. The first two days were spent gathering first hand insights on the Dubai and Abu Dhabi brands, products of cleverly integrated branding, innovation, marketing, strategy and investment principles.

Memorable stops in Dubai included visits to the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, a digitally advanced city branding and marketing company that promotes and regulates all tourism related activities in Dubai, and the leadership institute/innovation center of Majid Al Futtaim, the leading retail and leisure pioneer across Asia and the Middle East. In Abu Dhabi, First Abu Dhabi bank (FAB), impressed strongly with its Aa3/AA-/AA- credit ratings by Moody’s, S&P and Fitch respectively. We also visited the Emirates Aviation College where I got to play pilot for a few minutes.

Emirates Aviation College.  Inside a simulator

The other two days focused on the Arab consumer, Dubai real estate, and the Islamic economy. The ingenious expansion of Dubai’s coastline, and other man-made land-marks like palm Jumeirah and the world islands left me with zero doubts about the relentless efforts to diversify the economy, creating a model for the region.  It was eye-opening to see how concepts in marketing, big data, economics and strategy were being brought to life at dizzying speeds in virtually all aspects of the economy. Visits to the Dubai Expo 2020 site, Dubai Islamic Economy Development Center (DIEDC), and Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC), made me understand more clearly the role of the government and their plans to remain relevant in all aspects of life and living.

The UAE is definitely a reference point for countries in terms of articulating and actively following a focused development agenda. They are so far on track to meet or exceed the development objectives laid out in the country’s 2021 and 2071 master plan.

The awe-inspiring Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque

UAE Study Tour : A Gleaming Exposition of the Emirati Model

“An easy life does not make men, nor does it build nations. Challenges make men, and it is these men who build nations.” Such words, stated by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, could not more succinctly encapsulate the ambitious spirit of Dubai. As a city, in the Sheikh’s words that was “founded on trade, not oil,” Dubai has joined the ranks of other premium global destinations like Singapore in becoming highly competitive and deeply globalised – boasting high living standards within a relatively short time span. Such was certainly witnessed by myself and my fellow MBA classmates who embarked on the Cass UAE Study Tour in February 2019. The impressive Emirati Capitalism was plain for all of us to witness and appreciate over the duration of this tour. Whether it was admiring the scope and the grandeur of the Burj Khalifa, or enjoying the sumptuous buffets at various hotels – it was clear that this city had burgeoned into an economic behemoth in the Middle East. This growth came to be through its citizens leveraging the myriad of strengths and expertise of a large and ever-growing expatriate population. The boom of highly-skilled expatriate communities is predicated on a state-driven investment strategy that is focused on trade and export in sectors such as logistics, healthcare and financial services ultimately enabled by ambitious leaders.

Oliver and his MBA colleagues in Dubai

True to the Cass MBA’s motto of “Leading the Adventure,” the tour was nothing short of an amazing experience for all those involved. Over the span of five intense days, the tour treated my colleagues and me to countless interesting highlights – namely site visits to organisations which facilitate and sustain the success of the “Emirati Model” such as Expo 2020, Nakheel and Emirates Aviation College.

MBA students visit the Emirates Aviation College

Expo 2020 was one of the key facets of Dubai’s competitive growth that the cohort witnessed in the context of the tour. The theme of the Expo was “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future,” and focused on three distinct factors: opportunity, mobility and sustainability. This in turn will enable multilateral collaboration between Dubai and the world. This collaboration spans a gamut of areas of expertise, from logistics to communications to 5G networks. The building plans of the Expo were breath-taking – both in the layout and in the proposed architecture of various structures. The building plans symbolized an homage to the heritage of the UAE and Dubai as well as an image of a bright future for Dubai.

MBA students visit Expo 2020

The next facet of the tour that struck me as interesting was the site visit to Nakheel, which is single-handedly responsible for extending the coastline of Dubai from 70 km to more than 300 km. Nakheel is the state-owned development company which famously constructed the Palm Jumeirah. My colleagues and I witnessed how the company is making headway with other large-scale real estate projects such as Deira Islands, the Palm Jebel Ali and the famous “The World” island development. More impressive still was the emphasis Nakheel placed on its developments being sustainable and eco-friendly – especially in the way the foundation of the Palm Jumeirah was turned into an artificial coral reef.

The final part of the tour that stood out was how it showcased the significant role tourism plays in Dubai’s economic development. This was especially evident during the visit to Emirates Aviation College – Crew Training. Emirates places great emphasis on developing a cabin crew that is dynamic, multilingual and always prepared to go above and beyond to offer excellent in-flight customer service. Through rigorous training, the cabin crew plays a pivotal role at Emirates in attracting, retaining and subsequently growing its network of customers.  The lengths through which the airline made customer loyalty a cornerstone of its brand image gave me a clearer understanding of how Dubai will continually be made into a viable destination for tourism. Through this attention to detail, Dubai is able to consistently transcend cultural boundaries in order to optimally cater to a customer’s need.

Students take on the desert with a safari tour

Besides the company visits, the cultural activities further enriched the experience of the tour. Specifically, the UAE Tour culminated in a desert safari which entailed the conquest of desert dunes in 4X4 SUVs, along with an evening of shisha and belly dancing. Although Dubai has grown exponentially, the city’s and its people’s deep connection to the desert and traditional Arabian values cannot be understated. The enriching and exhilarating nature of the tour could not have been made possible without the support of the students and the staff members of Cass in Dubai.

 

Oliver Yogananthan, Full-time MBA (2019)
Contributions from Lynal Low, Full-time MBA (2019)
Zafar Hassan, Full-time MBA (2019)

When innovation is your only option

Cass Business School offers a wide range of electives, I was spoilt for choice and extremely grateful that I had the opportunity to take multiple. After much deliberation, the electives that I chose ranged in themes and locations; Silicon Valley focused on Digital Transformation, the London Symposium was themed “London is Open” and Cuba was on Sustainability. However, the one I attended and reflected upon most recently was Innovation & Technology in Israel and Palestine.

In my opinion, the Israel-Palestine elective was most thought provoking, and it discredited everything I ever knew about the region; Israel using its ‘obsession’ for security to secure itself from its Arab neighbour nations, to Palestine coming to terms with their current realities, both resolving their issues by use of innovation and entrepreneurship to better their future.

The elective started with me arriving on Friday in the “start-up nation”, a term I would hear tirelessly in Tel-Aviv, only to realise that the airline had left my bag in Berlin. I immediately took to Twitter, and a few tweets later, the bag was delivered to our hotel reception early the following morning. The majority of the cohort arrived on Saturday, and following the meet and greet, most of us had relocated to the beach, where you could easily forget we were on a study trip.

 

First thing on Sunday morning (the start of the week in Tel-Aviv), we visited the Peres Centre for Peace, followed by back-to-back visits to a host of other organisations such as The Bridge (Coca-Cola’s answer to an accelerator program) and 83 North (a venture capital firm). Another exciting part was the panel discussions, where we met a group of female entrepreneurs, angel investors, and different co-founders who were are at various stages of their start-up journey. These were very enlightening and educational experiences.

Fast forward three days later; our male Israeli tour guide left us, and swapped with a female Arab Palestinian tour guide. We didn’t need anyone to tell us, it was clear that Israelis were not allowed in Palestine. We were proceeding to the West Bank border crossing, a stark difference from Tel-Aviv. Heightened presence of Israeli military forces, high concrete fences and long queues at the check point. In less than an hour everything had changed. We were in Ramallah where there was no 3G mobile internet. We could see overhead tanks on roof tops and the subtle colour change of car number plates gave us a sense that we had gone back in time. However, we were arguably at the closest point where politics, religion, and economics meet.

In Palestine, we met with various stakeholders of the innovation and technology ecosystem, but this time in Palestine. This ranged from co-working accelerator spaces, entrepreneurs, politicians, and of course the financial institution, the Bank of Palestine. The highlight of Palestine was visiting Rawabi city, and meeting with the man behind the vision, Bashar Masri, who didn’t hesitate to give us his thoughts on how Ramallah is doing business, his quest to bring development to the people of Palestine, and his thoughts on Israel.

I am really hopeful, that one day both sides would come to an amicable solution, simply because they both need each other.

The elective ended with us visiting the holocaust museum, and then the old Jerusalem city. However, the experience of these two different states is bound to leave you with mixed feelings. To me, it is impressive how both sides have accepted the current status quo and decided to use innovation and technological advancements to better their lives.

In Vestates, which is my real estate business, we are about to commence a new development. We are working on how to utilise “waste” and excavated rocks and use these in the project, where previously we would have had them disposed. This idea came after Bashar Masri spoke on how the Israeli military did not allow them to dispose excavated stones, and so instead they used these stones to build the theatre in Rawabi city.

We have asked some of the Israeli and Palestinian software engineers, whom we met at the Bridge and Leaders organisation, to assist us in working on our mobile application for Jetseta, my startup. We hope to outsource some of our IT requirements to them.

One of the main take aways from the elective, is how optimism and innovation have acted as catalyst to the development of both Israel and Palestine (especially in the case of Rawabi city). In the words of the late President Peres “Optimists and Pessimists die the same way, but live differently”.

Harold Okwa
Modular Executive MBA (2017)

Things they don’t teach at business school – Part 1

‘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)

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