Book review: The Arab World Unbound, by Vijay Mahajan

As post-Arab Spring instability lingers on, this comprehensive look at doing business in a little-understood region is all the more valuable, says Michael Binyon.

by Michael Binyon
Last Updated: 27 May 2015


The Arab World Unbound: Tapping into the power of 350 million consumers, by Vijay Mahajan

Jossey-Bass, £26.99

The Arab world is home to more than 350 million people. Taken together, the countries belonging to the Arab League constitute the world's ninth-largest economy, with a gross domestic product in 2010 of roughly £1.99trn. Yet this market is one that western exporters have largely neglected. Put off by news reports of political tensions and violence, nervous of unfamiliar cultures and deterred by negative stereotypes, they make little effort to explore the market opportunities or to respond to the region's growing clamour for western goods and lifestyles.

Vijay Mahajan, a professor of marketing at the University of Texas in Austin, shared many of these stereotypes. He, too, was put off by the largely hostile view of the Arab world found in the US media. But he decided in 2008 to go and see for himself. And for the next three years he travelled across all but four of the Arab League's 22 countries, interviewing hundreds of people, from top executives and entrepreneurs to young people exploring the world around them and ordinary shoppers in dusty markets. He returned home, impressed, surprised and determined to help US exporters penetrate a vibrant but largely unknown market.

He collected his impressions, the statistics and the advice offered him from every quarter and published it in The Arab World Unbound, a book he hopes will serve as a primer on the politics, customs, history and, above all, the marketing opportunities of a region where Americans until now have been known more by their products than by their faces.

His book is full of facts. There are tables of GDP, of populations, of the shadow economies, tourist numbers, percentages of religious minorities, fertility rates, Arab student numbers at US universities, and more. He offers overviews of dialects and language differences between Arab countries, of the tenets of Islam and the aspirations of the middle classes. He analyses economic policies, the burgeoning birth rates and the social pressures on young people wanting to get married.

His conclusions, not surprisingly, are that the Arab world is hugely diverse, less rigid or conservative than outsiders believe, but shares cultural and social assumptions and modes of behaviour that a western salesman can harness to his advantage; if he ignores these, however, he will also find insuperable obstacles.

In his chapter on women, for example, Mahajan notes that in most Arab countries, especially in the Gulf, women now have higher educational qualifications than men, and many are taking positions of prominence in companies. They also have money to spend. Saudi women control an estimated $11.9bn in cash and another $2.1bn in investments, according to a 2010 survey. And they are very particular about buying the best and most prestigious brands.

But, he notes the contrast between sophisticated westernised businesswomen in countries such as Lebanon and women in Yemen, one of the poorest Arab countries, where those who are part of a polygamous household often save money in banks as a safety net in case of divorce or subordination to other wives.

Mahajan found that across the Arab world there is surprising knowledge about western brands. Goods from companies blacklisted because they invested in Israel can be found even in the smallest Arab souk.

His investigations are extremely thorough - he apparently interviewed nearly 600 people, and manages to mention almost all of them in his stories and examples, highlighting key companies or significant examples in separate boxes. The endless list of names becomes rather tedious, as does his constant placing of himself in every citation, with phrases like 'he told me when I spoke to him in 2010'. But the cumulative effect is compelling, and weaves a colourful tapestry of the layers of Arab society.

Mahajan is forthright about the need to respect religious and social sensitivities, and rightly says that Islam influences every aspect of life. But he argues that western companies should not be intimidated by Islam. The Arabs are not. Indeed, as he remarks, 'capitalism is very much alive and well during the pilgrimage'. The western company that takes advantage of the annual hajj or Muslim feast days is the one that will succeed in a very competitive commercial environment.

Sony, for example, reported that roughly 40% of all its sales in Saudi Arabia were made during the hajj, as most pilgrims like to bring a present home to their families. Mahajan's book is intended as a guide for Americans approaching the Middle East market. It is clearly pitched to what they know - or don't know - of the Middle East, some of which might seem fairly obvious to Europeans.

Each chapter ends with a series of typically western sales pitch questions: 'What strategies can you use to localise your marketing and products throughout the Arab world?', or 'How do the different styles and behaviours Arab women display when in public or private environments create opportunities for your brand and how can you capitalise on them?' This does read a bit like notes for a marketing class. But it includes valuable up-to-date data and shrewd observations, and draws many of the lessons exporters need to learn if they are to succeed in this vast and diverse region.

- Michael Binyon is a leader writer on The Times.

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