More than 5,000 British businesses operate in the UAE, our fourth-largest export market outside Europe. Rebecca Marks, co-founder of Devon-based Scarlett Entertainment, established her firm in Dubai last year. She highlights some key considerations for other UK firms looking to follow suit
Dubai may boast the world’s highest skyscraper, busiest airport and only artificial archipelago shaped like a palm tree, but one notable absence from this glitzy emirate is a thriving entertainment scene.
This could be about to change soon, as Dubai has been investing heavily in the leisure sector in order to cement its position as a premier tourist destination.
Having built the Dubai Opera – a venue that’s also hosted ballets, rock concerts, comedy gigs and fashion shows since its completion in 2016 – the emirate is positioning itself as the Middle East’s theme park capital. It has also started putting on lavish shows in its colossal shopping malls.
Scarlett Entertainment, based in Newton Abbott, Devon, is one British business to have acted on this opportunity. With a roster of performers that includes DJs, trapeze artists, flamenco dancers and “walkabout Santas”, it is well equipped to meet demand.
Aided by local set-up specialist Virtuzone, the firm opened an office in Dubai Media City’s Concord Tower – also home to other event agencies and a dance studio – in March 2018.
Jumping through hoops
“Setting up was stressful,” admits co-founder Rebecca Marks, a member of IoD South West. “In the first few months it felt as though we were jumping through hoops to get started. For example, you need a business trade licence to open a bank account. But you can’t get this without an office address, for which you need to pay a year upfront. But how do you do this when your bank account isn’t set up?”
There were staffing problems too. “I soon realised we shouldn’t have started with a team of seven. It was a costly mistake,” she recalls. “We thought that, after training, the Dubai team would be up and running. This didn’t happen. I really should have been there for the first three months.”
Having resolved the HR issues and recruited key people such as a creative manager and a full-time costumier, Scarlett Entertainment has since secured a number of high-profile clients in Dubai.
Recent highlights include a “vertical fashion show”, with aerial performers cascading down the Burj Khalifa tower; providing Greatest Showman-themed entertainments for corporate events; and hosting New Year parties at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel.
The company has since expanded in the Middle East. It’s worked in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi on the F1 grands prix, and in Lebanon on launch events for Range Rover. Saudi Arabia is the next market the firm is targeting.
Marks notes that Dubai’s working environment “might take some adjusting to. A lot of client communication is done via WhatsApp. Also, some clients prefer paying by cheque. As a supplier, you’re expected to go and pick it up from them.”
There was also the big dilemma that faces most international firms setting up in Dubai: whether to set up in a UAE free zone – paying little tax, but unable to trade beyond its confines – or as a mainland corporation, which requires the backing of a local sponsor, who will take a controlling equity stake.
Scarlett Entertainment opted for the latter, because, as Marks describes: “One of our main reasons to open in Dubai was to win contracts. We didn’t want to chance the free zone option, as we’d still be treated as an international company.”
But she adds that climbing the steep learning curve has been worth it. “Allocating enough management time to the Dubai office at the beginning is key to setting up here. The first three months are a real eye-opener in terms of how your office will work and the way of conducting business. But, once that initial set-up is over, there are many benefits in having a Dubai office. There’s a lot of investment here, particularly with Expo 2020 on the way. It’s an exciting time to be a part of this.”