A handful of French businessmen got together in Sharjah 25 years ago as part of their strategic planning to expand the reach of French businesses in the Emirates.
This informal gathering sowed the seeds of a group known as the French Business Council, which was formally founded about nine years later. The council has grown to about 500 members in Dubai and the Northern Emirates, representing both large corporations and small firms.
"It's now among the big business councils in the UAE," says Yolanda Pineda, the director of the French Business Council.
Ms Pineda came on board last year after working in the UAE for four years as a corporate communications director for a non-French firm.
Over the years, as many businesses in the UAE have undergone double-digit growth, the council has had to constantly reinvent itself in terms of proposing new activities and services to its members, especially for small to medium enterprises (SMEs) and new entrepreneurs.
It has introduced training sessions on management and market understanding, how to recruit talent in the UAE and understanding the cross-cultural business environment in the Emirates.
Designed for about 12 people, five sessions are held each quarter, with a new session offered every two weeks.
An initiative called "synergy" gathers small corporations every month and helps in the exchange of business ideas and practices by fostering dialogue.
Started two years ago, synergy was redesigned this year to include discussions on sub-specialities such as project management and financing. The sessions can include visits to factories and offices of bigger corporations, or presentations by experts.
Of the council's members, about 65 per cent are SMEs in sectors including event management, marketing, legal business and waste management.
Networking with businesspeople who have been in the UAE for a couple of years helps business owners understand how to open a company in the region as well as handle the legal aspects, and discuss local business development strategies, says Caroline Tasse, Vectuel's Middle East branch manager.
Her company built a virtual edition of Abu Dhabi's carbon neutral initiative Masdar City in 2010, 15 years before it is expected to be completed. Ms Tasse is also the vice president of the council.
Another council programme, called "horizon", started in January and helps match member SMEs with business projects of bigger corporations that can be contracted to these smaller firms. So far, there have been 15 such matches, Ms Pineda says.
SMEs in sectors such as human resources consulting, interior design, management consulting and graphic design have benefited from the initiative.
Algeco, a global manufacturer of prefabricated modulated spaces, has an office in Dubai that employs about 150 people. It became a French Business Council member just over a year ago and has already benefited "dramatically" from the networking efforts of the council, which helped it expand in the GCC region, says Jim Muldoon, the company's general manager for the GCC region, who is based in Dubai. "However experienced you are in business, you always need somebody senior for support," Mr Muldoon says.
A recent increase in young French expatriate population, in particular, has led the council to hold networking opportunities such as "young professional French Tuesday", which is geared towards under-25s.
The idea is to counsel them on how to start planning for the future and investing in areas such as property or life insurance, among other issues.
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