Taking lunch with John McGaw means more than indulging in a meal. Between trips to a buffet featuring Arabic, Indian, Chinese and continental cuisine, Mr McGaw offers tutorials on the complexities of contemporary economics and the special attention one needs to pay to personal finance. He does so in neat, well-organised sentences, clearly the result of long years of practice in the twinned fields of finance and the law, and of strenuous years at Britain's prestigious Charterhouse School, Oxford University's Lincoln College and the College of Law in London.
His discourses are the result, too, of having served as the chief executive of Killik & Company for the Middle East and Asia for the last three years in Dubai and of some 25 years in stockbroking, wealth management, investment banking, private equity placements and fund-raising in Europe and Asia. So the tutorials come freighted with deep knowledge of the field and laced with experience, but they are by no means dry. They aren't wrought either, especially in view of the global financial crunch that's starting to affect the Gulf, including the UAE. Hyperbole and hysteria aren't part of Mr McGaw's style. He is, after all, an Englishman - just the right drollness, just the right dose of wit, just the right modulation of voice, and, of course, just the right anecdote to illustrate a point:
"The meaning of long-term investment has taken on a new generational dimension following a report on retail investors," Mr McGaw says. "I read about an investor who said she wouldn't be selling shares at current rock-bottom prices. "But, as an additional act of defiance, she would leave her firm with instructions in her will that her beneficiaries could not sell either. This sentiment is not uncommon among retail investors, though enforcement via a will may be stretching the point."
What does this anecdote suggest? "It reflects a savvy aspect of retail investor mentality and fortitude," he explains. "Since history tells us that, while markets fluctuate in the short term, in the long run they always rise and outperform most other forms of asset class. The lady investor may have a point." Just as he understands the psychology of investors, Mr McGaw understands the nature of doing business in the Gulf, which may explain his success.
According to "The McGaw Formula", respect for the local culture and amiable deference to those in power are a must; so is acquiring the ability of figuring out what people are actually saying. Here is another anecdote: "Not long after settling in to our new home in Dubai, I was shopping in a very large supermarket and realised I had overbought on the tomatoes," he remembers. "Asking one of the 'I am at your service' assistants where the vegetable stalls were, he pointed in a direction 'over there,'" smiling ever so helpfully.
"After wandering through the maze of shelves, I found myself at the checkout counter, where I asked again for the vegetable stalls. I wandered back 'over there'. En route, I bumped into 'I am at your service', and asked him, several times as it turned out, why he had sent me to check out. He just kept smiling until I asked him if he understood English, whereupon he just shrugged. "Lesson number one was now learnt. Most people mean well and want to please. But do not take anything for granted, particularly questions and requests."
Business dealings in the Middle East rest predominantly on friendships, which, in turn, take time to build, Mr McGaw says. "Trust, I learned, was paramount," he says. "A typical business meeting might only last 30 minutes, but most of that time would be spent talking about family and travel. The business purpose would often be lost in a rushed two-minute goodbye and handshake. "On one trip to Abu Dhabi, the chairman of a bank pointed out to me that our company's involvement in health care and security were the right industries to assist a growing nation and then helpfully advised me that it would take at least three years to 'break in'. Not quite what I wanted to hear.
"One of the main issues facing newcomers to this region can be unreliability at best, and rampant dishonesty at its worst," Mr McGaw adds. "Friendship takes time in any environment but, unlike in every environment, it can be accelerated and enhanced in this region through business dealings. It is for this reason that one needs to be on one's guard. I was told, 'What you see here is not always what you get'. There is a complex side to the Middle East that can be difficult for expatriates to deal with."
It may have been difficult for Mr McGaw at first, but he arrived in the UAE at a time when Dubai was beginning to build its infrastructure at a very rapid pace and was clearly being given snap decisions, particularly when it came to announcing new real estate projects. "This is what drove the local economy and this is where communication became such a well-worked and professional medium for laying the foundations of 'Brand Dubai'," he explains.
Mr McGaw pauses. He looks at his watch surreptitiously. It is time to return to his office at the Dubai International Finance Center, a short walk from the Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel where we'd been lunching. The DIFC hosts a variety of financial institutions ranging from universal banks and large insurance companies to private banks and other financial institutions. But there was surely one more anecdote for him to relate? Of course.
"Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines, was on his first visit to the UAE at the turn of the millennium. He had been invited over for a few days to get a feel for what Dubai was in the process of building and achieving in order to encourage him to bring Virgin Airlines to Dubai. Having spent an interesting and informal lunch in the company of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, then Crown Prince of Dubai, and his inner sanctum of advisers, Sir Richard was invited to attend a presentation in Dubai Media City," Mr McGaw recalls.
"As he entered the conference room, he noticed a can of Virgin Cola next to each place setting, which puzzled him, as he was not aware that Virgin Cola was sold in the UAE. In fact it was not sold then and is not sold now. This was a masterful and ingenious piece of public relations communication and it left a deep impression on me for its sheer genius and was not left unnoticed by Sir Richard."
Pranay Gupte, a journalist, author and documentary producer, is co-editor of the forthcoming Global Emirates: An Anthology of Tolerance and Understanding, distributed by Motivate Publishing.