As with most family-owned organizations, the company will be organized along strongly hierarchical lines with the majority of power being held at the top by the senior, usually older, male family members. However there are changes in the Gulf with regards to women in senior positions. The UAE is the leading country in the Gulf regarding this.
The figure of the pyramid depicts the organization in the way a foreigner would perceive it on first (second, third or even tenth) contact. In reality, the foreign businessman only meets the operative part of the organization at the outset and is seldom in direct contact with the real decision makers. Access to this partially hidden section of the organization may be severely restricted. It is important to try to get access to the key decision-makers, even if you are initially being dealt with by expatriate employees. All major decisions will be made at the top and you will need influence at that level. As for the smaller Norwegian companies many of them will only interact with the lower parts.
For a small to medium enterprise, it is very common for the first few contacts at least to deal with middlemen when approaching a local company. These middlemen are usually expatriates and most commonly from South Asian countries such as India and Pakistan. Due to their relatively limited position in making decisions it can be difficult to arrange meetings with these or to get past them and approach the level of decision makers.
Having Norwegian background it is not always easy to realise and recognise that other societies have hierarchies. Our roles are not always clear and everyone can speak to everyone. It is important that contact is always made with those of the same hierarchical level. Although we would never emphasize our place in the hierarchy, it is common elsewhere for example by using titles when you address someone. If someone is a doctor you will use the title Dr. followed by his/her name. Age and family background is also of major importance in a hierarchical society.
It is crucial to have an agent/sponsor that has the right connections and understands your product who is willing to take you “behind” the scenes and introduce you to the decision makers. A good sponsor will be able to obtain early market information. At the same time, it is very important to have good legal framework from the beginning in order to be able to close the relationship or change the agent if it becomes necessary.