Victoria Zagorksy

Today, more and more companies operate globally, and conduct market research studies in the multiple international markets. Some of the major industry trends, such as declining survey response rates, are global in their nature, and need to be taken into consideration when planning market research projects in virtually any part of the world. However, many countries have unique characteristics that need to be understood in order to design and implement effective research programs.

When undertaking research studies in the Gulf countries, research managers need to pay their attention to the 5 key characteristics of the market:

  1.  Extreme diversity
  2.  Language
  3.  Expat population
  4.  Cultural aspects
  5.  Data collection methods

Extreme diversity
Gulf states have a very diverse population, of which 48% are expatriates. With the highest net migration rate in the world, United Arab Emirates is the host of the same number of migrants as the UK (7.8 million), and this group is ethnically, culturally, and economically diverse.

The UAE has the second highest gender imbalance in the world behind Qatar with a male/female ratio of 2.2.

In the Gulf states, population density also varies considerably, with Oman and Saudi Arabia having the density of only about 10 people per one square kilometre due to the habitable regions being surrounded by vast desert areas. In the other countries, the population densities are substantially higher. For instance, Bahrain, the smallest Gulf state, has the density of 1,678 people per square kilometre.

Research professionals must be aware of these nuances to develop effective sampling and to ensure that the data obtained in the studies can be generalised to the groups of their interest.

Conducting market research projects in an international market frequently requires a translation of the questionnaire into the native language of respondents. Due to the significant expat population in the Gulf countries, it is recommended to administer surveys in Arabic (official language), English (widely used language) and the native languages of the expat groups whenever the nationally representative sample is required or these groups are of interest to marketers in a research project. It is important to remember that a very limited number of expatriates speak fluent Arabic, and an English version of the questionnaire is required to conduct a survey among expatriate consumers. However, some groups of expatriates have a limited command of both English and Arabic, and translating a survey into their native language is the only way to obtain insights into their needs, preferences and behaviors. In the United Arab Emirates, the widely used languages include Farsi, spoken by the Iranian diaspora, as well as Hindi, Urdu, Pashto and Tagalog, spoken by the large South Asian, Pashtun and Filipino diasporas, respectively. Malayalam, the official language of Kerala is spoken widely by the Malayali community that forms a majority of the Indian diaspora in the UAE.

If the decision is made to translate the questionnaire into Arabic and/or other languages, it is critical to ensure that the questions and response options are communicated accurately. Back translation of the questionnaire is one of the commonly used practices to eliminate inconsistencies between the English questionnaire and translation. This involves translating the questionnaire into a foreign language and then translating it back by an independent translator (native speaker) into English. This process allows identifying issues such as misuse of the words that can lead to the ineffective communication and poor quality of the data. In those cases, where research is conducted in a face-to-face setting or over the telephone, it is also important to translate the introduction of the questionnaire / adapt it to the local market in order to effectively engage the respondents.

Expat Population
GCC expatriates represent a highly heterogeneous group in terms of ethnic make-up, as well as cultural and socio-economic characteristics.

It is also interesting to note that there is a high degree of variance in the group in terms of the number of years spent in the region. While some of these individuals have lived in the Gulf for decades, others came recently to study, work or do business. The latter group is still largely influenced by their experiences and interactions with the brands in their home countries. Brand communications they were earlier exposed to as well as perceptions they formed based on a combination of their prior experiences are likely to have a major impact on the responses to the survey questions. If their interactions with the brand are limited to their home country, and different positioning is utilised across different markets, their feedback is likely to reflect the performance of a brand in their country of origin, rather than the market they recently relocated to. When interpreting survey results, it is essential to take into consideration the influence of this type of bias, especially given the large number of the expatriates in the Gulf countries.

Cultural aspects
Comprehensive understanding of local culture is needed to effectively design any internal market research project. It also provides an important context for interpreting survey findings and developing insights into consumers’ needs and behaviours.

Many research professionals are familiar with the acquiescence bias, reflected in the tendency of the survey takers in the Arab countries to agree with what is presented to them, as well as to give highly positive feedback as being polite, friendly and respectful in the social setting is at the core of the Arab culture. To tackle this challenge, one of the common practices is to communicate to the survey takers that objective feedback is sought and no responses come across as disrespectful or impolite. Agreement scales are not recommended to be used as they are likely to yield highly undifferentiated data.

In addition to the response style bias, the response set bias may also come into play when survey takers have a tendency to provide socially desirable responses that are reflective of the normative view rather than their own beliefs or intentions. This is especially the case for the questions that relate to the socially sensitive areas. In the conservative society, the gender roles, for instance, may be regarded a social sensitive area, and therefore such questions require careful analysis and interpretation in view of the cultural context.

Research professionals must understand how cultural factors impact survey takers’ responses. It is also important to control for the influence of response biases to arrive at accurate conclusions when comparing research results across a number of countries.

Data Collection
GCC remains a traditional research market, with 75% of surveys conducted face-to-face and online approaches accounting for less than 1% of quantitative research. The common implications of the traditional research remaining prevalent include relatively high costs and longer timelines for completing fieldwork. Conducting a survey in multiple languages adds to the complexity of the process.  Apart from that, many Arab survey takers are much less willing to share personal information with the interviewers, and it may not be easy to obtain information that they view private. The face-to-face interview context can create social restrictions that make respondents uncomfortable share their views and experiences. Researchers can overcome this obstacle by administering the surveys online. Typically, respondents are more willing to discuss and comment on what they regard sensitive issues.

In any international research, the importance of the local knowledge and familiarity with the cultural context cannot be overestimated. To design and implement high impact market research projects in the Gulf states, research managers need to keep in mind these 5 characteristics of the market.

HeadshotVictoria Zagorsky is the Editor-in-Chief of Insight Middle East and Africa