By Amye Parker

10 years ago, few people could have told you what the ‘UAE’ stands for. But, following a decade of steady and structured growth, the United Arab Emirates is becoming a major global player. A number of factors are drawing Western companies, including HSBC, Microsoft, CNN and Reuters, to set up headquarters in Dubai. The UAE is a rich, politically stable nation with tax-free opportunities, and boasts a strategic geographical position including one of the world’s busiest container ports. It’s easy to see how this market has developed into a central business hub for the Middle East.

Increasingly, we find our clients are interested in conducting research in the Middle East, and the United Arab Emirates is often a primary market of interest. And it makes sense:

The large disposable incomes, engaged culture of consumerism, and unique blend of populations deserves a focus of inquiry.

However, there are unique characteristics of the market to consider when conducting quantitative research in the UAE.

Lower Prevalence of Online Survey Panels

Whereas survey panels in the Global North may be considered a fun and interesting way to earn a little extra money, in the UAE there is less familiarity with online panels among consumers. The relatively early emergence of online survey research in the UAE means there are greater barriers for consumer trust of panels. As a result, the sample available for research is less representative of the national demographics.

Difficulties Reaching Older Consumers Via Online Research

Compared to countries such as the UK, France and Spain, the UAE has a much smaller population of adults aged 55+. This small pool of older respondents, coupled with the lower familiarity of online survey research, means sampling of older populations is typically best efforts with generally a low incidence of completes.

Shrinking Proportion of Women

When conducting online quantitative research in the UAE, gender is another demographic skew that needs to be considered. The size of the female population in the UAE greatly decreased, from 50% in 1960 to less than a third in 2015. This has been largely driven by an increase in expatriates, who tend to be mostly male. Additionally, as with many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, values and norms about gender roles remain conservative in the UAE. As a result, there is lessened ability to target women through online survey research – particularly if you are seeking a large number of completes.

Booming Expatriate Population

A final factor to consider when planning research in this region is the recent increase in migration. On a recent quantitative study, we came to learn the impact that such a large UAE expat population can have on research studies. Understandably, our client wasn’t looking to gather insights on expats, as they’re thought to be a transient and fleeting population that wouldn’t represent the true Emirati consumer. However, of all the people who live in the UAE, just 10% are Emiratis! A potential solution would have been expanding the scope to include expats who had been born and raised in nearby Middle Eastern countries. But, even then, only an estimated 15% of people living in the UAE fit this description. This means just one quarter of the country’s population are native Emirates or Middle Eastern expats.

Whilst 25% of the population isn’t too low to sample, it did raise questions about the usefulness of such a small segment of the UAE market. After further consultation with our client, it became clear their objectives could be better met with an expanded scope of respondents. The average length of stay for senior executive expats in the UAE is 4.5 years, up from 2 years in 2012. To gather the most useful insights, on a more permanent group of consumers, we allowed expats through our survey, as long as they had lived in the UAE for longer than 5 years.

Overcoming Sampling Challenges

When conducting research in the UAE, there are multiple routes that could alleviate the challenges with online survey panels. Leveraging your client’s name list, if available, can provide the opportunity to hear from people that better match your target audience. This approach also helps work around the demographic skews that exist on survey panels. Another survey method to explore is website intercepts, which can target all website visitors and thus ensure a more equal chance of contact across demographics like age and gender.

Looking beyond surveys, online research methods such as social media listening and text analytics provide an alternative means of learning from a large group of people. Given that internet penetration in the UAE is estimated at 92%, and this country is extremely active on social networks, there are many online trails consumers are leaving that researchers can leverage. By not relying on the limited population available through panels, there is a better chance of representative sample – and more ability to hit niche targets.

As the UAE increasingly becomes an area of interest, it’s important to consider the unique factors of its population. An influx of labour migration has resulted in changing demographics over recent decades, largely driven by young male expats. Additionally, the large expat community means a significant proportion of potential survey respondents are transient consumers, which presents unique opportunities and challenges.

Our experiences conducting research in the UAE is always interesting, and we have gained many useful insights far beyond just the compilation of sample available from panels. And, as the interest for research grows, the feasibility for studies in the UAE will only increase overtime. However, it’s an important reminder to approach new markets with well thought out methodology, and strong knowledge about the residents and sample available for research.

Amye Parker, Senior Research Executive,  Northstar Research Partners