Trade fairs and exhibitions have become the mega-marketing tool of the 20th century, unsurpassed as a means of promoting products and increasing exports in the international arena. Exhibitions of a wide diversity of products, including arms, construction materials, jewellery, petrochemicals, telecommunications systems and business and financial services, are among some of the main attractions to be staged in the Middle East this year. But the trade fairs and exhibitions business is by no means a one way street, as scores of foreign companies travel to the Middle East to display their wares, dozens of Arab exhibitors are travelling in the opposite direction, competing with international producers in a variety of markets.
London-based Overseas Exhibition Services, which have been around in one form or another since 1895, pioneered trade fairs and exhibitions in the Middle East region back in the 1970s. Gerry Dobson, a director of Overseas Exhibitions and Services with responsibility for the Middle East region, recalled how, during the mid-1970s, the opportunities for doing business in the Middle East were almost limitless. "The price of oil was over $30 a barrel and the producing nations were awash with petrodollars," recalled Mr Dobson.
Entire infrastructures were being established in most of the Gulf states, including schools, roads, hospitals and telecommunications networks. Overseas Exhibition Services launched itself into the regional market with a building show in Bahrain. This was followed by a telecommunications event and later the first in what was to become a series of Middle East Oil Shows (MEOS), the 11th of which was held in Bahrain at the end of February, attracting visitors from government and private sector institutions from around the region.
In the 1970s, as Overseas Exhibition Services' Gerry Dobson recalled, there were none of the multi-million dollar exhibition centres boasted by most of the major cities of the Gulf in the 1990s. "Our first exhibitions were held in a series of tented structures in Bahrain. Later, we were invited to move into the municipal market halls in the centre of the city." Eventually, obviously recognising the potential offered by hosting such events, the government decided to build the Bahrain International Exhibition Centre, today one of the most modern in the Arab world.
While interest in some sectors has grown and developed, others have assumed a diminishing importance in international markets.