First published in the February 2015 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

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I first visited Dubai, one of the seven United Arab Emirates (UAE), at the turn of the century. I found it modern, but frankly I wasn’t bowled over. Fast-forward 14 years, and the city state has changed hugely: its skyline is now a surreal landscape of ambitious buildings, many with art deco shapes. Dubai has been transformed from desert to designer city.

On my recent visit, I stayed at the Four Points Sheraton on Sheikh Zayed Road - luxurious rooms, fabulous food, and a pool on the top (40th) floor with the most amazing view, particularly at sunset. Of course, this physical product can be imitated anywhere if you throw enough money at it, but what made the hotel stand out was the extremely friendly customer service.

The staff addressed me as "Mr Tony" and I was made to feel like royalty. For instance, when I finished eating, my plate was removed within 30 seconds (as timed on my mobile). And when I went for a Japanese meal at the neighbouring Radisson Hotel, the waitress topped up my wine glass when it was precisely two sips from empty - their optimal re-fill level, according to operational research.

While in Dubai, I worked with three people from the UAE prime minister’s office. I was impressed at the depth of thinking that had gone into developing the national strategy for the UAE. Unlike many countries - which seem to have little strategy, let alone strategic vision - the UAE has a very clear and detailed blueprint for its future success.

"The UAE has a very clear and detailed blueprint for its future success. "

The strategic vision for Dubai, in particular, is geared to give it a quantum level of competitive advantage relative to its rivals, by means of a ‘differentiation strategy’. To this end, Dubai and Emirates Airlines have worked together to capitalise on its position as a convenient stop-off en route to Asia and Australia. We would call this geographical position a natural strategic asset. It is highly valuable, but it is not an advantage unique to Dubai: other Gulf countries, similarly well situated, could have capitalised on their geographic position too but haven’t.

Building critical mass

Dubai’s strategy is built on multiple sources of advantage: as well as its world-class airport and luxurious hotels, it has invested in extensive leisure facilities including shopping malls, a huge marina, man-made islands, a water park and the largest indoor ski slope in the world. Three new theme parks have also been given the go-ahead. These developments are all about achieving critical mass.

Part of this are Dubai’s buildings, which are staggering. The emirate is home to the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, which is nearly half a mile high. This iconic spire dwarfs the landscape of mere 100-floor hotels beneath it. The lift has an awesome light show and, when you emerge at the top over 110 seconds later, your ears pop.

The Burj Khalifa was a product of a deliberate strategic vision. The invitation posted at its entrance reads: ‘I am the power that lifts the world’s head proudly skywards, surpassing limits and expectations… An extraordinary union of engineering and art, with every detail carefully considered and beautifully crafted…I am the heart of the city and its people, the marker that defines Emaar’s ambition and Dubai’s shining dream… More than just a moment in time, I define moments for future generations. I am Burj Khalifa.’

While Dubai has clear instances of a differentiation strategy, where there is premium pricing, it is generally not that expensive, perhaps with the exception of alcohol. Dubai services are either better or cheaper, or both, than their equivalents in the UK. So by exploiting its geography, infrastructure, technology and customer experience, Dubai has achieved very clear competitive advantage.

Symbiotic relationship

The mutually supportive relationship between Emirates Airlines and Dubai is integral to this advantage: Dubai is the attraction and Emirates transports customers there in comfort. The two are in partnership, fuelling reciprocal success. The airline has established itself as a premium carrier that differentiates itself through both product and service. Its staff are extremely well trained, not only in their basic tasks but also in treating customers as individuals, making them feel that little bit special.

"The mutually supportive relationship between Emirates Airlines and Dubai is integral to this advantage."

On my journey home from Dubai, I chatted with a friendly Emirates flight attendant and showed her a photo of me doing a headstand at the top of the Burj. I told her I had even done headstands on planes at 30,000 feet. Shortly before we landed in London, the attendant asked me if I would like a surprise. She invited me to the galley so that I could do a headstand there.

It was tricky to pull off the feat because the galley was cramped and aircraft fly at a slant of several degrees. But after some trial and error, she got some great pictures of me in the full inversion. I will treasure that experience. What other airline would have laid on such a personal treat?

My experience of both Dubai and Emirates Airlines emphasises the importance of a truly distinctive customer service experience and service culture in achieving success.

Dr Tony Grundy is an independent consultant and trainer, and lectures at Henley Business School.