The Gulf Arab understanding of leadership is based to a great extent on the principle of the Shura. The Shura is laid out in the Koran, the holy book of the Muslims, and in Islam it is a duty that must be fulfilled. It states that he who has power should seek advice.
Behind that is the idea that the community should be protected from arbitrary use of power and wrong decisions that are a burden on all. Further, it is set out in the Shura that every member of the community is called on to speak up on a topic, and in a manner that does not damage peace in the community.
In Gulf Arab firms you will often observe that with the backing of the Shura short-term advisory committees are set up, perhaps to solve a problem or to introduce a project. Afterwards, these committees are dissolved.
The boss, who is not expected to have the greatest expert knowledge, will gather round him those staff members he thinks are most capable, and he will take advice from them. He is supposed to give consideration to as many points of view as possible so as to make wise decisions based on them.
The advantage is obvious. If a decision made in that way does not achieve the goal desired, the dignity, the reputation, and the authority of the decision-maker is preserved, since he was indeed advised by experts.
Position of the leader
The principle of the Shura also has the consequence that in most Gulf Arab firms the men at the top are not necessarily the most competent. Taking up such a position is not a question of having a university degree but one of authority, reputation, and biological facts, such as sex and age. Young women in leading positions are rare.
In the Gulf Arab business world the orientation is according to religious tradition and tribal society. The rules that apply there are carried over into the firm. The father-son relationship from the primitive community dominates in the firm between the boss and his staff.
Gulf Arab firms function according to the top-down principle. The boss, in keeping with his position as a patriarch, tells the staff what is to be done. Following on the advice foreseen in the Shura the staff members may express their opinion, but the boss does not have to accept those suggestions.
However, staff members in Gulf Arab countries have no problem with that patriarchal style of leadership. On the contrary, they do not like to take responsibility. They prefer to carry out tasks according to clear instructions in the area assigned to them.
In addition, staff members are very loyal to their superiors. In return the boss is responsible for their wellbeing. And that goes far beyond purely business.
Role of the boss
In the Gulf Arab world you cannot simply cast off the role of boss when you leave the office building. Simultaneously you take over the task of the clan chief in the private area. As respected and esteemed persons, bosses of firms are also called in as advisors in private disputes.
Since the word family firm is absolutely to be understood literally in Arabic countries, it is expected of a firm boss that he acts as an advocate for his family. If, for example, a cousin is looking for a job it is taken for granted that the boss will take pains to find a place for him in the firm. However, should all attempts have failed he may calmly say that he sees no chances of that.
What is important in Arabic countries is not the deed, but the intention. You are judged only by that. So if the firm boss has tried everything to get his cousin a means of earning his bread, and it has not come off, the family will not turn its back on him for that. It is important that he did whatever he could. What counts is the intention.
One thing right at the start: If you do not come with a recommendation or family relationship it will not be easy to get a job in a Gulf Arab family firm.
At the top are, as already stated, family members who are sought not necessarily according to their educational level, but first and foremost according to their social position in the community. Then come the advisers according to the Shura. Family members are the first to find preference, then experts from the community.
Unusually good academic results will not take you to the top of a private firm. But they will gain you high social recognition and let you rise in the social hierarchy. In a non-private firm with good reports you certainly have a chance of working your way up as an expert.
In God’s hands
For Gulf Arabs the future lies in God’s hands. And since everyone in the Gulf Arab business world acts accordingly, you should underline this guiding principle with red pencil. Knowing that Arab business life focuses on the present and less on the future, you can avoid misunderstandings and differences in expectations.
Furthermore, this background knowledge can be quite decisive for your leadership. With a Gulf Arab team you can make long-term plans only to a limited extent. Put away any thought of “I would have liked to plan that.” Gulf Arabs do not like deadlines that are several weeks in the future. Till then so many unforeseen things can happen, for the future lies in God’s hands.
Practical tips on how to act
In the end the question remains: what can you achieve with all this knowledge of the principle of the Shura? For a start, it is important that you become aware of the other work habits that you are confronted with as a foreigner in the Arab Gulf states.
You do yourself – and certainly others – the biggest favor if you do not try to act against the existing order of things. Do not try to impose something new on people. Instead, adapt to local conditions. In doing so you work most efficiently, after all.
As an entrepreneur you should be aware that the executive sent by you to a Gulf Arab country has to take over the father role for his staff. So it is advisable to choose neither a very young woman nor a young man for that task. It should also be clear to your chosen candidate, well trained in intercultural affairs, that he has to fulfill the father role even after the end of work for the day. The social components take on a stronger role. If, for example, a local staff member has to look after a sick child at home, then he or she should on no account be forced by the foreign boss to stay in the office till the end of work.
If it is you yourself being sent by your firm to an Arab Gulf state to set up a branch there or to lead a project, then think of the top-down principle. Do not expect Gulf Arab staff members to work independently or take over responsibility. They would rather carry out clearly defined tasks in a clearly marked off area. Hence Gulf Arab staff members prefer to work in teams in which responsibility can be spread over many shoulders. You comply with this requirement, for example, by setting up open-plan offices.
And quite important: even if the Gulf Arab firm boss is not the most competent, do not in any way make him think that. And never express doubt about his abilities in public. Instead, preserve his dignity by setting up advisory committees in accordance with the Shura!
Finally, perhaps another small tip: whenever you are in an Arab Gulf state, remember not to look on anything as better or worse than in your home country. Rather, consider the local conditions as different to what you know. After all, the Arab system also works.