What distinguishes the Arab Gulf states from other Arabic countries is the high proportion of foreign workers that the countries need to provide the infrastructure. For example, in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, the expatriates comprise over 80% of the total population. The region is, in addition, developing at a very fast rate into a global trading hub with high rates of growth in the areas of financial services, technology, and in other industries, and in addition, the petrochemical resources. People from all parts of the world work together there. They bring with them their values and styles of work and life. Leadership is either in the hands of the locals because they control the resources, or in those of expatriates from western countries, who mostly work for the local ruling families or are acting for foreign clients.
Leadership is a crucial word in the region. But can we speak at all of a specific work and leadership style in the Arab Gulf States? So let us cast our glance at the leadership style of the local Arab leading elite.
Arabic Style Of Leadership
To best describe the leadership style of the locals in the Arab Gulf states, the concepts of authority and hierarchy immediately spring to mind. Shallow hierarchies, as they are commonly found in other cultural areas, do not exist here. On the contrary, the paternalistic thinking dominant in enterprises demands a generous, decisive, sovereign ›father‹ who looks after his ›family‹. The boss is at the top and, to a great extent, makes all decisions himself. The staff members let him lead and stimulate them, and as a trade-off, they give him complete loyalty. Instructions given by him are fulfilled precisely. Against that background, every leader commands respect to whom a personal relationship exists and has to exist.
HE Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem, Chairman DP World, Dubai, once said: ›The relationship between the leaders and the people of the UAE is one of the secrets behind the nation’s success … Our leadership style is to make the organisation a family with a head whose job is to make the family strong and successful but also to look after the members of the family.‹ (Oxford Strategic Consulting (2012), p. 13)
Many Arab Gulf nationals or locals are born into certain positions as members of the ruling family or an eminent entrepreneurial family. Thus, being a leader here depends on status and hierarchy and relationships and rank more than on achievement and professional ability.
When leaders from other countries work among their Gulf Arab counterparts and have internalised and accepted that special understanding of leadership, the interaction mostly functions faultlessly and success is the result. However, foreign businesspeople will have to invest more time in personal conversations, informal exchanges, decision-making through consultation with the Arab side, listening to objections, searching for solutions and alternatives, and in clever political moves.
Tasks Of An Gulf Arab Leader
The staff expects of a leader exact instructions and detailed supervision of tasks carried out. Supervision is looked on positively in the Arab working environment. That is often a difficulty for leaders from other countries. But that form of supervision serves to recognise the good work of the staff or correct mistakes that otherwise would be protracted and then harder to get rid of. A leader must, therefore often inquire and ask for details or information.
In addition, there is a conviction that staff are not there to make decisions. That is not their task. Only the leaders are paid to make decisions and to accept responsibility. Particularly in dealing with staff from India, Pakistan, and other Asian countries, you must also consider that in the Arab Gulf States, they stand per se on lower levels of the hierarchy. They are more dependent and financially in a weaker position than expatriates from the western world. They come from countries with similar hierarchical structures, and they prefer to make no mistakes to avoid possible negative consequences. It would be a leadership mistake to demand from that group of staff members self-initiative and independence. The hierarchical structures are almost never called into question in the Arab Gulf States.
Boundaries Between Leader And Team
The personal relationship between the leader and the staff includes in the Arab Gulf states that the boss is interested in the private life of his employees. He helps them solve problems, asks how the family is doing. In many other cultures, personal life mostly remains separated from the professional area; staff members do not like it when the boss gets insights into their private sphere. For foreign leaders in the Gulf region, it is crucial to find the right balance: on the one hand, they have to stimulate personal contact with their staff members in conversations. On the other hand, a certain distance between the leaders and the staff is appropriate to endanger the hierarchy and unsettle the employees. Good leadership in the Arab Gulf States is based on welfare on the one hand and respect on the other. Backslapping behaviour is not a part of that.
Between foreign leaders and Gulf Arab staff members, two factors are the most common cause of intercultural conflict: language and the concept of time. Both for you as the foreign leader and for many Gulf Arab staff members, English is not the mother tongue. That can lead to misunderstanding, which endangers the success of cooperation. It is essential to pronounce instructions clearly and often slowly and repeat them often to counteract that situation. That is true of language in general.
The way of managing time is very different in many cultures and can cause friction. In some countries, a lot of importance is placed on punctuality, scheduling and compliance with tight timelines. However, in the Gulf countries, especially on the Arab side, it is a matter not just of being punctual or unpunctual, but of dealing with delays, impatience, and pressure!
Problems caused by intercultural factors and conflicts between foreign leaders and Gulf Arab staff members are seldom communicated directly. So how can you as a leader make sure of being informed at the right time to act to achieve the goal? The tip is to build up a particularly trusting relationship with one or two persons in the team so that you receive sufficient loyalty. Then ask how things are going.
Of course, staff members in the Arab Gulf states want to be rewarded for their achievements and engagement. Therefore, they expect the results of their work to be honoured with payment of salary and extended financial benefits, for example, school fees for their children, but also with further professional development and chances for promotion.
The permanent motivation of the staff, however, should be seen in a broader context. It is particularly important that Gulf Arab staff members place value on an interpersonal basis and good relationships in the workplace. The working atmosphere plays a most important role and helps to avoid dissatisfaction.
So among the most crucial motivation factors is praise for achievement. Show your appreciation often and cordially! Just thinking ›He does his job well‹ or ›He fulfils his task‹ without any other words on the subject would be highly demotivating for Gulf Arab staff. This is a sign of bad leadership in the Arab Gulf States! So it is always better to say too much than too little, even if that is hard for you. Do not be afraid of repetition!
Think also of how important your good relations with the staff are for the general work atmosphere. So regularly ask how your staff members are doing. Be ready to have personal conversations. A good personal relationship also simplifies handling problems when they occur, or even better, to avoid them entirely.
It is also motivational if you convert the weaknesses of yo
ur staff into ›potential for improvement‹. This different choice of words by itself strengthens motivation at critical moments instead of causing frustration – and shows your staff as well that you are really interested in their development and cooperation.
Selection Of Personnel
The Arab Gulf region is a meeting place for more than 150 nationalities. The very rapid development in many sectors, added to education and tourism, demand the input of highly qualified specialists as well as simple construction workers or taxi drivers. Of course, the demands differ according to the country and branch. But in general, there is always work available for everyone who is prepared to live in the desert for a few years.
In choosing staff in the Gulf Arab countries, you must take note of the special features of the hierarchical structures: most positions in the public service are occupied by locals (Emiratis, Saudis, Qataris, etc.). A conscious policy of emiratisation, saudisation, etc. is taking place. The goal is to have key positions occupied by locals. Many high-ranking positions are given only via personal recommendations and contacts, and the most important positions are in any case in the hands of members of ruling families and royal houses. In the Gulf region, there are a comparatively large number of staff recruiting firms and employment agencies as in the countries themselves. Those agencies serve the needs of both the public and private sectors. Other possibilities when searching candidates are, besides personal recommendations, databases on the internet, and using various business networks or even personal networks.
Extract from Business Culture Arab Gulf States, Courtesy of CONBOOK Verlag