Case Study: Doing Business In The Middle East

Having worked in the Middle East for a short while now, I am very aware that in a number of the GCC countries there are nationality “quotas” to be met by organizations in order for them to continue to operate in said countries. Terms (or initiatives) such as Saudisation, Emiratisation or Omanisation are commonplace when discussing HR strategies in the Middle East, with the objective of bringing more ‘locals’ into your business.

However, are these terms appropriate vehicles to really embrace or engage the local population that enter your business? Who would want to be given a job just on the basis of what it says in their passport? I know I would not. We need to change our terminology, but more importantly our mindset when recruiting more local Arabs into our businesses in the Middle East. We need to treat these initiatives like any business decision – with strategic thinking and focus on intended positive outcomes rather than potential consequences.

If I take the retail sector that I currently work in as an example:

Why would I want more Saudi nationals in my head office?

What better individuals to know the local market, help decision making with how to market, buy products and introduce retail messages policies in order to engage Saudi customers.

Why would I want more Saudi nationals in my store?

Who better to converse and engage with local customers and make them feel at home in your business? Who better to coach and mentor ex-pat team members in how to really connect with Saudi or Arabic customers?

The terms ending in …isation seem to imply a rule to follow, where you are constantly looking behind you. Whereas a HR/L&D Strategy of “Local Leadership” – of bringing in the right individual from the local talent pools, and taking them through an effective talent management and fast tracking process in order to position them in

prominent positions through your business – this is a reframe that places your organization at the forefront of people engagement in the Middle East.

My experience of working with local team members in the Middle East presents a picture of a population who take pride in their culture, heritage and their people. Harnessing these core internal competencies is the key to really making headway in the region.

We have introduced a retail talent program into the Saudi Arabian territory in this financial year, focusing upon bringing in Saudi nationals at a sales assistant level, and placing them through a fast-track development program to department/assistant manager level (of significantly sized retail units) within a 6-8 month period. The program is still ongoing, but I can certainly share the significant learnings to date, from an L&D perspective:

• Ensure we follow the appropriate assessment and screening process to procure the most talented of the local population. A Saudisation initiative may only focus on bringing Saudis in. Our initiative focused on bringing the best Saudis for our business.

• Marketing the program as a “Local Leadership” program as opposed to Saudisation initiative immediately made the participants feel that they were part of a positive-focused development journey, rather than they were there to “make up the numbers”.

• A clear usage of the 70:20:10 learning model is successful in truly engaging the local leaders, providing a diverse learning experience where they can engage with their fellow Saudis and ex-pat team members in both a formal and informal learning environment.

• Detailed day-to-day objectives are important. Especially for those locals who are new to a workplace environment. We created a detailed diary that broken down learning objectives, tasks and projects on a daily basis throughout the program. This also enabled clear direction for line managers and measurement of the success of the program.

• Line management engagement and understanding is key to success. One of the objectives of the program is to increase on a very small number of local leaders in our business. The majority of the current leaders are from an ex-pat talent pool. WE have had to do a lot of work in “Managing Across Cultures” to enable these managers to engage with their local colleagues as effectively as possible. On the flip side, we have also delivered cross-cultural training to our local trainees to enable their integration into a multi-cultural working environment. The last thing you want to create with such initiatives is create silos within your business.

• Language awareness is vital. Though we prepared all training and coaching materials in Arabic, our new team members embraced the fact that they wanted to work on being multi-lingual contributors to our business. We are now investigating how to enhance the program for the next financial year with some form of English development for the trainees, and further Arabic training for the ex-pat line manager who will be working with them.

The Middle East is a dynamic environment for commerce at the moment. It has also long been a large hotbed for ex-pat working. This isn’t necessarily going to change. But the truly forward thinking organizations will embrace the concept of “Local Leadership” and use it to take their organisations to the next level in the coming 5-10 years through the integration and development of talented, knowledgeable local team members and managers.

Chris Jones has worked in the learning & development space for 15 years, at all levels within a number of customer-oriented businesses. He has led L&D functions across the UK, European, Asia-Pacific and MENA regions, as well as holding roles as an independent consultant for world class automotive and FMCG organisations. He currently heads up the L&D function for Home Centre, a large concept within the Landmark Group spanning ten countries, while working part-time as an online tutor for the Global MBA at Durham Business School, UK.