MT Expert's Ten Top Tips: How to make it in the Middle East

Success in the Middle East is no longer out of reach - just make sure you hone your leadership skills.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) were once regarded as exotic and far-away lands. But today these countries are open markets offering substantial business opportunities. Dubai may have lost its lustre recently, but the region is still a sought-after career destination for expatriates.

The GCC is, however, a culturally-different business environment. A leadership assignment here is poles apart from one in the western world. To be successful, you need to understand the unique characteristics of these countries and their employees. MT asked Kenexa’s Tommy Weir, a specialist in emerging markets, how leaders can maximise their impact in the Middle East.

1. Don't try to export your leadership approaches
Don’t expect to be able to export your native practices or western-orientated models of leadership. Leaders must adapt their leadership style to fit the demands and needs of the situation and the new workforce.

2. Approach nationalisation as a strategy, not a tax
A significant part of the vision of the GCC is to build the capability of Gulf nationals. Leaders need to understand how important it is to develop the skills and abilities of the local workforce. Don’t view nationalisation as a ‘tax’ to do business.

3. Communicate clearly to a diverse workforce
In the GCC, it is not uncommon to find companies whose workforce contains over 50 different nationalities. They may all speak a common language but leaders should not assume that there is a common understanding. The meaning that is attached to words varies greatly between cultures.

4. Leading the ‘youth bulge’ requires speed

Not only is the workforce diversified, it is very young. The speed of growth in these countries can sometimes lead to employees being promoted beyond their capabilities at a pace that is traditionally not considered appropriate. Leaders need to put on their running shoes and be ready for all of the excitement that a youthful workforce brings.

5. Discover what it means to lead in a ‘first generation’ corporate society
Many of the current workers in the GCC are the first members of their family to work in the private sector. Leaders should understand the recent history and rapid growth of the region as this will open their eyes to the specific demands and expectations of these employees.

6. Remember the future is not measured by the quarter
The vision of the cities in the GCC extends beyond traditional western financial metrics. The region will measure its success by the fulfilment of its vision, not by the quarterly report. So, at times, work will move at warp speed and at other times what seems like a snail’s pace. It is important for leaders to understand these rhythms.

7. Receive the soul while perceiving the appearance
It is easy to be distracted by the glitz, glamour and seemingly western ways that appear evident on the surface. Don’t waltz into the GCC and take these appearances at face value, just because they’re familiar. Look below the surface or you’ll miss the soul of the society.

8. Be careful - there is no ‘get out of jail free’ card
Throughout history, fast-growth environments have been hotbeds of corporate corruption. While the temptations may present themselves, the jails are full of corporate leaders who tried to take advantage of the opportunities and failed. Successful leadership in the GCC requires spotless integrity.

9. Thank God it’s Friday
Friday in the GCC culture is much more than a substitution for the western idea of Saturday (as the workweek in the GCC is Sunday to Thursday). Friday is ‘family day’, a weekly version of ‘Christmas on steroids’, where the whole family (brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins) gathers at the patriarch’s house. It shows the importance of the group dynamic in the GCC.

10. Have a cup of coffee
An important part of the family culture is the practice of having a regular (usually daily) cup of coffee with dad.  Expatriate leaders in the GCC would be wise to remove their watch for a moment and adopt the practice of having a regular cup of coffee with their employees. The rewards will far outweigh the assumed loss of time.

Dr Tommy Weir is managing director of Leadership Solutions at Kenexa, the global business and HR applications provider. He can be contacted at or via

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