Some 60% of the population of the Arab world is under the age of 25 – making this the most youthful region in the world. A sizable percentage of Arab business owners and senior executives have been educated in the US and Europe where they are taught to think analytically, to question, brainstorm and to follow certain styles of management and decision-making processes. They return to their home countries to take over their family businesses only to be faced with a drastically different culture and workforce that has distinct expectations of the boss and how things should be done. Confusion and clashes are inevitable. That young Arab executive finds himself operating out of two opposing mindsets.
I have heard this story from so many foreign consultants who come to work in the Arab world. They are hired to fix a certain problem in the company or organization. They see the business owner – a young Arab man educated in one of the top business universities in the US or UK. The consultant thinks: “This man speaks my language. Like me he is educated in the west; he understands international business practices; he follows the same sports teams as I do; he watches the same TV shows; he gets it.” But then the consultant is often taken completely by surprise when the Arab business owner contradicts the advice given and takes a decision that appears to make no business sense at all.
One common example is the issue of firing staff. In many cases the consultant would recommend cutting financial costs by trimming down the number of employees. However, lying off staff takes on a completely different dimension and significance in Arab culture. There is an old Arab saying that states “It is better to cut off someone’s head than cut off their source of livelihood!” Success in this part of the world is not determined only by how much profit a company makes, but also by how many people it employees, which translates into how many families the business owner is helping to sustain.
In such situations, the Arab business owner will most likely revert back to his “cultural DNA” and would weigh decisions according to a completely different scale and set of values. He will find himself functioning out of two different mindsets – trying to draw a balance between what he learned at Business School and what his culture and others around him are telling him. The decision of whether to do the right thing or the honourble thing.
Millennials in the Arab world are facing these contradictions daily. The world is changing and developing at an incredibly high speed yet we know that cultural beliefs, values and traditions evolve very very slowly.