Students across the UAE have returned to class this week for the beginning of a new academic year. If you asked each of them to identify their personal role models, I am sure the majority would name cherished members of their own family as well as the visionary leaders of our country. Similarly, if you asked who inspires them in music, arts and culture, many would nominate singers, writers and musicians from across the Arab Region.
However, it would not be as easy for our young people to identify the businesses and business leaders setting new corporate standards in the Middle East. This is not because they don’t exist. They do – but they are rarely the subject of the business case studies that are taught in our higher education institutions.
Instead, our students are learning about the business practices of companies operating in very different parts of the world. As a result, many of the examples they are studying are not always entirely applicable to the experiences that await them on the other side of graduation.
This is not a question of parochialism or regional pride. There is obviously much that students can learn from leading companies in other economies. However, there are important differences between the social and cultural realities faced by businesses in the Middle East and those in the US, Europe and Asia. These include the prevalence of family-owned firms, our relationship-based culture, and different expectations in terms of transparency and public reporting. These factors inevitably have an impact on the culture of business and the corporate governance challenges that will arise for graduates throughout their careers.
Consequently, Middle Eastern companies seeking to achieve best practice in corporate governance need to develop solutions that are tailored to the cultural realities of the Region. Many regional firms are already doing this and setting new standards in governance, transparency and accountability in the process. However, more locally sourced business case studies are needed to shine a light on these best practices.
This is something we are working to address at the Pearl Initiative. Established with the United Nations Office for Partnerships, the Pearl Initiative is a Private Sector-led initiative committed to promoting better standards of corporate governance across the Gulf economies. Noting the lack of regionally relevant business case studies, the Pearl Initiative is responding to this need in two ways:
First, we are publishing our own case studies analyzing the best practices of some regional companies. In 2012, the Pearl Initiative published a report on transparency and accountability that featured eight new case studies of companies in the GCC demonstrating good corporate governance. This was shared with businesses and educational institutions and used as a teaching material in a number of leading universities. In June 2014, a second report was published, in partnership with Tharawat Family Business Forum, that highlighted examples of good governance specifically in family firms and featured five new case studies from the Region.
Second, we are directly engaging students in the creation of new case studies. In 2013, the Pearl Initiative and its partners conducted the first Student Case Study Competition in which over 500 students from twelve universities in Saudi Arabia researched, wrote and submitted case studies highlighting examples of good corporate governance by local firms. This year, the Pearl Initiative ran the competition in the UAE with more than 300 students from ten universities submitting more than 100 individual case studies. The five best submissions from the UAE competition will be published in November this year.
It is not just students that stand to benefit. The publication of new case studies also provides businesses with practical tools they can apply in their own operations. By explaining what other companies are doing, how they are implementing the measures, and what outcomes they are achieving, businesses are given the tools they need to improve their own practices in similar ways.
However, these initiatives are only part of the solution. We all have a greater role to play in ensuring more positive business practices from the Region are documented and shared. To begin with, businesses have a duty to engage more actively with the academic sector to help bring theoretical concepts such as transparency and accountability to life. Similarly, educators should encourage their students to seek out locally relevant examples of the topics they are discussing in the classroom. And finally, students seeking a career in business should remember that many of the best professional role models and most innovative corporate practices might be found closer to home than they may realise.
As featured in The National on 7th September 2014.