Pipelining Potential: Thoughts on Arab Talent in a Post Oil Economy

Article   –   15 October 2015

Oil price predictions fluctuate by the day but experts increasingly agree that a sustained period of cheap oil will usher in a new era of commercial competition across the GCC.  As national budgets come under increasing strain, the emphasis to create wealth is shifting from the traditional rentier model onto the region’s rapidly growing private sectors.  Dr  Curly Moloney, Managing Director of Moloney Search – an international headhunting firm with Middle Eastern expertise – remarks that “the GCC is not only attracting some of the world’s top talent but is also investing significantly in a future generation of Arab business leaders.”


This ‘new normal’ has the ability to rapidly change the market in the Middle East as the cities of the region become global hubs to service a growing financial, business and professional services sector both at home and across emerging markets from Mauritania to Myanmar.


It is becoming more and more attractive (and necessary) for private sector organisations to look for the best in local talent and to have them succeed on the global stage. The search for high-calibre individuals with an inherent knowledge of the region will be the key to optimising a diversified economy.


We profiled 6 individuals, all under 40, who have already built careers in this ambitious environment, asking them for their advice on what the next generation need to do to survive in the changing market and  discussing the skills, attributes and characteristics that have made their own journeys successful. 


Najla Al Midfa, founder of Khayarat (www.khayarat.com) – an online careers advisory site for Emirati graduates - comments “if you ask Emiratis to name people who inspire them, they might talk about His Highness Sheikh Mohammed, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa, Her Excellency Reem Al Hashimi: all who have great government careers. They wouldn’t be able to name people in the private sector.” This lack of commercial role models is something coming under scrutiny across all sectors.


There is the argument that hiring future role models at the junior level, so that they can emerge organically, is most effective and sustainable. However, the private sector is already rich in impressive role models: Najla herself studied in the UK and started her career with PwC and Shell, before gaining an MBA at Stanford and joining McKinsey in New York. Others include the UAE CEO of GE, Dalya al Muthanna, an Emirati, as well as the CEO of HSBC in the region, Saudi Arabian Muhammed al Towaijri.


For Aliya Al Balushi, an Omani national who pursued her undergraduate and MBA studies in the UK, ‘diversity is a relatively new concept’ in the region. With an almost exclusively female team, picked by calibre not by gender, Aliya is currently Head of Corporate Communications and Sustainability at Bank Muscat – a department that she first encountered when entering onto their rotational ‘high-potential’ graduate programme thirteen years ago. Her journey has been characterised by taking advantage of opportunities that she felt would expand her commercial knowledge. On returning from her MBA studies she joined the COO’s office; he was looking for young employees to assist him with his work load and it became a fast track scheme for motivated, high-calibre individuals who were on track for management.


Aliya believes there are challenges and opportunities to gaining commercial experience at an earlier stage: the benefits come in “giving different perspectives on core issues” but challenges arise when looking at wider global issues. “75% [of my team] are below 30 and [they] don’t necessarily understand the implications of the oil price at the moment. It’s difficult for them to understand what a recession might look like as they’ve never experienced one. And it means expectations are high.”


Those who are succeeding ‘the hard way’, like Jafaar al Sarraf, currently Head of Treasury and Investments at WOQOD (Qatar Fuel) and with a previous career at HSBC and Commercial Bank of Qatar, stress the importance of mentorship and building a rapport with individuals at all levels of the organisation (both of your own nationality and multinationally) that you can learn from. Ma’an al Rawahy, now working for his family company, Al Rawahy Holdings, feels his graduate experience at PepsiCo, working for a “very smart [South African] Operations Manager who was very confident in making changes” has allowed him to operate more effectively in a global business environment, with improved “troubleshooting and crisis management, quick decision making and analysis” giving him the confidence to deliver. His regret is not following his brothers’ example of working for a year in the UK after graduating. With the low oil prices remaining, he feels that there is “a chance for better technology”; an example of the fresh thinking that encourages diversity at decision making level. 


The opportunity for growth and development from a personal career perspective is something that is also driving an evolved mentality. Whereas in Europe and the USA, it continues to be graduates who compete for roles with the large multinationals, here, it is reversed and companies are competing for a small pool of local talent, who are very much in demand but are still missing the preparation they need to succeed. Stemming the skills gap left by education systems allows organisations to differentiate positively: Noora Al Shahi, Talent Acquisition Manager at du “wanted to prove to herself that she was capable [of working in the private sector]” and to be part of a company that “had a long term plan for growth that matched the development of [her] personal potential”. She notes that having positive inspiration works as core success strategy in the private sector as it allows you to understand different individuals as part of the holistic company and national vision.


In the UAE, the local population of Emiratis is small. Of just over one million local residents, of which only 300,000 are of working age, it is estimated that they comprise only 0.5% of the private sector workforce. In Qatar the situation is similar, with only 1% of the local workforce employed in a pure commercial role (over 50% of whom are female). Only 25% of private sector activity in the GCC is from non-family owned companies, and this 25% have to compete particularly hard.


Najla al Midfa herself felt unprepared for her first professional experiences. Having had the opportunity to seek the advice of a friend of her father’s who had worked in the private sector, she set her heart on working with McKinsey & Company but, by her own admission “flunked the interview because she didn’t know how to do the case study” and was asked to come back when she had more experience, eventually gaining a consulting role in their New York office. Abdulaziz Al Khalifa and Jassim Alseddiqui, CEOs of Qatar Development Bank and Abu Dhabi Financial Group both pursued their engineering degrees in the States before building careers in finance. Internationally recognised as world-class talent, they are acknowledged as strong private sector mentors and inspiration.


The hard value of soft skills is clearly something that is coming to the fore. A recurring theme across the Moloney Search interview series was not only the growing need to recruit local talent across the GCC but also the need to train those individuals in the soft skills expected in a global marketplace.  High flyers with impressive degrees and postgraduate qualifications can often undermine those academic achievements with an inadequate professional presence.  These are the traits that future leaders must master if they are to earn the confidence of international commercial colleagues and clients.  From the first firm hand shake, clear eye contact and overall comportment to body language, meeting mannerisms and speaking skills, successful businesswomen and men must complement their knowledge with strong personal presentation skills.  As the oil price declines and emerging markets rise, gone are the days of dismissing inadequate preparation as a romantic localism.  A late start, limp handshake and clumsy manner are as unacceptable in a London boardroom as they are in Doha, Mumbai and Myanmar. Well prepared and presented staff create a confidence that encourages investors to take opportunities seriously.  Moloney Search are increasingly being asked to consult on training high-calibre, high potential individuals in negotiating and international-level networking, as well as continuing to advise GCC corporate and family owned entities on developing their high flyers’ soft skills as part of their development in becoming global company ambassadors.


Moves towards tighter, international standard corporate systems and governance will also influence high calibre talent building in the region and allow it to achieve true success as a hub servicing the international business community. Developing these small populations to be the experts in their own fields, bolstered by increased information and inspiration will have a huge impact on encouraging greater participation in the private sector. The effects of employing local talent, currently “an under-utilised commodity” could be the key to continuing growth in the region.


There is already a strong cohort of local leaders at the helm of family groups and privatised national organisations who have recognised this need to develop local talent. The family groups are an immensely powerful business sector and their CEO’s provide further inspiration for private enterprise in forward-thinking success. As a result, they have a huge leadership role in growing a diversified economy on a global scale. Badr Jafar is Managing Director of Crescent Group, one of the most progressive holding groups in MENA. He was educated in the UAE and the UK, studying engineering at Cambridge. He started his own highly successful fashion business before moving into family owned Crescent Group as Business Development Director. As Managing Director, he also remains highly involved in entrepreneurial and social projects, launching Global Gumbo Group in 2011 and chairing the Young Presidents’ Organization in the Emirates. Tariq Barwani studied Geology at Imperial College London, and an MBA at McGill University in Canada before returning to his native Oman to work with his family company as an Exploration Geologist. Now CEO of Mawarid Mining, part of the multibillion dollar MB Holdings, he and the firm contribute to the national strategy and vision of Oman through inspirational leadership and local employment and upskilling. 


The high levels of local employment from such companies can only lead to increasing utilisation of this local talent pool across more market sectors, supported by a longer term evolution of mindsets and aspirations. Carefully selected and well trained talent is key to contributing to the long-term vision of the UAE, Qatar and Oman as these countries diversify to succeed in a low oil price economy.  

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