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  • Writer's pictureNigel Rushman

No Culture Change in the Middle East

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

Many of the Middle East nations have ‘Visions’. A wish list and strategic outline of how they would like their countries to adapt and develop over the coming years.

For some, it is to adapt and shift away from their reliance on carbon fuels, their primary source of income. For others, it is more about using those revenues for the progression of their people and improving living standards.

Many of them have education as one of their ‘pillars’ or important elements that they focus on for human development and to assist their progression.

Culture is frequently mentioned. Usually, it is about providing cultural activities for the people and preserving the culture and traditions of the people. Maintaining their ‘roots’. Laudable aims as you would expect.

I have yet to read one that talks about Changing their Culture. In private, many in the Middle East recognise that for these MENA countries to prosper long into the future, their cultures will need to change, shift and adapt. But for now, that seems to be left on the ‘too difficult’ shelf.

The future of a nation is inevitably and inextricably linked to its youth, hence the focus on education. But I see greater challenges ahead than the higher education of young people. Two serious issues I see are the increasingly toxic and indoctrinating nature of Western educational establishments, where many Middle Eastern students study and the growing sense of entitlement of young people in Middle Eastern countries.

Most Middle Eastern societies are conservative in nature. Granted, much has changed in the last twenty years and in some cases, such as Saudi Arabia, rapidly in the last three or four. University campuses in the USA and increasingly in the U.K. however, are rife with groupthink, cancel culture, LGBTQ thought police, trans issues and wokeism. Much of the anti-authoritarian rhetoric that students have traditionally relished. Yet now they are pushing much further and so toxic is the campus environment becoming they are totally at odds with the values of the Middle East.

Middle Eastern students are being encouraged and their fees paid to attend these radicalised institutions and inevitably they will not just be exposed to the views of these activists and extremists, they will be forced into compliance with the ‘woke’ agenda. Or at the very least be very very quiet around campus.

How this new exposure to very different views plays out when they return home remains to be seen. So far, very few have reached positions of influence at home. The effect of this ‘reverse radicalisation’ has yet to take hold. Interesting to consider that extremist, I stress extremist, Muslims wish to radicalise the west and exactly the reverse may be happening, bringing ‘Ambassadors of Woke’ back to their homelands.

After their expensive and often elongated education at some of the world’s most prestigious universities, there is a further peril. Many of the so-called ‘visions’ voice concern about reliance on expat workforces. Returning graduates are often found posts within government departments or state-owned enterprises. They gain no real workplace experience. There they frequently work minimal hours, learn little more and just get on with their life.

There is no incentive to perform as salaries are based on long-outdated structures and bureaucratic promotion through the ranks. ‘Wasta’ reigns supreme often with family connections ensuring positions and promotions. Productivity and effectiveness are not even a consideration, that is left to the expats.

There are, of course, always exceptions but those that know the region will recognise the above is the case.

This has bred a sense of entitlement and stifles true development. These societies are dooming themselves to being dependent on expat expertise and perhaps more importantly, productivity, for generations to come.

The cycle will have to be broken for them to prosper and that will not be easy. It requires a change of work culture and work ethic. The sense of entitlement of a cushy ride, easy job, no responsibility or accountability, no consequences for poor performance and most importantly no incentive to perform or progress, all of this must change.

Until there is a real workforce in the Middle East where nationals train in foreign-owned businesses and compete for appointments alongside expats and are incentivised on an equal footing, it is not realistic to expect the advancement of Middle East enterprise without reliance on expats.

It can be done. Changing work culture is not easy but I believe it will be essential for the long term sustainability of other elements of Middle Eastern culture. It would be a shame to see that subsumed by globalisation. But for now, there seems to be no effort or appetite for this change. It remains on that ‘too hard’ shelf. It is the blindingly obvious thing that is across all organisations in the region. Everyone there knows it, but why rock the boat? It is hard to give up comfortable non-taxing work and a great salary for life - even if it is for the future of your children?

It will take one bold leader to grasp the nettle, maybe MBS as a great example of a nation that could perhaps change faster than others?

Time waits for no man, but culture change moves a lot slower.

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