In the 1950s, when Sulaiman Al-Muhaidib was a young man finding his way around his family’s commodities trading company — which at the time specialized in cement, steel, and bulk foods — his father counseled him to learn from other traders in the merchant business, many of whom were located on the same street. Al-Muhaidib’s father would send him from door to door, advising, “Spend time with him, less time with him, and don’t bother with that one.” In that way, the young future leader of the firm gained a keen judgment, rooted in the local business culture.
Since then, family-owned Al Muhaidib Group — led by Sulaiman, now the chairman — has become a sprawling conglomerate; based in Saudi Arabia, it has investments in financial services, real estate, consumer goods, energy, and utilities. Musaab Al-Muhaidib, Sulaiman’s son, has developed his business judgment in a very different way. Now in his early 30s, he is general manager of Al Muhaidib Technical Supplies, one of the parent company’s many subsidiaries. He has 500 people working under him, and his suppliers and competitors are as likely to be located in China or Italy as down the street. Nearly 50 of his cousins and siblings work under the Al Muhaidib umbrella, with a hands-on role in shaping the future of their country through their work on energy and infrastructure. Musaab’s daily routine contains complexities that his grandfather, the cofounder of the business, could hardly have imagined.
This story is typical in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Leadership in the Gulf is changing to match the dramatic changes of the last half century. Locals who now lead multinational organizations remember growing up before running water was widely available. They have catapulted themselves from humble backgrounds, with nomadic families that roamed the Arabian peninsula, to the boardrooms of global conglomerates, and they act as living bridges between these two worlds. Their relentless focus on building a vibrant future while maintaining loyalty to the traditions of the past is much remarked upon within the Gulf region but often unnoticed elsewhere. (See “The Challenges of Balance,” by Joe Saddi, Karim Sabbagh, and Richard Shediac, s+b, Summer 2009.) And with a new generation of leaders moving into positions of great responsibility at relatively young ages, the Gulf states — like India, China, and the nations of Southeast Asia and much of Latin America — are preparing for even greater changes to come, which will further test their leaders’ skills and qualities.
As the Gulf states have invested more heavily in businesses unrelated to oil, they have become more open to the world. They are moving capital into the global economy as well as privatizing many industries that were previously controlled by national governments. These changes have given the region new types of influence and opportunity, and have also brought new risks — as the economic crisis in Dubai in late 2009 made clear. Most of all, they have demonstrated the need to cultivate many more leaders who can hold their own on the international stage.
The Emerging Generation
This challenge is particularly relevant for the new generation of young leaders in the GCC. Because the bulk of the population is under 25, they are already gearing up to take control of old enterprises — or to start new ones. Many of them have worked or gone to school in Europe or the United States, but they were also raised within long-standing cultural traditions that they are determined to draw upon.