Other tensions in the region contribute to the challenges of leadership. The Gulf’s businesses rely on expatriates for expertise, while seeking to create more opportunities for nationals. Women, just entering the upper echelons of industry in some countries in this region, are not yet playing the kind of role at work that they play elsewhere in the world. (See “The Third Billion,” by DeAnne Aguirre and Karim Sabbagh, s+b, Summer 2010.) Whereas their predecessors faced the intoxicating challenge of building new industries with limited resources, today’s young managers are accustomed to comfort, even wealth, and may not feel the same level of motivation. Finally, there are still too few young potential leaders choosing careers in business to populate the increasing number of companies growing at a breakneck pace in the GCC.
To develop a new generation of leaders who can address these challenges, people at the top levels of the GCC’s major institutions are examining what it means to be successful in the region. In early 2010, we talked to nine decision makers from several countries in the region about their views on leadership. These individuals range in age from their early 30s to their mid-60s; they lead public-sector and private-sector organizations in transportation, telecom, energy, and financial services. They all have one thing in common, which they share with hundreds of other such leaders in the Gulf states: They are deeply concerned with the future of their countries and the region, as well as their own organizations.
During these conversations, a view emerged about the qualities that leaders of the next generation will need to develop. (Our years of work in the Gulf reinforce this view.) Three qualities stand out.
- Farsighted vision: A long-term outlook that recognizes the importance of building sustainable institutions for future generations.
- Pragmatic openness: A willingness to seek ideas from around the world and customize them for the GCC’s unique circumstances.
- Conscious presence: A recognition of the fact that the GCC’s leaders are not just building their own organizations but also acting in concert to establish the region as a global player.
To develop a larger cadre of people who can continue the GCC’s noteworthy growth, today’s leaders are seeking to understand how these traits can be fostered in the generation that follows. We suspect that a similar leadership story is emerging in other cultures around the world as they navigate their own political and economic transitions.
There is a prevalent sense within the GCC that the region is fulfilling its destiny, as reflected in its current economic growth. Leaders here are thus deliberately creating institutions — including regulatory structures, corporate entities, and education systems — that are intended for long-term success, extending through future generations. These leaders have generally begun with a blank slate and are therefore unconstrained by past experiences and more willing than their international compatriots to experiment and take calculated risks.
The telecom sector offers one example of an industry in which leaders are developing their companies to have a deep and lasting impact. And it is a telling example: The creation of knowledge economies is critical for countries trying to wean themselves from dependence on resource-based industries such as oil and gas. Telecom services are vital to that development. Freed within the last decade from the constraints of government control, GCC telecom operators have made bets on new technologies that have paid off, and they have undertaken unprecedented global expansion programs in recent years.
UAE-based Etisalat, for example, was the sole operator in its home market until 2006. Despite its comfortable financial and competitive position, the company avoided complacency. “We always operated as though one day the market in the UAE would change and competition would be introduced,” says Mohammad Omran, chairman of Etisalat. Taking the long view, Etisalat began diversifying in a number of ways. In 1996, led by Omran, Etisalat was an early investor in the consortium that created Thuraya Telecommunications Company, which offers mobile phone service using satellites. At the time of its founding, Thuraya was one of only a few satellite operators worldwide, and had primarily a local focus; it now provides coverage to more than 110 countries in Europe, Africa, and Central and South Asia, as well as the Middle East. Etisalat also worked to ensure the Middle East’s more tangible connections to the rest of the world: It created the Emirates Internet Exchange, a hub that links to major cable routes to Asia and Europe, and formed a subsidiary called E-Marine that maintains submarine cable off the east coast of Africa.