The Nature of Leadership in the UAE

The UAE is fast being recognized as an important regional economy, and influential global participant. The local airlines are global powerhouses. Tourists know it as a must-see destination. Real estate and manufacturing continue to attract local and global investors.

Abu Dhabi 2030 and Dubai Expo 2020 are evidence of the far-sighted ambition of the UAE. But to realize that ambition, the UAE need many more leaders. Nation-building is tough work, and it is leaders who take on the challenge.

There is a need to improve leadership expertise in the UAE, but its development must conform to local cultural norms.

The nature of UAE Leadership

In creating a pipeline of leaders for the UAE, it’s important to note the context for most organizations in the UAE.

We have observed four particular characteristics of leaders in the UAE:

Youthfulness. CEOs and senior executives are frequently in their early- to mid-thirties. Usually armed with degrees from excellent universities, these leaders have the cognitive ability to take on whatever is thrown at them. But, in the shift from manager to leader, they can be surprised by the heavy emphasis on inspiring and motivating others.

Inexperience. The size of projects in the UAE and large amount of money invested can intensify the risk of leadership inexperience. Often these leaders spend their time learning about their function, industry, and sector at the expense of learning essential leadership skills.

Many Tongues. The nature of UAE leadership is astonishingly multi-cultural. Because of this, templates of leadership practice in the UAE require considerable forethought, and must take into consideration differing ideas of ‘normal.’ Ways of communicating, giving feedback, and engaging others must change to suit the employee audience.

Top Team. The nature of hierarchical leadership in the UAE culture presents its own unique challenges. Employees can defer to the most senior person, push decisions up the chain of command, or resort to personal connections to bypass the chain of command. It’s important to consider this cultural dimension in order to understand the dynamics of many top teams in the UAE.

What are the implications for leadership development in the UAE?

  1. Focus on Developing UAE Nationals. The relative youth of UAE nationals in leadership positions means that there is a large segment eager to learn and develop. Moreover, there is a noticeable pride in nation-building. At least 80% of time and resource should be devoted to the leadership development of UAE nationals.

  2. Adapt Leadership Models. Some priority skill development could include: building and maintaining relationships, developing strategic thinking (distinct from strategic plans or planning), the role of modesty in effective leadership, observing and listening, adapting to a variety of ethnic contexts, respect for people different from oneself, and managing people from vastly different backgrounds.

  3. Separate Development for the CEO. The cultural nature of authority and hierarchy in the UAE mean that it is beneficial to completely separate the individual development of the CEO from the development of other senior executives.

  4. Build the Top Team. Frequently top teams lack influence and effectiveness. The focus of decision making often lies elsewhere. The key is to identify where and then put considerable energy into building unity at the top.

  5. Merit v Connections. While age, money and personal connections are all important in determining status in the UAE, there is also a growing use of merit-based performance and development criteria. However, their application needs to be very sensitive. The principles must be well-communicated throughout the enterprise, and leadership must ensure that appraisals and feedback are realistic and accurate.

  6. Assessments Need Lots of Support. Self-assessments and expert administered assessments can be warmly received and extremely beneficial in the UAE. However, for many, such activity is unfamiliar and must be explained in detail and with due care.

By addressing these six areas, organizations will build a solid leadership pipeline that matches the cultural norms and ambitions of the UAE.


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