Business & Management Communication & Leadership

A testimonial of working in Saudi Arabia

Even though I had worked as an Ex pat in Europe for a number of years prior to working in Saudi, I knew that any comparisons in the business culture would be futile and irrelevant. What surprised me most was the perennial observation from my Saudi employers that I did not fit into their culture. Surely, I would contest, if you wanted me to act and behave like an Arab, you would have employed an Arab. It was important, for me anyway, to retain confidence in my abilities and remind the aforementioned employers of why they employed me and what skillsets I brought to the business. Saying that, I saw many of my fellow, European, expats who became subjugated to the Arab ways and displayed many of the traits that I came to see from my Arab colleagues.  

Photo by ayedh on

Saudi must be quite unlike anywhere else to work. Whether that’s as a senior manager, as I was, or through each of the echelons of the workplace. As a senior manager I had a great deal of “advice” from day 1. If you trust your abilities and are confident that you have a clear objective then my advice is to treat all advice with the cynicism it deserves and plough on regardless. I was quite categorically informed that the only reason any man (for women were banned from this particular workplace) worked in Saudi was for the money, that no attempt to motivate these people other than through financial gain would work. Obviously, as a senior manager who had studied Maslow much earlier in my career I thought this to be a strange “fact”. Could it be true that the workforce, of a multitude of nationalities, were completely immune to basic psychological theory? Well, in short; no. After employing even more basic techniques of team building with my direct reports, I set about cascading a sense of empathy and collaboration throughout the organisation. Workers of all nationalities, faiths and cultural backgrounds were being asked what they wanted and as expected, they responded positively. From what I witnessed in this process, it became clear that good management practices are seldom seen in businesses where the majority of the workforce are expats, as they are considered only as an inconvenient means to and end and not the resource for success. Yes, I heard many of the Saudi “Top Management” spouting tidbits from many a weighty tome, authored by numerous Harvard Business school academics but there was little substance beyond their learning by rote. Ironically, after seeing the success that a capable manager can achieve, the Saudi/Arab management then felt that they could easily continue this rich vein of productivity.

A good manager and leader (and someone who knows the difference between the two) can achieve positive change with little evidence of effort, almost as an athlete or sportsperson possesses the undetectable nuances that set them apart from others. Of course, we all think that we can kick that kick or run that marathon but of course, we can’t and that is the same of a good manager and leader. Their skill comes from making it look easy and I quickly found that the Arab psyche can’t quite cope with this. The bellicose nature of the Middle Eastern male finds success from other non-Arabs as a threat to their hubristic self-importance. Combine that with the fact that most senior people (if one is from Europe, Australasia or the Americas), regardless of their ability, get paid large sums of money, then the inclination to become subjugated and pick up the monthly pay cheque is easier than taking a moral and ethical stand for one’s own self pride.

So, after implementing change and creating a forward looking, engaged workforce, the Saudi management felt that now was the time to step in and take credit. This is another trait that I found distasteful in my experience of working in Saudi.

Even though I heaped the cynicism upon most of the advice given and barrelled through with my plans, the environment was a difficult one and one that I felt I could not continue beyond 15 months. I finished my contract early.

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