August 22, 2011 6:24 pm

Schools must adapt to the new Arab spirit

The dramatic events of the 2011 Arab spring have made it all too obvious that the social and political tools used by past leaders in the region are no longer relevant and that a new set of tools is needed to manage a population that demands transparency, opportunity and increased participation in government. This has substantial implications for educational institutions – and business schools in particular – that want to operate in and be relevant to the needs of the region.

Doing business in the Arab world tends to be a familiar affair: most businesses are family owned and business relations are extensions of inter-family and interpersonal relations. Moreover, to do (big) business in the Arab world often means a close relationship with government. But with the drive towards greater democracy, openness and participation, doing business in the Arab world should become more about value propositions and less about friendships.

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Business schools must be prepared to provide new types of training, especially in “tools of participation”, such as leadership, communication and negotiation skills.

Both businesses and governments need to understand how to manage and facilitate multi-stakeholder relationships and to navigate various layers of public circles of influence emerging from social and social media activism. All this should help international business schools become more relevant, as the cultural gap between the Arab world and other countries becomes smaller.

Business schools have an inherently social mission, which is to educate society’s future leaders. The Arab region has traditionally lacked strong and prestigious business schools and Arab students often go to business schools in the west for their education. However, due to the practical and applied nature of business schools’ training, Arab students frequently discover that not all they learn in western business schools is relevant to the corporate culture of their home countries.

Indeed, western business schools do not always have the necessary “local” experience, nor the resources needed to succeed in their mission or their balance sheets. While some business schools that are global in nature will find it easier to generate local content given their multicultural composition and orientation, quite often the cost of setting up a campus or a programme overseas and the fees required to deliver high-quality tuition are significant barriers.

Some governments, such as those in the Gulf Co-operation Council, subsidise the cost of setting up a campus in their countries, but high tuition fees continue to mean that only a small minority of potential students are able to enrol. Arab and western governments therefore will need to explore new partnership models, where high-quality tuition can be provided at low cost. These might include stipends and faculty and student mobility. As well as the creation of partnerships between western business schools and their Arab counterparts, with the facilities of the latter being used to deliver content from western schools, this would save on tuition costs and keep tuition fees low.

Western business schools stand to benefit from a huge surge in demand for business training from the Arab countries, but to think in terms of market share and growth opportunities alone is aiming too low.

Training in leadership, communication and negotiation skills will be important, but western business schools working in the Middle East will need to be in touch with the new spirit of the region and will have to pay more attention to issues related to business ethics, responsibility and accountability. It is the very lack of such business ethics that brought the Arab spring to the fore and the Arab people no longer have the appetite for what they consider to be corruption and nepotism in the public and the private sectors.

After the financial crisis most western business schools were urged to pay more attention to ethics and social responsibility. In bringing this focus to the Arab world, western business schools can play an important role in helping to bring a more accountable, professional and responsible business culture to the region.

Sami Mahroum, is director of Insead’s innovation and policy initiative in Abu Dhabi.

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