You are serious people | Reflections of an expat

By Robert Willock, MENA Director

I’ve been thinking, which can sometimes be a dangerous thing. But bear with me. I was casting my mind back nearly 10 years to conversations I had with other expats I met in the early days following my arrival in the UAE.

There was an admission among many that taking a leadership role in Dubai represented a compromise. It was a trade-off that provided meaningful income acceleration but at the cost of genuine career development. “I’ve sacrificed my ambitions to be a global CEO by being here too long,” one regional MD told me. “Though I’m much richer than I could ever have become in Europe.”

This was a fun place to be, a work-hard-play-hard environment, but – if you had designs on reaching the very top – it was also somewhere you wouldn’t want on your CV for more than three years lest you were tainted by its reputation. “You are not serious people,” as Logan Roy told his children in Succession.

Better to come and go quickly, to build a bit of emerging-market experience, or better still, to finish your working life here for a final tax-free boost to your personal wealth before retirement. Many were the stories of senior Western MNC execs approaching the end of their careers (and past their best) being sent to the Middle East. “You Brits are the worst thing that ever happened to this place,” one Arabic CEO said to my face. “You send us your worst people, and all you do is drive Jaguars, play golf and do pub quizzes.”

They would step off the plane and into the desert for the first time in their lives and immediately break out into an actual and metaphorical sweat as they wondered what on earth they were supposed to do next.

And that of course is where the Economist Intelligence Corporate Network (EICN) originally came in. We would be there to put an arm around their shoulder, welcome them to the region, introduce them to their other similarly bewildered peers and help them with our insights on Middle Eastern economics and politics.

But things have long since changed. When I look across the room at an EICN Dubai gathering these days, I see a richly diverse, multilingual and highly talented cadre of C-suite executives. All with impressive academic and executive educations, serious ambitions and big ideas.

These are people running massive and fast-growth regions for blue-chip companies. MENA comprises 19 countries, 21 if you include Turkey and Israel, which many do. Sub-Saharan Africa is often also in scope for our members, so that’s another 46 territories. Some look after CIS, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and other vast swathes of Asia. One regional CEO I know covers 92 countries. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) only counts 195 in total, so that’s 47% of the world.

Then there is the opportunity. We forecast that the combined economies of the Middle East and Africa will be nearly 25% bigger by 2027 than they were in 2021. By comparison Europe and the US will grow by half that rate over the same period. Where are you putting your best people now?

The ‘old guard’ have not survived the professionalisation that this region has achieved in recent years, and rightly so. They played their part when this was considered a hardship posting. But there is hardly a hardship left. Okay, it is horribly hot in the summer. And getting your invoices paid is still a painfully slow “inshallah” process. But for the most part this is a now very desirable, liveable, workable and investable place to be. In the EIU’s latest Business Environment Index, the UAE ranks 15th overall in the world, ahead of France, Japan and the UK, and 4th for market opportunities.

I would argue from experience and common sense that the UAE is now the place for top talent. The more the East and West bicker and try to hold each other back, the more the political and geographical ‘Middle’ is where the smart people are congregating.

So congratulations to my senior leadership friends and peers for being in the right place at the right time, and as the first not last resort. You are serious people.

Anyway, with all that said, now it’s time to put the clubs in the Jag and head out for that free round of golf I won at the pub quiz the other day.