Setting the tone at the top for any new compliance program can be a daunting and challenging issue – even more so when you are a woman looking to implement a “Western”-inspired compliance program in a Middle Eastern organization managed by men who don’t necessarily see the value in it. Nothing a little elegant truth-telling and diplomatic convincing can’t resolve.
When the Western world thinks of Middle Eastern women, it often tends to think of them as submissive and oppressed women shrouded in black abayas, living in the shadow of a patriarchal society. The recent headlines that captured the world’s attention on Saudi women escaping their home country seeking asylum in the West, have further put their perceived miseries and struggles in the spotlight.
Not all women in this part of the world are oppressed. Middle Eastern women are individuals not one big homogenous group. They belong to a society with its respective culture and traditions, but their experiences are unique to them. Their country of origin, social class, education and access to the western world may significantly influence their views on subjects like career, attire, religion, freedom and so on.
I am personally fortunate to have grown up in Morocco, in a relatively moderate society, and to have been encouraged by my late father to undertake legal studies in the United States when I turned 18, which has shaped much of my thought process today. But more and more Arab women are defying the social taboos and restrictions, and successfully establishing their careers, with their families no longer opposing their hopes and dreams.
Another country in which this phenomenon is quite visible is the United Arab Emirates (my home base for the last eleven years). Women in the region have benefitted from an inspiring history of female leadership, a “discreet tone at the top,” that have emboldened Emirati women to pursue higher education and empowered them to master their own destinies without social stigma.
But how does this cultural dynamic come into play in an International Ethics & Compliance management context? How could a Middle Eastern woman exert “western” business conduct influence on Middle Eastern men and secure crucial tone at the top?
One of the biggest barriers, is that many Middle Eastern boards & CEOs (99.9% men) will have a hard time being told what to do by a woman. But even if you succeed in highlighting the issues the organization is facing without striking a sensitive chord, the wish of management of many of these organizations, (particularly family-run organizations), will often be to deal with it secretively and will be quite reluctant confronting corporate crime and lack of compliance head-on, for fear of reputational damage. As such, management push back when suggesting third party solutions for risk assessments is to be expected.
Another challenge in this part of the world, is that management of Middle East organizations are not necessarily aware of internal drivers for fraud, whilst many accept corruption as a necessary part of business activity. Unfortunately, much support is needed on that front from local Authorities to educate the public & to explain how corruption hurts them. Lack of enforcement may also further encourage some managers to flout the law.
Overcoming such deeply engrained ideas, is often a subtle educational exercise, navigating a cultural backdrop courteously, often onboarding natural partners to support your cause (Finance, HR, etc.)- nothing short of elegant suggestions, diplomacy and conflict management.
Fortunately, culture & religion can play a non-negligible role in influencing management and establishing a speak up culture in this part of the world, and it is here where compliance officers in the Middle East may have an easier problem to solve than their western counterparts. In countries such as the UK and USA, there is a culture against speaking out about wrongdoing to an authority figure, with many negative words being used to describe whistleblowers.
In Islamic countries, in principle, this concept should not exist, as the Quran urges Muslims to stop wrongdoing if they see it. In the event a Muslim should face a loss for doing so, he/she certainly has the option of not saying anything, but Islam still encourages them to speak out. The negative vocabulary for people who report violations in Arabic is definitely not as elaborate as in western countries.
Promoting a positive ethical culture has often been an almost religious exercise in Middle Eastern organizations, one that entails promoting “doing the right thing” and explaining that corporate bribery is not only being unjust to the person who is harmed by it, but also the community and the nation. I almost fall short of stressing it is the Islamic duty of the Company to contribute to the fight against corruption.
I believe that women in the Middle East can contribute positively to country reforms and use their professional capacities to further excel in society and be agents of change. Mentoring, training, and networking can inspire more Middle Eastern women to join the world of Ethics & Compliance.
Yes, we are progressing toward a more globalized society, but it’s not always obvious.
A great unifying start for women whether in the West or the Middle East is to examine our thoughts & perception, as independence and determination begins in our minds.