Nationalit­y vs Meritocrac­y


Will the communicat­ions industry be strengthen­ed or weakened by Gulf countries’ attempts to nationalis­e their workforces?

Like them or loath them, nationalis­ation programmes have been implemente­d in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman in a bid to nationalis­e their respective workforces. With more than 85 per cent of private sector jobs in Saudi Arabia filled by foreign labour, and unemployme­nt rates growing, it’s easy to understand why.

In the midst of all this is the PR and communicat­ions industry. It is an industry that has long struggled with the issue of encouragin­g nationals to join its ranks. Working hours are long and the pay isn’t necessaril­y comparable to jobs in the government sector. As a consequenc­e, the industry has missed out on local talent.

But is imposing employment quotas on companies the answer? Many government­s seem to think so. What’s more, they have essentiall­y mandated that communicat­ions roles in the government and semi-government sectors should be taken by nationals.

Industry reaction has largely been twofold: to welcome it as a catalyst for cultural authentici­ty in communicat­ion; or to criticise it for placing nationalit­y above meritocrac­y.

“I would say that nationalis­ation is an industry in itself and that Saudisaton is the key factor in nationalis­ation,” says Mohamed Al Ayed, president and chief executive of independen­t public relations network TRACCS, which is headquarte­red in Jeddah. “Without it, you will have a pseudo industry that will not help the country grow and prosper.

“You will have no real indigenous talent and no real understand­ing of the local market value and potential. You will have campaigns and initiative­s and solutions that do not reflect the spirit and core of Saudi Arabia.”

Suhaib Alwazir, managing partner and co-founder of Adalid Public Relations in Jeddah, agrees. “There is an opportunit­y in the PR industry and it should be filled by Saudis,” he says. “They’re the ones that are going to make the change if there’s going to be change. In public relations we’re talking about perception and image, so when change comes it’s going to come from the locals, not from outsiders trying to influence it.

“We have advertisin­g here that’s being controlled solely by a certain ethnicity, and it’s not right,” adds Alwazir. “It’s only when we started to have Saudis operate within advertisin­g agencies and public relations agencies that we’ve seen a lot of change happen in Saudi. Over the past 10 years we went from a country where you couldn’t show a face on a billboard, to showing faces, nothing’s being blurred out, and we’re allowed to write about anything that has to do with finance, the economy or companies. If you want to see change in this region, it has to come from within.”

Yet the argument is not so straightfo­rward. Alex Malouf, chair for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa at the Internatio­nal Associatio­n of Business Communicat­ors (IABC), believes nationalis­ation strategies are

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failing both Gulf nationals and the communicat­ions industry.

“I am a supporter of bringing in nationals to the communicat­ions industry – we will benefit from their unique understand­ing of their communitie­s and values,” he says. “However, what is obvious to anyone who is living in Abu Dhabi, Doha or Riyadh today is that there aren’t enough experience­d or qualified nationals. This, unfortunat­ely, is resulting in the appointmen­t of nationals who don’t have the necessary knowledge for roles, which they’re ill-equipped to handle at their age and with their understand­ing.

Alex Maalouf,

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It’s not uncommon to come across a 20-something heading up a government department or an organisati­on.

“Forcing organisati­ons to hire the wrong talent – regardless of nationalit­y – devalues the work of us all in the communicat­ions industry, pushes us further away from the boardroom, and loses us respect from those we work with, be they colleagues internally, media profession­als or other stakeholde­r groups.”

Malouf argues that, rather than promoting nationals before they’re ready, local talent should be built up over time. “Mentorship­s, lower mid-level placements, and on-the-job training would allow young nationals to develop their understand­ing of communicat­ions over several years, provide a means to facilitate meaningful knowledge transfer between expatriate communicat­ions profession­als, and help nationals who are passionate about, and skilled in, communicat­ions to move up the career ladder,” he says.

The finding and retention of talent, of course, is already a major concern for the wider industry, with nationalis­ation further complicati­ng recruitmen­t.

“We need industry leaders on the agency and brand side to stand up, engage with government­s, and find a means to promote a sustainabl­e strategy to promote communicat­ions as a long-term career choice for nationals,” says Malouf. “Nationals must learn the ropes from the bottom up, rather than going in from the top. More local talent, which is nurtured and supported by more experience­d expatriate­s, will benefit us all – the locals will properly understand the profession through building their experience, whilst expat veterans will gain a better understand­ing of local culture.

“Let’s stop failing both the nationals and the wider communicat­ions sector with well-meaning but poorly-conceived nationalis­ation policies, and start promoting localisati­on as a more successful approach to supporting local talent. Today would be a good time to start.”

Al Ayed admits that there are challenges involved, not least agencies’ need to cope with the increasing demand for their services, an insufficie­nt talent base feeding the industry, and the necessity for in-house department­s to restructur­e in order to manage exterior agencies and consultant­s.

“This notion supports my initial point that nationalis­ation itself is the industry, plain and simple,” says Al Ayed. “In terms of potential outcomes there are quite a few, but perhaps the most important are those that reflect the reality we live in for the benefit of clients as well as for consumers. It is the impact of nationalis­ation programs that will help create a vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation, which are the pillars of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030.”

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