Nationalisation programmes in the Gulf : Nationality vs Meritocracy
Posted on November 11, 2017 | By Iain Akerman

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.”

“I would say that nationalisation is an industry in itself and that Saudisaton is the key factor in nationalisation. Without it, you will have a pseudo industry that will not help the country grow and prosper.” --Mohamed Al Ayed, president and chief executive of TRACCS PR

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.”

“We have advertising here that’s being controlled solely by a certain ethnicity, and it’s not right.”-- Suhaib Alwazir, managing partner and co-founder of Adalid Public Relations

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

“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.”Alex Maalouf, IABC Chairman

“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.”