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The evolution of leadership hiring in the Gulf

Amer Lakhani

A century ago, the Arabian Gulf was principally regarded as a trading hub; facilitating import and export opportunities between the East and West.

In the late 1930s, when the drills moved in to strike black gold, the region’s wealth reached new heights. With oil and gas providing the vast majority of the region’s income, British and American oil giants moved in to fuel the accelerated economic growth.

Skilled expatriate engineers, predominantly from the West, and blue-collar workers from the East, were brought to the region to work in their thousands, leading to the natural advancement of industries such as construction, industrials and automotive.

With the economies and salaries in their home countries being relatively weaker, the GCC became a hub for attracting mid-level and leadership talent from neighbouring Arab countries, as well as the Indian subcontinent. While these hires had their advantages, some leaders lacked a sense of innovation and strategic-thinking, which until the early 2000s was still sufficient for significant growth.

A decade or so ago, a number of large regional organisations went through a wave of hiring ‘best-in-class’ expatriate leaders, with the expectation that they would automatically implement ‘Western best practices’ and engrain a new thinking into the region.

Companies placed emphasis on the leader’s image or ‘brand’, rather than assessing their ability to adapt to the region’s culture and company’s working style. More often than not, this resulted in a lack of alignment and the leader’s subsequent lack of success in the role.

Today we see a stark difference in the talent landscape. Companies are paying more attention to the quality of talent and hiring for success rather than ‘trophy’ hiring. As search consultants, we invest considerable time in encouraging clients to be conscious of why they should make such hires and place emphasis on hiring expatriate leaders who are ‘fit for purpose’.

With sectors such as healthcare, education, real estate, hospitality and retail now matching or surpassing global benchmarks, we see a very different breed of leaders required in the GCC.

Sub-sectors and functions requiring specialised skill-sets and experience such as digitisation, data analytics, innovative architecture and advanced speciality medicine, have seen a rise in top-calibre adaptable global talent moving to the region as ‘thought leaders and doers’ in their respective fields.


As an example, banks across the GCC began to transform their retail businesses from traditional brick and mortar branches to technology-driven online and application-based banking. Emirates NBD recognised a shift in its customer needs and appointed Evans Munyuki as Group Chief Digital Officer in December 2017. Munyuki, previously drove the digitisation of Barclays South Africa’s retail bank, and was more recently with Luxembourg-based Fintech Company, MyBucks. At Emirates NBD, Munyuki focused on injecting digital technologies to assist transformation, revenue growth and more.

Change management and transformation expertise gained from their global experience is also at the top of the list when hiring new leaders.

Christoph Mueller, Chief Digital and Innovation Officer at Emirates Airlines, formerly the Group CEO of Malaysia Airlines, joined in 2016, bringing substantial turnaround experience.

Mueller has been tasked with developing and executing Emirates’ transformation programme – an entirely new way of working as a company.

With government’s ambitious visions for growth and aspirations for pioneering innovation, the GCC will no doubt continue to excite and attract such coveted leadership talent.

Companies are also realising that external leadership hiring may not always be the answer. In the last two years, EMA Partners has seen a surge in leadership advisory and talent management interventions actively requested from its clients in the UAE and further afield, which we believe shows that more and more regional organisations are investing in developing their internal talent.

In the future, we expect to see more companies take a smarter, success-based approach to hiring and developing their leaders.