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Gulf companies search for Arab strain of CSR

June 2004

Companies in the Arab world are preparing to embrace CSR – but on their own terms.

About half a dozen large businesses have agreed to become founding members of the Gulf Partnership for Leadership in Responsible Business, a corporate-led consortium that will encourage the spread of a distinct regional strain of CSR throughout the Middle East.

The partnership, being set up in the next few weeks, will also include multinationals, but it will promote CSR that has a local, rather than western, flavour, with energy, construction, travel and tourism, and healthcare companies to the fore. This is reminiscent of developments in Asia, where several national bodies are building a distinctively regional network.

At a recent three-day conference in Dubai, local delegates expressed dissatisfaction with western-focused approaches and demanded to know how CSR could be made more relevant to their region. The speakers, mostly from European and US companies, said businesses from other parts of the world could suggest ways forward, but it was for Middle-Eastern companies to set their own agenda.

Some delegates responded that the role of women in the workplace, encouraging entrepreneurs to start new businesses, and labour rights were high on the list of regional priorities. Practices related to the employment of migrant workers were also a concern, specifically the retention of passports by companies and promises made by recruitment agencies.

Salem Bin Dasmal, deputy director-general of the Dubai Development and Investment Authority, which is to promote CSR in the United Arab Emirates, said businesses in the Arab world were beginning to see CSR as a way of attracting investment.

He said they were keen for multinationals to be involved, but local traditions and business practices must play a key role in shaping corporate responsibility in the region.

Imelda Dunlop, managing director of the Dubai-based Business Principle consultancy, who is co-ordinating the formation of the partnership with the International Business Leaders Forum, said that although Gulf companies were showing more interest in social responsibility, many of the drivers in the West simply do not apply. Even large Arab businesses are mainly family-owned and governmental systems are different, she said.

‘External drivers you see in Europe, such as pressure from non-governmental organizations, consumers and regulators, just don’t exist here. The drivers are more to do with worldwide trade and market reforms, and the realization that if the region is to play a greater role in the global economy, then its companies will need to raise standards to attract business partners.’

Financial institutions and oil and gas companies were strongly represented at the Dubai conference, which was organized by the Institute of International Research Middle East and had about 150 delegates. Among them were senior managers from the Savola Group (Saudi Arabia), Bahrain Petroleum, National Bank of Kuwait, Gulf Air, and Ras Gas (Qatar), along with multinationals including McDonald’s and Philip Morris.




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