The past two decades have seen radical and unprecedented change in the Middle East. Key areas, specifically Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, Qatar, have invested and diversified to build new and significant regional economic hubs. New industries have been created and the region now has created globally recognised brands in terms of airlines, tourism, ports, financial centres and telecoms. With many leading global organisations now operating in the UAE, it has become a ‘rapidly diversifying, entrepreneurial, and globally connected business region’ (Bozer 2011). The wider GGC region is also seeing major social change, for example Saudi Arabia’s immensely active social media market is encouraging freer expression (Kiefer 2015).
This economic and social transformation is testing the accepted norms of how work is organised and the ways of designing and maintaining the employment relationship in the region. For example, while the arrival of multinationals increased availability and movement of talent, recent regulatory changes have placed constraints on the extent to which foreign workers can be deployed. But, the biggest challenge is the pace of change with which this complex environment is evolving, placing a demand on people management practices to become ever more flexible and responsive to the requirements of the various organisational stakeholders. In this context, there is growing pressure on the role of HR to evolve and play a greater part in developing organisations for the future.
Where the profession has traditionally been defined through a set of ‘best practices’, this knowledge, developed primarily in large Western organisations, is increasingly inadequate for businesses operating in the region. Instead, HR professionals are expected to have a deeper context-specific understanding of the needs and strategy of a particular firm, as highlighted in the CIPD’s Voice of the Profession: Middle East (2015c) report, with 31% of business leaders and managers identifying business acumen as the area where HR/L&D professionals have the greatest skills gap. Another area of development is workforce analytics, which is a necessary tool of strategic business decisions (CIPD 2015a).
Although relevant skills are critical for HR to lead innovation in people management in the region, it is essential that when applying these skills practitioners are also clear on their professional obligations. Today, emphasis on shared value-creation – designing work in a way that recognises the interdependency of the business and the communities it is tapping – means that organisations must take into account all the stakeholders impacted by the decision. This sensitivity to the available ethical choices, above and beyond the legal requirements, is what makes professional advice relevant and trustworthy. One HR leader in the UAE described the value that HR adds through the ability to make balanced judgements:
What does our function offer, what does it provide to the business? If it is purely about setting some policies in place, and making sure that everybody meets them, well then, frankly, we’re not necessary. ... What I would like to think we offer is the capability to make a balanced judgement. ...I’ve got the ability to be able to look at [the circumstances] and balance my decision with all of those factors influencing it, and I think that’s the value that we add. That for me is where we make the difference.