Entrepreneurial Leadership and Family Business in Dubai

By Elizabeth Zona

I was fortunate enough to have taken the Global Family Business Leadership course, an entrepreneurship elective offered through the D’Amore-McKim School of Business. Over spring break, Northeastern sends the class to Dubai to experience family businesses, and the region they dominate, first hand. All the businesses we visited were run either by parents of alumni or by alumni themselves.

Before the trip, I would have assumed that business culture in the Middle East was rigid and traditional, with little room for outliers or new ways of thinking. It is true that the systems of governance that dominated Arab life for several centuries have left a permanent mark on many Arab societies, and it is also true that with authority still concentrated in the chief executive, the importance of family relations resonates throughout all aspects of business. The family-owned businesses that dominate the region conduct themselves with such risk-aversion that signs of suppressed progress are evident. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) focuses on huge salary differentials and emphasizes status symbols, signifying an emerging class system throughout the region. But in Dubai, things may be changing.  

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The city’s newfound entrepreneurial interests have the potential to pull the rest of the country, and the region, into the modern business world. This doesn’t mean that change will be immediate, but as this new city matures and its reputation advances, it possible that people will begin to see firsthand the possibility for change in the Middle East. Since family businesses control such a large portion of generated wealth in the region, growth in Dubai and elsewhere will depend on their adoption of competitive, modern business practices. These advancements hinge on the new generation of leaders coming into power, changing the way the Middle East views itself and the rest of the world.

There are many religious and societal rules that leaders must follow in professional settings, but the younger generation has already begun to bring innovation to the table. Many traditional family businesses are beginning to adopt new business practices to both maintain family relationships while staying competitive in a changing economy. A growing number of prominent businesses now require the executives’ children to seek work experience outside of the company, and even the country, before they can join the family business.  

Aside from family businesses, an unprecedented entrepreneurial spirit is also emerging. A trend worth noting is the ambitious development projects on the Gulf. Though uncharacteristic of the traditional deal-making model in the region, the emphasis of many Middle Eastern countries in promoting tourism as a major revenue generating stream has meant that leaders must put risk-aversion aside and build up attractions as quickly as possible. Similarly, there is a sudden uptick in startups, which has in turn facilitated interest in endeavors outside of family businesses. This trend may be a strong indicator of real change in the region, but it is not without issues. For instance, many startups face funding problems due to the investment hesitations of family offices. The more family offices can start opening themselves up to change, the more the economic landscape can diversify and flourish.

Finally, one of the most important emerging movements I observed is the beginning of better opportunities for women in the workforce. Even family businesses are beginning to give female children prominent roles within their companies, some even taking leadership roles in fields that not many women work in globally, let alone in the Middle East.

I am excited for a new age of change being made in business to comply with entrepreneurial spirit and a younger, more informed generation entering the workforce. Though tradition, characterized by the respect for Islamic traditions and a resistance to sudden change, remains strong, the acceptance of new ideas is slowly making its way to the mainstream -something that was improbable not too long ago. Even family businesses are realizing it may be time for them to emerge onto the modern business stage. I look forward to seeing where the region will go from here, and what Dubai has to offer next.