I have lived in the Arab world for more than 25 years now, and as much as I love the fact of being rooted in such a culturally rich place, I believe we do have cultural attributes that make our system less effective and efficient.
1- Lack of Individualism: Arabs belong to communal societies, where less emphasis has been placed on an individual versus their community. Kids grow up being dependent on their parents, even after they get married, have kids, and grandchildren. Typically, an Arab adult doesn’t leave their nest unless they get married or in occasional circumstances. Along with this physical co-existence comes a constant parental monitoring and surveillance, creating a sense of dependency that spreads across a wide continuum of factors, from financial stability all the way to emotional needs. In consequence, an Arab boy/girl on average has a much weaker sense of urgency to achieve, produce, and much less to become self-sufficient. Hence, a young Arab adult becomes behind the average western one when it comes to experience, sustainability, and productivity. Upon scaling this social phenomenon to the whole economy, you end up with a society moving at a much slower pace compared to its counterparts; one that is often referred to as a ‘lazy society’.
Lack of individualism unfortunately doesn’t end here. There is also a deterring aspect inherent to the nature of a communal society: Everyone with no exception find themselves entitled to interfere in your business even when their interference is unsolicited. It remains unclear to a lot of Arab societies that help when uninvited is not considered gentleness, but discourteous curiosity.
2- An Inappropriate Politeness: We do our best to be nice. In fact it is one of our qualities. Arabs are hospitable, generous, and always welcoming. But that does not necessarily fall into the exact meaning of politeness. A polite society is one where individuals do not live in a jungle, one where “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins” (تنتهي حريتك عندما تبدأ حرية الآخرين) . A few examples of social appropriateness include respecting the line when waiting for one’s turn, talking politely to people no matter what your personal circumstances are, helping a person in need when needed, and most importantly knowing what not to ask about one’s life. Being humble and disciplined is a social behavior of developed societies and a state of mind that nurtures mutual understanding and minimizes social stress.
3- Lack of Professionalism: it is in fact the conjunction of the two disasters above (lack of individualism and social corrected-ness), put in the specific context of a work organization. Professionalism is an attitude of appropriateness within the organization. It is neither a fancy suit, nor a designer dress. It is a distance taken between employees to positively impact their work, yet keep them rolling. It is a mutual respect between manager and subordinate. It is not projecting one personal issues on their work environment, and most importantly not disregarding the rights and needs of an employee.
4- Fear of Criticism: I’m still not sure why the word ‘criticism’ relates to horror among Arabs. Why do we get raised on the fact that debating an idea and exuding it to its best is something wrong. Why not embrace constructive criticism, whether it comes from the other to help us improve, or whether we exert it on ourselves? We all need reality checks at every pit stop, and we should learn how to give it to each other in a positive way instead of a judgment, as well as accept it and build upon it. Have Arabs ever heard of the devil’s advocate?
5- This Woman/Man Thing: Fine, let’s get over it please. Arab women have been through a lot so far, and they should keep fighting, internally and externally. We need to fight the urge of falling under the premise that we are dependent, or of less needed value, and Men need to let go a little bit of taking all the responsibility. Leadership, if anything, is a mutual empowerment of two collaborating forces. It is almost never the relation of a superior to a subordinate.
6- A Linear Track of Success: I don’t think there is anything in the history of the human literature that documents that success has to be a linear process. The fear of failure is however very salient among Arabs. It probably goes back to the same fear of judgement in a communal pressuring society, and it is urgent that we let go of it. In schools, at home, at work, everywhere. I like to look at success as a process made up of different phases, instead of single points connected to each other through an upward linear trend. Within each phase ups and downs should be allowed and tolerated, while keeping an eye on the overall move of the phases and ensuring they remain on an upward trend. Such an approach of measuring success minimizes frustration at the single failure, and fosters creativity instead.
I admire nations where, for example, it is cool for people go back to school in their mid thirties, after having re-assessed their passions and values in life. This is not very common here, where a ‘successful’ path often means to finish school by the mid of your twenties at most, find an ideal career path and keep going upward. This is an illusion that has been emphasized in the pop culture and the heroic happy endings of Hollywood movies. Real life is different and we need to understand that at every step of our lives to avoid losing the momentum of being a productive nation.