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Sun 22 Mar 2009 01:39 PM

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The Arab Disease - Why Saeed must go

It's time for the godfather-like rule in Arab companies to move aside, argues Mishal Kanoo.

In the shadow of a huge, overpowering tree, a small seedling that had fallen into the ground struggled and strained to look up. It was seeking sunshine. But no matter how much it pushed and peeked, it could not find that nourishing sunlight that it so desperately craved to grow into a solid tree. It died.

It died because the huge, overbearing tree near it hogged the sunlight and cast a shadow over the immediate vicinity around it, so that the seedling was fighting a losing cause. It was bound to die.

History is great friend if you know how to listen to its story. Sadly for most, people tend to be deaf.

Four imminent figures of history, all of them leaders of their people at their respective time of need. All four were destined to write their names in the annals of history.

The only difference is that two of them will be remembered by their people as great situational leaders who, when the time arose, answered the call of their people’s cry. But when their people said enough, they bowed out, even though they did not like it.

The other two saw an opportunity to lead their people but failed to give back the power when they had done their jobs. The result is that one of them destroyed his country for decades to come and the other plunged his into the darkest era that today no one thinks well of him.

In the case of these two people who led their people to destruction, none of their compatriots dared to tell them “no.” Nor where they strong enough to challenge their decisions no matter how destructive they were.

The ones that did, either died a painful death or were so marginalized that they could no longer counted. Both these men made it crystal clear that they would not tolerate dissent.

By now you must be wondering who are these men? And what has it got to do with the Arab disease? More to the point, you might wonder, “What is the Arab disease?”

The first two men were Churchill and De Gaul. They came to power when their people needed them and they did good for their people during the war, but they could not shift their mentality from a war-driven one to that of building a society.

For that, and by the power of the people who would not tolerate their overbearing attitude, they left a legacy that today they are remembered not as the belligerent, obstinate leaders that they became, but as the heroes who heeded their people’s call to save them.

The second two men are Stalin and Hitler. The came to power on the backs of their people rather than for their people and never left until they died taking what they believed was rightly theirs because they created it.

They crushed the only people who could have saved them and their ideas, irrespective of whether they were good or bad. They will always be remembered with great aversion and disgust not only by the people whom they inflicted pain on but even those who might have had supported them at one point. Like a wildfire, they burned everything they touched.

So to the Arabic Disease - today, most, not all, Arabic companies are run as a fiefdom, if not to the horrible magnitude that Hitler and Stalin ran theirs.

Most companies are run by a godfather who will position himself as the only savior of the company and any dissent to his authority will hardly be tolerated. It might take a direct route, if he is overbearing like the tree, or an indirect way because he has a façade that he wants to keep up.

Crushing his opponents is his aim even if he doesn’t state it and ensuring that he lasts forever in his position. Rare is it for him to acknowledge that others can take his place and even rarer for him to give up his seat and retire willingly.

For, after all, did he not create the company? If so, he thinks, why should he retire and allow others to play with the fruits of his hard labor, destroying all that he created? Have you guessed what the disease is?

It is time we learnt from those who are glorified in history and not detested. Our companies are not one-man shows and should never be allowed to be run in such a manner.

We must learn that for new trees to grow, the older ones need to give them space that the sunlight can nourish them as well so when the times comes and the circle of life brings theirs to an end, their successors are ready to take over.

We can learn from nature and from history that Saeed - and here that name means anyone - needs to go. But the important question is, “will he ever go?” ________________________________________________________________________The Views above are solely that of the author, Mishal Kanoo, and are not to be reprinted without his permission.

Buyzero 10 years ago

Yet another insightful article by Mr. Kanoo. I remember with amusement when he discussed openly, not so long ago, on the topic of the booming Dubai real estate market. He was as blunt as possible in stating the realities of the market and the fundamentals that were truly at play. I would ask those who were quick to criticise his comments then if they might change their mind now. Mr. Kanoo is a visionary in my opinion whose words need to be considered seriously - such would be the case with the 'The Arab Disease'.

Michael Malas 10 years ago

Dear Mr. Kanoo, Always a pleasure to read your articles. Pleae do not take as long for the next one, as Iam always on the look out for your comments. I think the Arab Disease will take some time to cure, but when it does, then our children will be given a great opportunity which our generation did not have. Also I Would be delighted to read your thoughts and comments on education and on research and developement in our region.

Nuts 10 years ago

After a long time, I see a well thought out article, which puts forward the writers thoughts in a honest and non-controversial manner. Liked the article very much. A refreshing change from the majority of articles aimed at polarising readers to gain cheap mileage. Please give us more such articles.

bizness 10 years ago

Mishal, Another mind rattling post. I know you are a busy guy but why not start blogging on a regular basis so we can pry into the mind of a genius. Please give us more.

Youssef 10 years ago

You can easily replace the word "company" by the word "country" in your article, maybe it is the Arab disease which has prevented you from using that second word !?

Dan 10 years ago

Dear Mr. Kanoo, it’s always a pleasure to read your inputs. I only wished more people like you would get published. This disease is not only an Arab one but all over Middle East. In fact in most emerging economies. That is one of the big reasons why our companies never grow to be global. There is always one person at the top that wants to rule everything in the company, and who wants to sit there to the last breath. Therefore the company never grows beyond that person’s limits. The Middle East economy and society needs more of thoughts like yours. Best Regards

Bela Kochhar Gupta 10 years ago

Excellent article - Something which happens all the time. But I'm sure if more of these articles were to be published and written about, more awareness will spread amongst people, companies, countries and hopefully more great leaders will be seen.

JJ 10 years ago

I dont quite agree with the article. 1. If someone creates a company, it is the ownership of that business as a shareholder by virtue of which s/he can stay in the business as long as they want. Will Mr. Kanoo give his Mercedes up for free after 3years? No, because he is the owner. 2. I believe that majority of the arab owned business are doing much better as compared to public companies and/or other companies. In UAE alone take examples of Al Futtaim, Al Ghurair families out of many.

Melwyn Pereira 10 years ago

I dont agree with JJ remarks because there is a living example in India. INFOSYS is a company that rose along with the computer age - in the past 15 years. The CEO gave up his charge of the company when he turned 60 for young blood. Being a founder - he very well could have continued without any problems as the company is doing extremely well. So I feel the article is very timely and Hats off to its author Mishal Kanoo. May your tribe grow.

Sand Jockey 10 years ago

Although the subject line was said tongue in cheek, at least Mishal seems to get it. For years his running dialog about the ills facing the Middle East / Arab economies has been both prescient and educational. With a writing style that is at once chiding and respectful, pointed and yet soft spoken, Mishal time and time again has quiely shown why change is needed and why this change has to come sooner rather than later. I've always enjoyed his posts and wonder how we can get him to at least chair one of the government think tanks that seem to be cropping up almost daily, think tanks (and I use the word think loosely) that seem to just want to second government actions rather than doing the hard work of recommending hard, but needed, actions. Though I've never met him he is one voice that I enjoy listening to and whose opinion I least his opinion in writing. SJ