After working many years in the Arabian Gulf states, I‘ve been asked for an advisory on the success and failure of International NGOs and and their field employees in the GCC.  Following hours of pondering this potential advisory, I offer this list for success. Note that I must comply with a 1000 word requirement.

  1. 1- Know the law.  Follow the law.  Do not proceed if you are unaware of the legalities on licensing an NGO, and doing business as an NGO. Know the legal framework that applies to NGO’s in the Arabian Gulf and the particular country you will be headquartered.  Remember that ignorance of the law is not an acceptable defense anywhere in the world.  If you violate the law or the terms of licensing, there is a strong likelihood that you will be closed down and shown the door.  In addition, there is a possibility of arrest and jail sentence. Finally, keep your legal knowledge current.  Law evolves.

You may be asking, what is the best way to proceed.  Do your research. There is a great deal of discussion about this subject matter on the web.  Find a lawyer who is versed in the laws of association and foundations.  Talk to colleagues (I will talk about the importance of communication lines later).  An interesting and worthwhile read is: “When is an NGO not an NGO?  Twists and Turns under Egyptian Skies, by Richard Falk.  Professor Falk is Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, USA.

2 – Expand your mind. Once you know and understand the applicable current laws, and if you do not have a solid understanding of Islam, this is the time to gain that knowledge.  Read and study the Holy Koran.  Read and study The Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH), biography and history.  Commit this to your memory, as much as possible. Know that every time you reference Prophet Mohammad, it is important to follow this reference with PBUH – Peace Be Upon Him.   Always be aware of the direction of Mecca. Many residents of the Gulf pray five times a day facing Mecca.  Respect this practice.

3 – Make lasting friendships. Take the time to build relationships with the local populations of the GCC. This is not just valuable from a business sense; but also a personal one. The people of the Gulf Region are some of the most lovely, hospitable and gentle people on this earth.  Quite honestly, much of what you read is full of prejudice and falsehood. Illustrative of a small minority.  Once you make a friend in the Gulf they should remain your friends forever. They will be the ones you turn to when times get tough.  In short, they will watch your back (and you need this in the Gulf).  At this point, you may be asking how this relationship building should begin.  First of all think long and hard about number two (2) mentioned above (Expand your mind).  You must know and respect the cultural norms in the Gulf. Hone your listening and your communication skills.  Know what is offensive to them and don’t offend them in any way. Understand that they may want to take the time to have coffee and share a meal with you, and otherwise spend some time with you before discussion of business commences. Respect their understanding of time. Patience is the vital key.

4 – Know and understand their history and traditional communication lines; the way news travels through the population. Knowledge of their history before the oil rush is important here. The capitol cities in the Gulf are definitely 21 century cities; but the actual communication lines go back many centuries, and for many reasons, I believe this will continue.   For example, in Kuwait know how the Diwaniya’s function.  In the UAE, how the Majlis’ functions, and how this may be different in Oman or Saudi Arabia and so on.

Understand that knowledge is passed on from generation to generation by means of story-telling.  Gain an understanding of their power bases and socio-political structure. What is a Sheikhdom?  What is a Sultanate? What is an Emirate?

Don’t for one minute think that because they were nomadic, pearl divers, or tradesman, without formal (Western) education 50 years ago, that their elders lacked education and finesse.  They absolutely did not.  Brilliance, capability and lovely behavior are all possible without formal education.

5 – Effectuate change “The GCC Way.” Most field staff with NGO’s are working to effectuate change.  In any country this can be frustrating, at times exasperating, and always time consuming.  One way or another, in order for the change to be sustainable, the people (meaning the locals) must own each change.  They must accept, want and be committed to the change.  In short, while in the GCC this means many hours of time are spent in conversation.  Once the talk has commenced; be prepared to walk the talk, hand-in-hand with the local population. Do not promise unless you know you can carry through with the promise.

As an example, gender reform projects are often sought after by international donors in the Gulf.  Before embarking on this reform, know that there are thousands upon thousands of women throughout the Gulf that have a Doctorate level of education earned at the finest, elite Universities in the USA and Europe.  Know that many of these women want to cover. They do not mind wearing Hijab, Burka, or other forms of head cover. Many do not want to drive.  At the same time, in every sense of the word, they are powerful, strong, and able to impact their societies. This can present an enigma to the western mind.  It should not. Get over it.

To close, if you are given the opportunity to succeed and work in the Arabian Gulf States consider it one of the most valuable learning experiences of your professional life. Experience the vibrant culture, unique socio-political environment, and a life-style that you will find only in the GCC. Good luck and enjoy your time in The Gulf.