Is Corporate Social Responsibility still “Mission Impossible” in the Arab World?

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has become embedded in the thinking of the top MBA and EMBA programs around the globe as a key consideration for doing business in the future. And that is a good thing – such leadership is sorely needed for the good of our planet and our communities.

However, CSR practices in developing economies often do not conform neatly into the Western-perceptions of CSR that aspiring students are taught in class. Local cultures, practices, values, and institutions vary, and all of these attributes are unconsciously embedded in our understanding of the CSR concept.

Therefore, successfully implementing CSR practices for maximum impact in an international context requires first and foremost the ability to suspend our own cultural framework. This is a fundamental first step in considering and understanding the needs and challenges of applying Western business practices (and cultural norms) in the context of an international (non-Western) market.

CSR in UAE – a unique perspective

Implementing a CSR program in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a challenging endeavor. Some have even labelled it ‘a mission impossible’. However, probably not for the reasons the Western-reader may be imagining. In many ways, it actually comes down to competition.

The Arab world already has an established model for social responsibility embedded within Islam (the Zakat model). Social responsibility is further perceived as a duty to God, not as a (self-serving) strategic tool to be used for business development and growth.

Additionally, CSR is perceived as a Western concept, and local communities are wary of Western cultural values (i.e. individualism > society). As such, they tend to shun such intrusions into their way of life.

The CSR concept therefore butts up against systemic, religious, and cultural norms. As a result, navigating these perceptions requires a broad awareness, contextualized knowledge, and a deep understanding of how CSR initiatives may impact local culture and community.

Which is why it is so interesting that the UAE has set out to become a recognized global leader in CSR practices.

UAE leads CSR adoption in MENA

The MENA region (Middle East & North Africa) is made up of approximately 20 countries that encompass the Arab world.  Situated geographically at the crossroads between Europe, Africa and Asia, it has always been a critically important trade route and economic region.

Today the region is notably a global player in the energy sector, holding nearly 60% of the world’s oil reserves, as well as being a pivotal point for global supply chains via the Suez Canal. However, the region has also been identified as one of the most vulnerable areas in the world that will suffer some of the harshest impacts of global climate change.

In response, the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives were established in 2015 as an umbrella organization supported by His Royal Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of UAE and Ruler of Dubai. It was among the first step towards taking decisive actions to combat the dire social and environmental risks facing the region.

Since then, following an extensive consultation with industry and key stakeholders, government Ministers issued the UAE CSR Law, which came into effect in 2018. The law applies to most private and public sector companies operating in the UAE and stipulates a number of voluntary as well as mandatory CSR requirements.

This laid the necessary groundwork for additional regulatory frameworks, including the UAE Impact Index  which incorporates ESG and UN SDGs performance measures. The government is also introducing a CSR Smart Platform for annual reporting, a UAE CSR Label to recognise best-in-class firms, and a CSR UAE Fund to incentivize companies to engage in activities that support National CSR priorities.

Early Adopters & CSR Pioneers

Developing and testing innovative practices, technology, and business models within the CSR space is of paramount importance if we are going to achieve the SDG targets by 2030. The UAE is a (both figurative and literal) sandbox that is pushing the boundaries on many of these 17 SDG fronts. Some of the early adopters and innovative initiatives within this nascent ecosystem include:

  • International Humanitarian City (IHC) – utilized by the UNHCR and others, this is the ‘Amazon’ of the humanitarian world, with the capacity to mobilize critical resources during a crisis that can reach two-thirds of the world’s population within four to eight hours.
  • UAE Food Bank – the hub for a socio-economic ecosystem and food-security strategy that collects surplus food from hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, farms and other food establishments, and distributes it to people in need.
  • The UAE Water Aid Foundation – their mission is to provide clean drinking water to under-privileged communities. In addition to wells, water pumps, and purification equipment, they also invest in solar-powered sustainable solutions and desalination projects which supply 99% of the potable water in Dubai (40%+ in the UAE).
  • Emirates National Oil Company – the MENA is one of the largest exporters of crude oil and gas, and ENOC is a key player in the UAE. With global markets promoting clean energy and electric-mobility as a part of a sustainable future, ENOC is positioning itself to lead the region through this shifting landscape.
  • Ducab – Ducab is a global solutions provider in the energy and building sectors, and recognized as a UAE leader in CSR activities. Their projects include many of the UAE’s most iconic destinations, including Burj Khalifa, Dubai Airport, and Expo2020.
  • The Apparel Group – one of the largest retailers in MENA, led by founder and chairwoman Sima Ganwani Ved, they have been a member of the UN Global Compact since 2015. They engage in collaborative projects that advance the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals to end poverty, protect the planet & ensure prosperity for all by 2030.
  • Dubai Sustainable Tourism  – transitioning to a new national CSR identity needs to be rooted in compelling stories. As a destination branding and marketing organization, Dubai Tourism plays a critical role in shaping local perceptions as well as attracting foreign investment and international relationships. Further, tour operators like Platinum Heritage serve as cultural mediators that bring together diverse people, personalities, and ideas in a spirit of sharing.
  • Abu Dhabi Innovation Hub – is a collaborative project between Google and UAE that encourages and support innovation and technology access in the MENA region.
  • Khalifa University  – hosts a dedicated research center innovating in the sectors of clean renewable energy, water and environment, and supply-chain logistics.
  • Moonshot Pilot Fund The Mohammed Bin Rashid Centre for Government Innovation is dedicated to creating a framework that fosters a spirit of innovation within all government departments and ministries in the UAE. Its goal is to transform ideas into concrete examples. From 3-D printed eco-buildings, to solar energy farms, to enhanced security and predictive crime mapping, the Centre provides us with a window into a possible future for the MENA region and beyond.

Learn More & Join the Conversation

As the global pandemic begins to recede, one of the largest conferences in the world for those invested in bettering our planet is scheduled to return. Bringing together more than 6000 international stakeholders (public, private, non-profit, and academic institutions), the 18th Dubai International Humanitarian Aid & Development Conference (DIHAD) is set for the 14-16th of March, 2022, at the Dubai World Trade Center.

If you are traveling in the region, this is an exceptional opportunity to spend an afternoon and/or evening connecting with global and corporate leaders in the CSR world. Under the theme of ‘SDG 17, Partnerships and Cooperation for Sustainable Development’, it is surely not one to be missed!