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Respect For Traditions In The Gulf Region

Respect is the cornerstone for all work with families. Each family has its own culture and each part of the world has its own culture. We can all learn so much from each other. Barbara Hauser shares her insight.

My own work includes frequent trips to Saudi Arabia (and the surrounding GCC region) where I continue to learn from families about their own important traditions. The beauty of focusing the advisory work on “process” and not on “products” or even “solutions” is that the local traditions and local family culture will surface on their own, and will add the meaning and content that is most important for that family.

In the Gulf region, the two strongest traditions I see are the importance of Islam and the importance of families. Coming in as a Westerner, I believe it is critical to have genuine respect for these related values.

Looking at Islam, one distinction from other religions is that Islam permeates daily life, it is not a separate religion as much as it is a way of living in the world and with each other. In Saudi Arabia, the law of the land is the law of Islam (Shariah law)—it would be impossible to separate Church and State. The church is the state, and the religious law comes ahead of all other law.

Rich traditions include the call to prayer that is observed five times a day. Our meetings are fit around prayer times, and breaks are taken for prayer times, in the board room and in the home. Many investment categories are forbidden in Islam, including making money by way of “usury” (which seems to have been recently confused with “interest”).

Islam includes a duty to give to the poor. The Shariah law obligation of “zakat” is regulated by the Ministry of Finance in Saudi, which is responsible for “ the collection of “Zakat” from individuals and companies holding Saudi citizenship at a rate of 2.5 percent [each year, based approximately on total net worth], in accordance with Islamic Jurisprudence.” (In practice, I am told that individuals make their own Zakat calculations and their own direct payments to the poor.)

Many of the gender separations are based on religious law (although many are not, and vary according to the culture of a particular family, such as whether the hair and the face of females need to be covered, and when.) This is a rapidly changing area, and is one in which an attentive and respectful learning attitude is extremely valuable. The issues are often more complicated than are presented in world news media.

What I have learned the most about the Islamic culture is how much there is that I do not know. Families love to explain their views and their customs, and I am always learning how different they can be, family to family.

The second strong value is the importance of the family and the bonds among family members. More than once a patriarch has explained that if the wealth will cause conflicts among the family members, he would give away the wealth. The family is more important. The desire to keep the family strong motivates all the members to support each other. This is especially important because under Shariah inheritance laws all of the children will probably become joint owners of the business.

Key features of the importance of the family include the tremendous respect for elders. Following are just a few of my personal observations over the last ten years. I have often been in a home where the conversations among 10-20 family members completely stop, because the patriarch has entered the room. All of the family members stand up, and seem to follow an order in approaching to greet the patriarch, with a kiss on the top of his head. (This needs to be remembered when working on projects like a family constitution: it might be important to include specific exceptions, so that some of the rules will simply not apply to the patriarch or his wife.)

The family name identifies all of the family members, and must keep a good reputation. This means that, for example, one faulty bank loan by one family member was likely to be paid in full by other family members, to keep the good name. In recent times this is changing somewhat. Family trees (literal tree designs) are often on proud display in the home or office. A traditional preference is to marry within the same group and to live in a family compound. (One little girl was changed to a private international school and commented “But they are not family, who will I play with?”)

Respect for the family includes patience and time invested in knowing more about them. Rushing in to do business will usually backfire. The relationships need to be established first. Those often become relationships that will last much longer than any particular project.

This strong family bond makes it even more important to family businesses to be as proactive as possible to break the “three generations of failure” pattern. The key success factor is often the closeness, cooperation and participation by the third generation. The whole family is part of the business and that business is part of their family. They all very much want both to succeed, for many generations.

In closing, respect, for traditions, cultures and families, is the key, as I think it is everywhere.

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