Managing and Managers in the UAE: an Investigation by Zayed University Students in Abu Dhabi

Article written in collaboration with the young women in BUS-309-001 & 002 – Fall Semester 2009 AUH.

 It is that time of year again when the interview assignment is given to my Introduction to Management students. Here are the results from my first attempt with this project three years ago.

There is very little written about managers and managing in the UAE.  This makes it hard for new management professors to use relevant, local examples in class.  However, it makes it even harder for students as they must listen and then try to put into context examples from North America and Europe (and my students have had an even tougher time of it as many of my best examples are from the dreadfully exciting Canadian forest products industry).  As a first step to remedy this situation I asked the students in my two Introduction to Management classes to interview a manager.  Not just interview for interest and curiosity though, interview for research.  Yes, there is a difference, as my students found out.

First, we had to decide on the purpose of the interview.  We wanted to see if what Henry Mintzberg and Henri Fayol wrote about the roles of managers in the West is applicable to managers in the GCC.  (Dr. Mintzberg is a contemporary Canadian management guru who has written many influential books on strategy and the roles of management.  M. Fayol, wrote the Principles of Management when he was the CEO of a mining company at the beginning of the 20 th century in France.)  Then we had to decide on the questions, which actually took a few weeks as we debated the best questions to ask and the best way in which to ask them.  Before we could venture into the “field” though we had to write generic query emails.  Which again took more time than many had thought it would.  Finally, into the field.

Students interviewed by telephone, email and face-to-face (and one by proxy, with follow-up emails to verify the gathered information).  Some students found they had to use more than one method to verify information, and one student used all three!  We soon found out that managers are busy people, but that for the most part are very willing to share their knowledge with students.

The knowledge that was shared with students was priceless.  There were managers from all levels of the organization, CEOs and Board Members of major corporations and senior officials of ZU, senior military officers, senior government officials, owners of SMEs, men, women, Nationals and expats.  However, even with all these differences there were many similarities in their answers.

The first question asked managers what was their greatest challenge managing in the UAE.  There were many diverse answers of course, but the responses fell into four main themes: recruiting skilled Nationals, the great cultural differences of employees, motivating and guiding employees, and managing change.  The drive for Emiratisation was not seen in a negative light, rather it was just the challenge of finding qualified people to fill positions at every level of the organization. Of course, for my students this can only be considered a good thing – there are many challenging and rewarding opportunities out there for them when they graduate.  The challenge of cultural diversity was also not seen as a “problem”, but rather it was considered as a source of competitive advantage in a globalised marketplace to have a global employee base.  However, managers did mention that they had to learn about these different cultures in order to manage effectively.

The follow-up question was to ask what managers had done to overcome these challenges.  Here there was an overwhelming insistence on the importance of training and continuing education, for both the manager and employees.  Training was done in house, through continuing education and through seminars and conferences abroad.  Managers insisted that “learning” can never stop, it is just part of the continuous evolution of the organization and the individual.  The need for communication, open communication based on trust, was also mentioned by several managers.  Some said they had an “open-door” policy, others had regularly scheduled meetings and others used on-site visits.

Managers were then asked what they considered as their most important role.  There were many roles listed here, the most commonly listed were the role of leader and mentor, the role of decision maker, recruiting and supporting qualified employees (both Nationals and expats), creating a positive work environment, creating a culture of continuous improvement and working towards achieving the organization’s mission and goals.

The final question asked about how the role of manager had changed over the years.  The word increased was used a lot.  Increased competition, both global and local, increased focus on innovation, increased work load, increased attention to strategic plans and increased need for continuous training.

The feedback from the students was overwhelmingly positive.  Many said that they wished that they could have followed-up and would like to interview more managers and compare answers.  They even enjoyed analyzing the answers by comparing what their managers’ said to the theory we have covered in class.  And there were some powerful insights made that will help me next semester when I teach the course to another few groups.

Finally, there were a few enterprising students who asked their managers for advice.  They were told to enjoy their jobs, listen, respect, make goals, work hard, challenge yourself, be loyal, don’t take short cuts and to continually develop their skills.  What wonderful advice from generous people.  This valuable new knowledge would not have been possible without the generous support of the fantastic managers interviewed by my students.  So thank you for your time and wisdom, your interviewee learned from the interview, the rest of the class did through each presentation, I did by reading and listening to your words and the general ZU community through this mini-article.

Managing and managers in the UAE… a story to be continued.


  1. Great post indeed. Thanks for taking the time to write and post it!

    My experience of holding interviews is though limited, still I have one advice to share of which I believe is much beneficial. I've noticed that some students tend to memorize what's being said in interviews more than writing it down for example. At the moment they start brainstorming and laying out all ideas and information randomly, depends on what comes to their mind first. This is so WRONG, as you mentioned that managers are often so busy and a student might not have the chance to make a second interview. What I used to do in University College. when making interviews is using two simple ways to save information.

    First: Write down key points/elements (not everything! It would be ironically rude to spend the interview with your head down writing and the other person would feel like he's talking to himself!.)The second effective way is to record with a phone (after taking permission from the interviewee). This would give the student the chance to go back through every single information he might miss. I still posses a couple of recorded interviews and listen to them from time to time (just for the good memories).

    Thanks again for sharing your experience!

    1. Thank you Sultan for this great piece of advice! I will share this with students when we get closer to them going into the field :) And with future students of course.

      Smile and courage, Dr. Connie

  2. Woow When i red the title of this article i smiled and remembered the time where we were doing this project way back in 2009 it was very useful me to me as i learned a lot of how to communicate with males in a professional way.

    Dhabiya Al Dosari

  3. I remember you did an excellent job Dhabiya! Thanks for your comment :)