The challenge for Islamic leadership: a cultural vision for the Arabian Gulf States

This article is available in Arabic.

If you search for Islamic leadership in the world’s leading economic publications, you’ll probably get most results associated with politics and power.

Yet, these countries have been at the forefront of major global discussions, as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar and Oman are oil-exporting countries and their impact on the global economy is very high. In addition, they have explicitly declared that they will face challenges such as sustainability, the diversification of their economy towards digitalisation, the empowerment of civil society in a more active role in the national economy, and the effective incorporation of women in society.

Looking at the above landscape, the concept of Islamic leadership shifts from pure politics to encompass civil society, citizens and companies.

So how are leaders in these countries treating the different challenges facing them? What are the distinguishing characteristics of Islamic leadership?

The focus of this article is to shed the light on these traits, not to examine the differences between Islamic and Western leadership styles. The two converge in many ways as the majority of Islamic leaders in Gulf countries tend to adopt and adapt strategies and actions from the West. This is mainly due to their education, as well as their daily exposure to a multinational business environment. Moreover, these countries are at the forefront of global trade, being major exporters of primary goods, oil and gas.

So to understand Islamic leadership, one must look at the characteristics that stand out. The authors argue that these traits are having an impact on Western leadership, as the process of globalisation has set forward a movement of people, goods, information and knowledge exchange.

1-    Accountability

While Western countries tend to differentiate leadership actions between spiritual and secular matters, Islam makes no distinction between the two and establishes the rules of human behaviour encompassing all aspects of human life.

Accordingly, the first trait of Islamic leadership is accountability, applicable to leaders and teams alike. To lead in Islam means to righteously take the initiative in a relationship with the followers. In Islam, leadership is an honourably moral activity and communication process towards attaining a goal. Leaders are primarily distinguished from the followers by their knowledge, commitment to Islamic principles, and higher ethical values.

Thus, Islamic leadership establishes the depth of reason connecting leaders and followers in actions that suit their needs for a strong sense of community and identity. Neither party should exert any effort to influence or to exploit the other. Instead, they have been involved in a process in which accomplishing the common reason is vital. The leader and the led both recognise the objective and agree to strive jointly for its attainment.

2-    Total value-based management

A differentiating aspect of Islamic leadership is that it focuses on human dynamism and group priority and is a less individualistic process.

The Islamic leadership style, focusing on internalising values ​​and ethics, goes from top to bottom. And leaders at every level in the organisation are the key instruments to achieve this objective. This type of Islamic leadership can provide a new management paradigm to deal with existing ethical dilemmas in many corporations around the globe, incorporating practices based on value-based management (VBM).

VBM is a philosophy enabling and supporting maximum value creation in organisations. Value creation usually implies the maximisation of shareholder value. Islamic leadership is based on management by example which proposes a more valuable paradigm to curb many ethical ailments of the modern enterprise. Islamic work ethics take the organisation towards ‘total value-based management’ through ensuring value for all stakeholders. The Islamic world is in a position to take on the challenge of combining economic growth with ethics since its culture and tradition are based on solid values.

3-    Prosperity, wellbeing, and culture

Islamic values ​​are compatible with human needs for prosperity and happiness in all walks of life. This goal of citizen happiness is included in Saudi Arabia’s strategy, Vision 2030, and specific indices have been articulated to measure its progress. Leadership development is one of the essential subjects in Islamic teachings and is also listed as an objective. The importance of extending leadership education to the entire civil society, including women, is a prerequisite for meeting the challenges of nations, businesses and citizens in the Islamic world.

Art and culture constitute a fundamental business card to establish leadership in today’s global world. The Islamic tradition in different artistic areas has a cultural legacy of undoubted impact on the history of humanity, with influence on Western culture, where perhaps Spain is the clearest case. According to sociologists Gilles Lipovetsky and Jean Serroy, a current of aestheticisation is taking place worldwide. The result of which is a new type of ‘artistic’ capitalism. The Islamic world has outstanding elements to exercise its leadership in art. To give two examples, let us remember figures such as the Egyptian Naguib Mahfuz (Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988) and the Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid (the first woman to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004).

4-    Vision, commitment, and achievements

Leadership must not only rely on soft tools. It is also necessary to have the infrastructure and technology that form the framework to enhance it. In this sense, the construction in Qatar of the smart city, ‘Education City’, is an example of the vision of Islamic leadership based on a firm commitment to knowledge and science.

In the infrastructure construction sector, the Gulf countries have made a solid commitment to rapid growth, which has led them to receive immigrants from different countries and nationalities as a labour force. For example, in Saudi Arabia, the immigrant population is more than 13.12 million people (according to UN data in 2019), which represents 38.35% of the population of Saudi Arabia. The main countries of origin of immigration in Saudi Arabia are India (18.60%), Indonesia (12.70%) and Pakistan (11.03%).

Building on this vision, it is only normal for the Arabian Gulf States to reconcile their growth needs with the inclusion of this received population. This will require clear leadership that incorporates different sensitivities and cultures without losing its own identity as a country. Inclusion entails that these populations have a sense of belonging, safety and security. This is particularly interesting to look at in these countries, where crime rates are nearing zero and where every person can individually grow and achieve.

Finally, we cannot forget the challenge that the transition to a new economy already poses for the Gulf countries, whose objective is to reduce the carbon footprint. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) defined by the UN and embraced in different conferences, conventions and treaties worldwide will impact the economy of the Gulf countries. An Islamic leadership with a clear vision will be necessary to transform the primary and most prominent source of income for these countries into emerging sectors such as the digital economy, tourism and health. We cannot forget this transition’s impact on the two other related elements in the energy-food-water nexus. But these will be topics for future insights.

Gustavo Bermejo and Carlos R. Monroy

Gustavo Bermejo-Martín is a mentor in entrepreneurship and innovation programs in Headspring, IE Business School, Go2Space-HUBs Madrid, and Healthstart Madrid. He holds a Ph.D. degree (Cum Laude) in Industrial Management from the Technical University of Madrid (UPM) and degrees in Telecommunication Engineering (UPM) and Executive MBA from IE Business School.
He is a visiting scholar on innovation and business development at Universidad Autónoma and Universidad Alcalá de Henares in Madrid, Spain. He belongs to the Food Quality Engineering research group at UPM, with published papers in scientific journals. He is a member of smart city and sustainability research groups.

Carlos Rodríguez-Monroy is a professor of International Business at King Juan Carlos University. He has taught Corporate Strategy, Entrepreneurship, and Corporate Governance at the Technical University of Madrid (UPM).
He holds a Ph.D. degree in Industrial Management from UPM and degrees in Economics, Sociology, and Law from Universidad Complutense de Madrid. He has been Academic Director of CESMA Business School and visiting scholar at IMT Atlantique in Nantes, France, and the University of Connecticut in the USA.
He is a doctoral theses director, academic editor, and reviewer of scientific journals. He heads the Food Quality Engineering research group at UPM, focusing on the food-energy-water nexus.