Syrian new corporate culture: The need for reforms

What is the Syrian professional scene like? Here is a closer look at what happens within the sector; a critique by the article’s author as well as the interviewer who asked for anonymity.

Critiquing the Damascene business scene: An Inside look

The need for private-sector reform is most needed at this point in time

“Working here [in Syria] is close to working at a Falafel stall,” said the media expert I had dinner with a few days ago. As head of one of the most prominent institutions in Damascus, this foreign-educated young leader said he had a serious problem finding the proper manpower to employ.

“Most institutions here rely on the motto ‘everything goes,'” he said. “And unfortunately most employees adopt the same attitude,” he continued.

Throughout our discussion, we tackled several issues pertaining to improving the corporate culture here, which in many cases does not exist as a reality, only as a PR facade. In other words, there was a “lot of vision” when it came to Syrian corporations mushrooming around the different sectors. But when it came to adopting professional standards to run a business, many institutions here cared only about what gave them a good name. Breaking bread with them, however, would reveal a lot of “cut and paste,” poor attention to professionalism, and not much experience in running the show.

Corporate culture is also non existent in many institutions who considered “taking out employees for an iftar party during Ramadan” as a sure sign they had satisfied their share of building their corporate culture and identity. Codes of ethics in running a business are also very fluid and not much attention is grasped in instilling such codes in the mindsets of administration and subordinates alike.

An attempt to cut expenses without a real study of what successful budgeting is all about is also observed. Most importantly long-term planning does not seem to be employed in upraising employees, annual/5-year targets or plans for growth have no place in the upper management mindset, and “create-as-you-go” seems to be the norm in institutions that claim to be pioneering and “new.”

Such institutions will fail drastically if they were to build serious affiliations with Dubai-minded companies looking to expand in the Syrian market. Perhaps this failure will teach many that there are basics to adhere to when running a business, especially when it came to the successful observation of workable management models.

Open market economy, without private-sector open practices!

Syria is moving towards an “opener” market economy, through adopting a host of reformative processes geared towards changing the landscape of economy. Many policy-level efforts are being exerted to achieve this reality. But are these efforts trickling down to touch the very roots of existing companies?

The private-sector here operates on the World Bank-myth that considers it as an “active player” in changing the face of the economy. Inspecting several institutions around the country, one would be appalled by the level of professional conduct such institutions operate within. “To be an active player in changing economic realities, we need private-sector reform,” I told the aforementioned interviewee. “These institutions operate on public-sector mentality and have nothing to offer more than better looking ties, more posh cars, and prestigious events and functions.”

Syrian corporations, specifically in the private-sector, are actually benefiting from the classic negative image – the world has been advertising – haunting their “contender,” the public-sector. It is giving them an undeserved good image that appeals to any outsider who doesn’t know what’s going on inside them.

The hypothesis that the private-sector is a leader in change might be true in other parts of the world, but in Syria, the sector might pose a danger to the country’s economic future: “Private-sector advocates want to throw Syria into the lap of globalization, but they don’t have the fiantest idea of what it takes to play the game properly,” the expert said.

When it comes to the Syria-EU Association Agreement, a few are aware that they have no chance in competing with the EU once the agreement is signed. This, however, is not deterring the “open-minded and progressive-looking” camp from actually pushing a vibe towards signing the agreement at any expense.

“For a few shallow-minded young businessmen, any agreement of any kind makes for a good name for Syria. They calculate everything around values such as prestige, image, and short-term political gain. But on the long-run, getting stuck in commitments that require deep-rooted change needs a lot of attention to detail,” he said.

Acquiring ISO Certificates to help local products enter foreign markets are but the tip of the ice-berg. Corporate Social Responsibility, which in many cases is mistaken for philanthropy or image-building/marketing philanthropic stunts, is a serious matter that many are toying with, without understanding that CSR is a lot more complicated as a concept than skin-deep giveaways.

A closer look at the private-sector in Damascus will reveal administrative and managerial reforms are critically needed in both monitoring the sector, and in encouraging it to adopt sound professional strandards that go beyond the usually-employed PR stunts.

Syria and the WTO

Many figures in the Damascene private-sector are pro the admission of Syria into the World Trade Organization (WTO). To them this move will be crucial in liberalizing the economy.

In deed, Syria, very recently, has won the observer status at the WTO after the US dropped its opposition to the move.

But what is lacking in this enthusiasm towards propelling the country towards an opener economy is the “details.” Without adopting “professional methodology” to realize their vision for more openness and growth, Syrian institutions will be devoured by multi-national companies looking to expand their activities in Syria when the economy is open and liberalized.

Although many Syrian businesses are still far-removed from the notion of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) – a WTO must-have – one would expect “visionaries” in the private sector to adopt measures inside their institutions to protect them from the advent of WTO provisions that prohibit IPR trespasses. Instead, you would find a lot of effort exerted towards adopting the “form” without the “content” of new trends, such as entrepreneurship.

In a new contest to award “Syrian entrepreneurs” with “novel ideas,” a project with a poor conceptual rationale won the award, under the glamorous use-of-the-word, “entrepreneurship.” However, when looking closer at the awarded project, one would observe it was in great breech with recognized IPR laws. Those might not be adopted as of yet in the country, but one day they will be.

The question is, when private-sector leaders say they are pro moving towards opening the market, what models of conduct are they employing? What work ethics? What actual change in their work environments are they advancing?

One day Syrian institutions will no longer be able to hide under their reputations. For now “everyone is doing the same thing,” so no one really cares when a google image is grabbed off the net to create a brochure, or a project is funded without much attention to labor and environmental laws. But one day the critic will be born when corporations with long-standing experience, vision and corporate culture enter the scene and propose new and well-thought-of (not cut-and-paste) ways of running a business.

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About 50% Syrian

What is identity? I was raised Arab (of varying origins), with a Syrian mother, and Moroccan, Lebanese and Tunisian great grandfathers and grandmothers. I always felt 50% Syrian, and this percentage mattered to me more than anything else. Love of my life, my late Sufi grandmother, is Syrian... all her bedtime stories were about her life in Damascus. Damascus is where the heart dwells.
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4 Responses to Syrian new corporate culture: The need for reforms

  1. abufares says:

    Thank you for a very informative article.
    I have been involved with “corporate” Syria on and off since the term began to surface twelve years or so ago. The problem is, in my opinion, that those on top of the pyramid are, simply put, very “cheap”.
    When the rich goes cheap to stay rich we can only end up with the Corporate Syria of today. The disparity in income between top and bottom within the same organization is mind boggling and despicable.
    I have often heard the claim that there are no qualified employees in the country. I have heard it from CEO’s and other self-proclaimed big shots, who are often enough ex-con-men (or the descendants of con-men) and whose main qualification beyond the suit and tie (if any) is a “questionable” college degree from abroad. Bullshit!!!
    There is a deep seeded resentment in most of, if not all, the private organizations I have come in contact with. The major achievement of corporate Syria is refining the rampant corruption of the public sector and dressing it up nicely for the benefit of visiting business associates and dignitaries.
    Employees are maltreated, underpaid and exploited much worse than they are in our archaic and unproductive public sector.
    In a nutshell: It’s a leadership problem. Our corporate leaders are of the 4th type below.

    “To lead people, walk beside them …
    As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence.
    The next best, the people honor and praise.
    The next, the people fear;
    and the next, the people hate …
    When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves!'”
    — Lao-tsu

  2. 50% Syrian says:

    Thank you for the most insightful comment. I agree with you, totally. Blaming it on “poor manpower” is not it! It IS a leadership problem. In many cases private-sector leadership does not “see benefit” (immediate benefit, that is) in adopting appropriate professional measures, simply because they can get away with it.
    There is no one out there monitoring – or critiquing – the private sector in a transparent manner. Associations and independent bodies tasked to help the private sector evolve are plagued with private-sector wanna-be’s, friends, or relatives, who come from the same “everything goes” mentality.
    The media is supposed to be the “4th Authority,” or the 4th branch of government, seeing how it influences over the 3 branches of gov’t: legislation, judiciary, and executive government. In Syria, the media is poorly trained, missing out on a number of crucial matters that have nothing to do with national security (since that’s the red line that everyone fears).

    This set-up does not look promising, because many players in the “development and change” game are dormant. The clock cannot tick well if all its wheels are rusty!

    The Lao-tsu quote is very true; right on the mark 🙂

  3. Mohammad.H@hotmail.com says:

    i do agree with most points however, how up corruption in leadership echelon you welling to point the fingers to? the business people not to blame solely since they need to take calculated risks, putting their money, time, and efforts on the line and being pushed back and forth by corrupt officials on all levels of the government for bribes and favors, red tapes, corrupted bureaucracy and constant fear of losing their life saving, i have great respect them, they got guts.

    corruption is deep rooted and part of our nation culture in every industry whether public or private and to a larger percentage rate compared to neighboring Arab countries, we are worst, all our Arab brothers tell us that and make really funny jokes about it, real stories of their encounters with Syrian business/government associates, not that they are not corrupted themselves, but ours practice it more on the open with comfort, no fear and only greet. with that said, no foreign respected serious long term investor will risk his capital in such political/legal/business environment except for hit and run short term type of investments such those in real estate projects.

    Furthermore, how about human resources prerequisite to build the the economy? is our educational system properly aligned to produce highly skillful, capable of research and innovate, self motivated work force to contribute in the economy recovery and able to compete? How about infrastructure services? electricity, communications, transportation…How about legal system? will the law protect my investment, fair dispute resolution… the political system and the instability of the region? the blockade imposed by USA and many other EU countries?… and so on. The odds are not favorable.

    In my opinion, which is just an opinion, we are facing a multitude of problems each with multiple causes accumulated over many decades of poor governance and absence of planning, there are many barriers, although some are coming down, i am afraid efforts are too little too late to play effectively in global market, or in middle east market or in local market when imports start with full thrust.

    On other hand, some are always optimistic no matter what the hurdles are and suggest that if a successful corporation exists in Syria with international scope and quality products, if there is one and better be public listed in stock market, then it will be a good start to emulate their strategy and approach in beating all odds and presented their success story across to start ups and not-so-successful corporations, publicize and make a case study to raise hopes up to see light at end of the tunnel.

    Sorry if i offended anyone, none is intended.

  4. 50% Syrian says:

    I agree with your point about private sector success stories as epitomizing “light at the end of the tunnel.” Changing mindsets and thinking/conduct paradigms takes a lot of effort and time, especially that this change touches every single piece of the puzzle (education system, upper management, business owners, employees, students, government, etc).

    The problem is that among the “new guard” in the business and the media fields you find stiff-minded (chair-glued) people who don’t want to push the envelop, lest they get in trouble. Fact is, “professionally” speaking, there is a lot of leeway. There is a lot of leeway, but excuses are readily there for people to stay put and not do a better job.

    There is, I believe, political will for change; a lot of margins are there ready to be exploited by whoever wants to excel, change, create, and move on. Use the margins! That’s how you start creating more and more room for positive change. It is like a wise kid who “teaches” his dad to trust him, by slowly working with him, by showing him he is trustworthy, responsible, visionary and loyal, by showing him how he is changing despite the fact the dad is still the same… moving with him from one station to another. When the private sector starts taking serious measures to adopt Best Practices without a law to breathe down its neck or an authority to pressure it into adopting those practices, change will take place. In my opinion this is a golden opportunity… with this you walk into other “related” fields: good citizenship (which can snowball into something else. Civil movements have always played a major role in changing human history… an enlightened private-sector movement can do the same.

    Adopting workable management models, training employees, creating an internal corporate culture, adopting sustainable management methods… all of those have nothing to do with red-tape.

    P.S. Not sure if all real-estate projects are hit and run in Syria 🙂 Some investors do say their projects are only blue prints and they haven’t even gotten the piece of land they’re supposed to start building on, but players like Emaar/IGO don’t sound like a hit and run story. They are about to finish the Eight Gate, and they say the project is a “medium-size” one compared to their regional projects elsewhere.

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