To get Badr Jafar, the Sharjah executive, really enthusiastic, get him talking about the Pearl Initiative, which was set up in 2010 to advance the cause of good corporate governance in the Arab world.
Gulf can profit from improved governance
Watching Badr Jafar at the World Economic Forum for the Middle East in Jordan last month was an object lesson in the art of networking.
The Sharjah-born executive was shaking hands with important executives one minute, chatting with senior political figures the next and then heading off to speak at opinion-forming sessions at the WEF.
He spoke of entrepreneurship and youth employment, but also found time to get involved in the WEF's initiative to restart Israel-Palestinian Territories peace talks via the business community, as well as handle the inevitable media calls.
It was an accomplished act, but then you would expect no less from a member of one of the UAE's top business dynasties, who was educated at Eton College and Cambridge in Britain, and who regularly rubs shoulders with top fashion designers, Hollywood stars and music legends.
But to get Mr Jafar really enthusiastic, get him talking about the Pearl Initiative, as he did recently at the Capital Club in Dubai. Pearl, set up in 2010 to advance the cause of good corporate governance in the Arab world, is a project obviously very close to his heart.
"The Gulf region today is the right place at the right time for good corporate governance. It is not enough just to change regulation, we need a change of culture," he says.
Pearl grew out of contacts with "friends" at the United Nations in New York involved in the UN Office for Partnerships, the charitable arm of the organisation focused on developing partnerships between the public and private sectors to advance worthy causes.
"We've seen how regulation alone doesn't always work. The US is the most regulated market in the world, yet it was still the place where the financial crisis began, and which has seen plenty of corporate scandal. We saw the need for a regional initiative in the Arab world, by the region for the region, and by the private sector for the private sector," he says.
Although Pearl has a regional focus, it draws its inspiration from corporate governance work undertaken by South Korea on its big corporate entities such as Samsung and from US standards. "The credibility of the UN relationship was very important, and we had to file our credentials in the US," says Mr Jafar.
According to the mission statement, Pearl is a "private-sector led, not-for-profit organisation set up to improve transparency, accountability and business practices in the Arab world".
But Mr Jafar believes there is profit to be had from applying best practice. "One of the main purposes is to demonstrate that there is true value creation to be had, that businesses will actually make more money if they adhere to those standards," he says. He points to case studies around the world that show the link between good governance and financial performance, for example in Korea, where big corporations overcame charges of scandal and corruption to become respected world leaders in their sectors.
"In a recent survey, 10,000 business leaders were asked about the benefits of good governance, and 61 per cent said it would have a direct impact on the bottom line of their businesses," he points out.
Despite Mr Jafar's Sharjah origins - he and his family are the forces behind the emirate's energy group Crescent - he felt it was important to have a genuinely regional slant on Pearl. Its board of governors, under the chairman, Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan of Abu Dhabi, reads like a Who's Who of Middle East business.
The three key buzzwords are accountability, governance and transparency. "But all the aims are linked. What's the point of being transparent if you're not accountable, and if it all doesn't add up to better governance, what's the point again," he asks. Pearl aims to drive home the point through seminars, forums, workshops and publications that spread the good governance message. It runs a centre of excellence at the American University of Sharjah and is looking to extend its educational links throughout the region. With other countries increasingly ready to "name and shame" bad business practice, does Mr Jafar believe the media have any role to play in advancing the cause of good governance?
"I personally feel it is wrong to 'name and shame.' The way to do it in this part of the world is to engage with business and highlight and champion the successful stories, and use then as beacons of change. Naming and shaming is often counterproductive," he says.
Among the "champions" in the region he names Aramex, the transport and logistics company, and the Abraaj Group, the private equity firm where he is also a board member.
On financial reporting, where even some of the regional companies most committed to good governance fall short by international standards, Mr Jafar says: "It's not that they want to hide anything, it just hasn't been the norm. They feel they might be disadvantaged to be the first mover towards greater transparency."
He adds: "We have to persuade them it might actually be to their advantage."
Badr Jafar will contribute a regular monthly article on corporate governance starting next week exclusive to The National