x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Right and wrong or honour and shame in Middle East society?

The Life: Prince Al Waleed bin Talal's case in the UK courts leaves us questioning who is right and the perspectives of truth and tactics.

I have been following the news about Prince Al Waleed bin Talal's case in the UK courts with interest.

The Saudi prince was sued by a businesswoman who claims he failed to pay her US$10 million commission for her role in brokering the $120m sale of one of his private jets to Muammar Qaddafi, the former Libyan leader. Prince Al Waleed contends that any commission was to be paid at his discretion.

It's a fascinating case that leaves me questioning who is right.

I am not that concerned about the prince's guilt or innocence or whether he should pay the commission or not. Instead, what intrigues me is the perspectives of truth and tactics, something that should be of interest to every one of us as it raises a critical leadership insight.

The claimant's attorney told the High Court in London that the prince actually paid $95m for the plane that he later sold to Qaddafi. He then pointed out to the court that the prince "lied about the original cost of the aircraft" which he represented to Qaddafi as $135m. The attorney added that "it is corrupt to say to a buyer you paid $135m for an airplane when you paid $95m".

To this the prince said the Qaddafi letter was a "tactic used with the Libyans". He continued telling the court: "You might call it a lie, I call it a tactic." His claim is that dealing with the Libyans was not straightforward.

The trial judge hearing the case told the prince that his letter detailing the price of the plane was "untrue". This brings us to the crux of the leadership challenge: who is right when it comes to conflicting perspectives? Is this ethics or tactics?

The West (where most modern management practices are from) predominantly operates from the basis of "guilt and innocence". In other words, something is either right or wrong. Just consider the fact that most western films are built upon the good guys and the bad guys.

Guilt and innocence is such an integral part of western society, that they often cannot imagine a world where right versus wrong isn't the accepted basic underlying principle. It is the yardstick to measure everything else with. They talk about the rightness and wrongness of someone else's actions. They are obsessed with knowing their rights and exercising them. Almost every major issue the West struggles with involves an aspect of deciding whether something is right or wrong.

However, not everyone in the world operates within this paradigm. Arabs and Arab society operate from another dimension - honour and shame. The underlying principle is that there is an honourable and dishonourable way of doing things.

The secret isn't to act rightly or wrongly; in the culture of the Middle East there are hundreds of nuances that communicate messages about shame and honour.

In an Arab society, wherever you go you represent your family and tribe (or loyalties). So you are not free to act as you may because if you act shamefully, then the family or tribe is affected.

You can think of guilt as being more about your personal feelings whereas shame is about the impact on the group. So in an honour and shame culture you must always act honourably so that the honour of your family or group is upheld.

The concept of honour and shame can be traced back to the early Bedouin code of practice, which existed even before Islam arrived. This code is still very much in existence today and it affects not only the way individuals act, but also the actions of entire nations.

So who was right?

While both sides in the UK case have valid points in their own right and context, when it comes to leading in the Middle East, we have to adapt from the guilt and innocence perspective as articulated by the court and lead using honour and shame given the culture we are in.


Tommy Weir is an authority on fast-growth and emerging-market leadership, an adviser and the author of The CEO Shift. He is the founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center