x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Something is wrong when skin colour is the first criterion

Examples suggest people in the corporate world in the Middle East are are treated according to their skin colour

Tim is a business consultant based in Dubai with clients from all over the Middle East, mostly from locally owned companies in different countries. He is more than two metres tall, blond and blue-eyed, and has a very friendly face.

As soon as he meets someone, he introduces himself and immediately dives into a rapport-building conversation. When I met him, he chuckled at my shocked look when he switched from speaking English to flawless, Egyptian-accented Arabic.

In some astonishment, I asked how he had managed to master the language and the accent so well. He told me that his mother is an Egyptian who married a British man, and that his family had lived in Egypt since his birth.

He winked when he told me that he never discloses his ability to speak Arabic to his clients, who value advice more from a blond, blue-eyed man of apparent western descent. But he said that he is an Egyptian at heart, married to an Egyptian woman and simply finds it amusing how clients favour him over his non-western peers.

The casual manner in which he raised these issues of racial bias and favouritism convinced that he is an Arab at heart - we are, usually, quite politically incorrect.

Or take Nadine, a human-resources trainer who acquired her certification from a leading training consultancy. Her mastery of English is superb and her delivery of her subject matter is fun, interactive and contemporary.

In one recent contract that she took, Nadine delivered a series of courses for staff of a multinational corporation that operates in the region. Employees flew in from around the region to attend her first class. And as she wrapped up that class and started preparing for the second session, she reviewed the feedback forms from the people who had attended. Most were very positive, but she noted a remark from one employee about how good the trainer was, "but it would have been better to have a western trainer to bring in best practices from the advanced world".

It was hardly an isolated incident. Nadine tells me that the management of the multinational had been struggling as it shifted from western to local trainers because of the belief held by many employees that westerners conducted superior sessions.

For an issue that affects her livelihood, Nadine was able to tell me this story in a very light-hearted way. She told me how she was tempted to wear blue contact lenses and a blond wig, just for fun. I have to admit that it would be an interesting social experiment.

Outside of work, these biases are also obvious to see. At a friend's birthday party, I overheard a friend's mother, Salwa, engaged in a conversation with another woman about a potential wife for the woman's son. As Salwa explained in detail the qualities of the young woman, she qualified the referral by "admitting" that the woman smokes shisha.

The other woman raises her eyebrows in slight disapproval, but Salwa had a trump card at hand: the girl is blond with blue-eyes. You can imagine how quickly the other woman started taking down the details of the potential bride-to-be.

This infatuation with "white" in Arab societies is prevalent and, given my own dark brown eyes and olive complexion, it is also very personal. snatched up like valuable prizes, I think something has to be done.

Perhaps pay-equity measures need to be enforced in companies? Or maybe incentives should be given a bride with a dark complexion? Admittedly, the joke wears a little thin given the reality.

Change needs to come from within, a holistic transformation of the way people think and view the world, often through their own brown eyes.


Rana Askoul is a Dubai-based writer and leadership development consultant with a focus on Middle East issues

Online: www.ranaaskoul.com