Winning: The Elephant In The Room


March 3, 2017: As Arab nations, especially the oil-rich ones in Arabia, develop closer ties with Israel (mainly for protection from Iranian threats) it has become possible for Arab journalists and officials to openly (in the media) discuss Israel and why it is a good idea for the Arab states, who have been in a state of war with Israel since the late 1940s, to now openly treat Israel as an ally. The main reason is obvious; Israel is the military superpower in the region, despite containing only two percent of the people in the Middle East. Arabs don’t like dwell on that in public, but thanks to the Internet anyone curious about Israeli military capabilities can find out in private. What Arabs can discuss openly is the Israeli achievements in science and technology. It is no secret that Moslems, despite having a population 85 times larger than Jews, win one Nobel prize for every 33 awarded to Jews. Arab journalists place less emphasis on that and more on the fact that tiny Israel is one of the top creators of new inventions worldwide. Arabs attribute this to more effective educational institutions and policies. Arabs can now admit that their government have not been as pro-science/technology as the Israelis in particular and Jews in general. Some Arab leaders attribute the disparity to Arab engineers and scientists being lured to the West by better pay and fewer restrictions but the basic problem is there are more opportunities for engineers and scientists in the non-Moslem world.

What is still avoided is a public discussion of the cultural crisis in the Arab world in particular and the Moslem world in general. The crisis is expressed by an abundance of corruption and a lack of economic, educational, and political performance. By whatever measure you wish to use, Nobel prizes, literacy rates, patents awarded, books published or translated, GDP growth, the Arabs have fallen behind the rest of the world. Part of the problem is the Arab tendency to blame outsiders and to avoid taking responsibility. Tolerating tyranny and resistance to change doesn't help either. Those attitudes are shifting.

The exact nature of this lethal cultural miasma can best be described by enumerating the major components. Let’s start with the fact that most Arab countries are a patchwork of different tribes and groups, and Arab leaders survive by playing one group off against another. Loyalty is to one's group, not the nation. Most countries are dominated by a single group that is usually a minority (Bedouins in Jordan, Alawites in Syria, Sunnis in Iraq, Nejdis in Saudi Arabia). All of which means that leadership jobs are assigned not by merit but by loyalty and tribal affiliation.

Islamic schools favor rote memorization, especially of scripture. Most Islamic scholars are hostile to the concept of interpreting the Koran (considered the word of God as given to His prophet Mohammed). This has resulted in looking down on Westerners who will look something up that they don't know. Arabs prefer to fake it and pretend it's all in their head. Improvisation and innovation is generally discouraged. Arab government organizations go by the book while Westerners are more likely to rewrite the book and thus be much more effective. Despite years of Western advice on this matter, many Arab officials stick with the old, less effective, traditions.

There is little middle management (like NCOs in the military). The “ruling class” (owners, officers, or officials) and everyone else are treated like two different social castes and there is no effort to bridge the gap using what the West calls middle management. “The people” are treated harshly. Work accidents that would end the careers of Western managers, officers, or officials are ignored in the Arab world and nobody cares. This is slowly changing, with the steady growth of a proper NCO corps and middle management, plus better management attitudes towards their subordinates. But the old ways often return, with disastrous effects on the morale and effectiveness of the average Arab.

Not surprisingly, in Arab cultures the ruling class is despised by their subordinates, and this does not bother the leaders much at all. Many Arab leaders simply cannot understand how treating the subordinates (unless they are family) decently will have any benefit. This is another old tradition that dies hard.

Paranoia prevents adequate training. This is made worse by the habit of Arab tyrants insisting that their subordinate organizations have little contact with each other, thus insuring that no subordinate leader can became powerful enough to overthrow the top guy. Subordinate organizations are purposely kept from working together or communicating on a large scale. Arab subordinate leaders don't have as broad a knowledge of what their subordinate leaders do, as is the case with their Western counterparts. Promotions are based more on political reliability than proficiency and efficiency. Arab leaders prefer to be feared, rather than respected, by their subordinates. This approach leads to poorly trained populations and low morale. A few rousing speeches about "Moslem brotherhood" before a national emergency boils over does little to repair the damage. Many, if not most, Arab leaders now know that the paranoia and parochialism are bad but ancient traditions are hard to abandon.

Arab leaders often do not trust each other. While an American manager or officer can be reasonably confident that the others they work with will be competent and reliable, Arabs in similar situations seriously doubt that their peers will do their job on time or accurately. This is an inefficient and sometimes fatal attitude. It's been difficult getting Arab leaders to change when it comes to trust.

Arab leaders consider it acceptable to lie to subordinates and allies in order to further their personal agenda. This had catastrophic consequences throughout Arab history and continues to make progress difficult. When called out on this behavior, Arabs will assert that they were "misunderstood." This is still going on.

While Western American middle managers (and Westerners in general) are only too happy to impart their wisdom and skills to others (teaching is the ultimate expression of prestige), Arabs try to keep any technical information and manuals secret. To Arabs, the value and prestige of an individual is based not on what he can teach but on what he knows that no one else knows. This destructive habit is still around, despite years of American advisors patiently explaining why this is counterproductive.

While Westerners thrive on competition among themselves, Arab leaders avoid this as the loser would be humiliated. Better for everyone to fail together than for competition to be allowed, even if it eventually benefits everyone. This attitude is still a factor in the Arab world.

Westerners are taught leadership and technology; Arabs are taught only technology. Leadership is given little attention as Arab leaders are assumed to know this by virtue of their social status as appointed leaders. The new generation of Arab leaders have been taught leadership, but for too many of them, this is an alien concept that they do not understand or really know what to do with.

Initiative is considered a dangerous trait in the Arab world. So subordinates prefer to fail rather than make an independent decision. Large scale enterprises are micromanaged by senior leaders, who prefer to suffer defeat rather than lose control of their subordinates. Even worse, an Arab manager will not tell a Western counterpart why he cannot make the decision (or even that he cannot make it), leaving Western managers angry and frustrated because the Arabs won't make a decision. The Arab leaders simply will not admit that they do not have that authority. The new generation of Arab managers have been sent to Western management schools, but there's still not a lot of enthusiasm for initiative (which is seen as a decadent and dangerous Western import).

Lack of initiative makes it difficult for Arabs to maintain modern equipment. Complex modern devices require on the spot maintenance, and that means delegating authority, information, and tools. Arab cultures avoid doing this and prefer to use easier to control central repair shops. This makes the timely maintenance of equipment difficult. Entrepreneurs, often non-Arab Moslems, often handle a lot of the maintenance. This is still a problem throughout the Middle East, where the oil rich nations have most of their non-government operations staffed by foreigners.

Security is maniacal. Everything even vaguely military or government related is top secret. While Western military and corporation promotion lists are routinely published, this rarely happens in Arab organizations. Officers and managers are suddenly transferred without warning to keep them from forging alliances or networks. Any team spirit among officials is discouraged.

All these traits were reinforced, from the 1950s to the 1990s, by Soviet advisors and admiration for the “success” of Soviet socialism and management practices. To the Russians, anything government related was secret, subordinates were scum, there was no functional middle management system, and everyone was paranoid about everyone else. These were not "communist" traits but Russian customs that had existed for centuries and were adopted by the communists to make their dictatorship more secure from rebellion. Arab dictators avidly accepted this kind of advice but are still concerned about how rapidly the communist dictatorships all came tumbling down between 1989 and 1991. The Russian influence is still fondly remembered, because the Russians had developed some highly effective police state methods. This made it easier for the police and military to control a country, even if despicable methods were used. While these Russian techniques can work to hunt down terrorists in a police state, it doesn't work in any other useful endeavors and that’s the main reason the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.




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