Coaching in the Middle East is growing in both scale and quality and its key base is in the United Arab Emirates. Paul Cochrane reports from Beirut
The professional coaching sector is booming in the Middle East. Over the past decade the region has become increasingly interconnected in the global business system, and has adopted international standards. This has driven the need for professional coaching and training. But with coaching modelled on US and European norms, there is a need for greater localisation, while more accreditation is necessary to develop further confidence in the fledgling sector.
Professional coaching started to take off in the Middle East following the global financial crisis of 2008. Demand was driven by multinational corporations (MNCs) based in the Gulf region, particularly in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a popular location for coaching organisations wanting to cover the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) markets.
“When I arrived in 2009, I told people I was a professional executive coach and was asked: ‘What is that?’ There were only five credentialed coaches in the UAE listed on the International Coach Federation (ICF) website. Today there are hundreds of coaches, so the sector is definitely growing,” says Annette Kirby of Executive Coaching Connections; she is a Danish leadership coach in Abu Dhabi, with an ICF Professional Certified Coach (PCC) qualification.
The UAE’s most populous emirate, Dubai, is a good location for coaches, given that it is a key business hub for major companies operating in MENA. Coaching specialists estimate that there are around 1,000 coaches in the MENA region with varying qualifications, while there are only a few hundred Gulf-based members of the main coaching bodies, such as the European Mentoring & Coaching Council (EMCC), the ICF and the International Association of Coaching (IAC), according to Nigel Cumberland, an executive coach and leadership facilitator in Dubai, with an EMCC Accredited Coach–Senior Practitioner level qualification, among others.
“I would say the amount of coaching is what you might see in the UK per capita, as a large majority of coaches live here in Dubai. There are smaller groupings in Abu Dhabi, Doha [Qatar] and a smattering in Muscat [Oman], Riyadh and Jeddah [Saudi Arabia], and the Levant,” says Cumberland.
Dubai’s location as a business and tourism hub has enabled coaches to cover more than the Middle East. “Most of my coaching is now through the web – video coaching – but I like to encourage people to meet in person. Luckily, because of Dubai’s popularity, we can do that, with people flying in from, say, Islamabad [Pakistan] or Kabul [Afghanistan],” he adds.
While there is demand for coaching from numerous sectors, and for different purposes, the leading certified coaches are involved with MNCs and the Gulf’s sizeable state and state-linked companies.
“A large number of us are helping organisations and governments to coach either leaders, managers or aspiring talent, which often means locals – Emiratis, Saudis or Qataris. So we call ourselves leadership coaches, or maybe business coaches, used interchangeably,” says Cumberland.
Keep it local
Across the Gulf, governments have set targets to bolster the participation of locals in the workplace, known as nationalisation programmes – Saudisation, Emiratisation, Qatarisation and so on. Governments are particularly keen to have local nationals – a small minority of the population in ex-pat hubs the UAE and Qatar – in managerial and leadership positions, providing funding for study abroad at leading universities and business schools. But academic experience requires additional support once in the workplace, which is where leadership and executive coaching comes in.
“The region is realising the importance of coaching, which as a culture started with the MNCs, as well as large local companies and organisations since they didn’t trust local providers,” says Rawan Albina, a Lebanese coach based in Dubai, with a ICF-PCC qualification.
Until recently, coaches and leadership development experts would be brought in from outside the region, but organisations soon got wise to the higher costs. “It got to the point where they realised they were paying an arm and a leg for people that didn’t know the region or how people think. So [international] coaching firms would look for local talent instead. For me, this was the big wake-up call for regional coaching,” adds Albina.
Locally based coaches have the advantage of knowing the culture and society, as well as the particularities of the Gulf, such as the high proportion of foreign workers. “Multiculturalism is unique here as you can have 12 nationalities in a [business] team. And within the past couple of years there’s been more requests for coaching of multicultural and multidisciplinary teams,” explains Executive Coaching Connections’ Kirby.
“The cultural component of coaching is very important, to know what you can and can’t do, those unwritten codes of behaviour in the workplace, which is not something you can understand unless you live here for years,” she adds.
Another difference in Middle Eastern coaching compared to the West is the blending of coaching and mentoring, attributed to a general lack of knowledge about what coaching is. “What’s interesting is people’s understanding of coaching, confusing mentoring and advising. When I coach I’m often looked to for advice. That is entering mentoring territory, and I happen to think a lot of coaching is a combination, as in this part of the world people are keen to explore coaching as personal exploration, but also can’t help asking: ‘What would you do?’ ” says Cumberland.
Not being able to speak Arabic is not a major obstacle to being a coach in the region, with middle and upper management usually fluent in English. Albina said that around 30 per cent of her coaching is in Arabic, and 10 per cent in French. “Most clients have very good English. However, Arabic is important, and being a woman also, as it works well with Gulf women, since they prefer to be coached by a woman,” she says.
Nationalisation of the workforce is likely to trigger more demand for Arab coaches. “The more nationalisation increases, there will be more leaders getting to the top who are local, so there will be more need for Arabic speaking coaches,” adds Albina.
However, there is not as much interest in the profession from Arabic speakers in the Gulf, particularly men. “Coaching is labelled as a woman’s vocation. In every workshop I attend related to pure coaching skills, it is always 80 per cent women and 20 per cent men, and the men tend to be Western. It is still such a new industry that there needs to be a mindset shift,” says Albina.
Lebanese coaches have a particular advantage over their English-speaking peers, as they are typically fluent in Arabic, French and English, and as a result able to cater to the whole region, including the French-speaking parts – Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Lebanon.
“It is a strength of Lebanese coaches, and something you can’t really find in the Gulf. It is also what makes Lebanese coaches a bit different. For instance, a trend now is for NGOs [non-governmental organisations] in Lebanon to use coaches for capacity development projects, such as for people in stress, or to coach farmers, so Arabic is an important bonus,” says Nada Jreissati Daher, founder of coaching firm PragmaDoms and a master certified coach trainer in Beirut.
Thwarting the development of Arabic language coaching is the lack of translated material: “There is a need for courses in Arabic as values are really different, while in business there is a different culture, especially as most are family-run. The problem is that coaching was really tailored to Western societies, so we try to adapt as much as we can, although with an accredited programme there is a limit to what you can do,” she adds.
Driving the popularity of coaching as a profession is the potential income. In the UAE, professional coaching remuneration can be anywhere from US$500 to US$700 per hour, whereas in Lebanon, executive coaching starts at US$250, up to US$600 per hour, depending on length of engagement.
But the profession’s popularity has led to a large number of unaccredited coaches with minimal experience offering their services. This has undermined trust in the sector at the very time local firms and accredited professionals are trying to get the advantages of coaching better known in the marketplace, as well as to better compete with international coaching firms.
In Lebanon, this unwelcome situation has prompted Daher to set up a coaching syndicate to improve standards in the sector.
Over in the Gulf, it is a similar story, despite the presence of local chapters of international bodies such as the ICF: “People want to get into the coaching market and to make good money from the beginning. It’s a very opportunistic market as it is not mature and companies don’t know what to look for in experienced coaches,” says Kirby.
Albina thinks governments in the Middle East need to recognise the profession before any regional coaching bodies or regulators can be established.
“At a very simple level it would be great if governments considered coaching as a vocation. When I applied for my licence [in the UAE], coaching was not listed. It is not in the vocabulary, although you find training and development, and consulting,” she concludes.