The gathering pace of change in the region represents ample opportunities for well-equipped business grads to thrive. And, at SOAS University of London, faculty are aiming to provide.
The school, famed for its progressive approach and global curricula, offers a number of Masters in International Management, each specializing in a different region of the world: China, Japan, and the Middle East and North Africa.
Sahar Taghdisi Rad is the co-convenor of the latter program, and she says that it offers students both from the MENA region and elsewhere a key understanding of the economic trends and cultural practices shaping business there today.
“Our idea is not only to provide an understanding of business or management dynamics in the region,” Sahar explains, “but also to equip students with the right knowledge and tools to distinguish differences within the region as well.”
One idea that Sahar is keen to dispel on the program is that trends can be generalized across the whole of the Middle East and North African area. This, she says, simply isn’t possible.
“[Students think] that they can come in and take the perspectives and frames of analysis they have and apply them to the region as a whole; that’s what we see in the first few weeks and months,” she observes.
But in order to find business success abroad, and particularly in order to run a business that is sensitive to and responsible about its cultural setting, a finer point of knowledge is required, and faculty work to instil this in students from the very first day.
“We break down the region into groupings, for example depending on whether they’re an oil exporter or importer, a labour exporter or importer, and so on,” says Sahar.
“This is so the students understand that it won’t be useful for them to just have a generic perspective.”
Indeed, this nuanced and multi-disciplinary approach is in-built into the curriculum, not only in more obviously-tailored courses like Islamic banking and finance, but also more general modules, such as corporate governance and cross-cultural management.
The result is a cohort who are aware of the challenges of conducting business in the MENA region, but who are also equipped to tackle them.
“Once they see how we combine political economics with economics and management, they then realize that all those elements and disciplines are necessary for them to develop an understanding of international management,” says Sahar.
“What they really enjoy is that their thinking completely changes by the time they’ve been on the course for a few weeks, because they’re able to question their own pre-existing assumptions—that’s one of the key things that they take forward from this course.”
As well as the ability to think critically about complex matters, students at SOAS University of London also learn from a diverse range of thinkers, which is key, Sahar says, to understanding the region in depth.
“Not only do we look at writings by English-speaking authors, but we also include a large number of analyses which have been done by economists and analysts from the region itself,” she points out.
“We try to give them that perspective, from both sides—but also, again, to challenge them to develop their country-specific understanding, because that’s really where they can get the most out of the course.”
Lots of the students, Sahar notes, have already pinpointed the country in which they would like to work post-graduation, so this specialized approach is ideal for helping them build their careers as responsible business leaders around the world.
Seizing regional opportunities
Such a specialized introduction to the MENA region means that students are able to identify the broader business challenges they will be working within, as well as the opportunities that these upheavals could represent for their individual careers.
“One of the major challenges in the region is to diversify economic structures, because this is a region with a huge amount of dependence on certain sources of income, like oil,” Sahar explains.
“This is related very importantly to two issues: one is the increasing need for private-sector economic activity, and the second is employment generation.”
When combined with the various political challenges presented by the region’s recent contemporary history, this might seem like an obstacle to some businesspeople. However, Sahar emphasizes that there are huge opportunities in wait for students like hers at SOAS University of London, whether entrepreneurial or corporate-minded, who have the knowledge and the ambition to make things happen.
“Because diversification has lagged behind in the region generally, that provides a fantastic opportunity for enterprises who have expertise in a particular area to go into the region,” Sahar explains.
“The private sector then becomes the engine for diversification—it’s the right region of the world [to do business in] from that perspective.”