The MBA as Arab Reformer

June 23, 2004

The MBA as Arab Reformer

As the United States is pulled deeper and deeper into the Arab world's dysfunctional morass, questions of reforming Arab culture are becoming paramount.


As the United States is pulled deeper and deeper into the Arab world's dysfunctional morass, questions of reforming Arab culture are becoming paramount.  For a unique and powerful analysis of these difficult issues, it is well worth turning to Tarek Heggy.  An businessman and prolific writer, Heggy is one of Egypt's most prominent voices for reform and modernization.  Heggy's articles appear in Egypt's leading periodicals and he has translated substantial parts of the 13 Arabic books he has authored into English where they can be read on his website - - or in his book Culture, Civilization, and Humanity (Frank Cass, London, 2003).

Heggy's writings touch on the numerous problems facing Egypt and, by extension, the Arab world.  His first works, from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, were criticisms of socialism and calls for legal and economic reform.  Since then he has discussed the failures of Egypt's education system, lack of women's rights and the need for accountable government.  He also calls on Arabs to press the Palestinians to make reasonable compromises with Israel and criticizes the "Goebbels-style media institutions" that shape public opinion in the Arab world.  Heggy harshly criticizes Wahhabism, which he calls a "bloodthirsty version of Islam" and notes that it was marginal until the combination of Saudi oil wealth and declining conditions in many Islamic societies gave the Wahhabis the opportunity to begin supplanting the moderate Islam that had prevailed throughout most of the Muslim world for centuries.


These views are all too rare in the Arab world.  But what distinguishes Heggy, who was an executive at a major international petroleum corporation for over two decades, is that he views Arab reform from the perspective of modern management - in his words "the mechanism by which an enterprise achieves its desired goals…"  In his Essays on the Values of Progress, Heggy writes, "The main problem in our lives in general and our economic life in particular is that the methods and techniques of modern management sciences and modern marketing sciences are virtually absent from government departments, the public sector, the private sector, and all the service sectors."  He describes the core values necessary for a society to progress and for a modern enterprise to succeed.  These values include effective time management, pluralism, self-criticism and teamwork.  These may sound like trite homilies to Americans - a sort of "Values of Highly Effective Nations" - but in fact Heggy is touching on something profound.

Empowered employees working in cooperative teams are the cornerstones of modern corporate success.  But in Egypt, and the rest of the Arab world, bosses in every sector of society are primarily concerned with keeping their jobs and squelching any challenges to their authority.  Consequently, bosses sow factionalism and encourage loyalty over competence among subordinates.  In this environment, initiative and innovation are discouraged and constructive criticism is taken as a personal attack.  This organizational culture is a key factor in the stagnation of Arab economies, the inefficiencies of most bureaucracies in the Arab world and even the poor military performances of Arab armies when facing Western opponents.

But there is more to these ideas than raising Egypt's moribund GDP (although after two decades of stagnation that is essential.)  The values Heggy describes as necessary for modern corporations to succeed, such as goal-oriented cooperation and individual initiative, are the same values that underpin civil society.   While Heggy is passionate about political reform, he recognizes that democratic institutions and civil society are essential to its success.  Otherwise, Arab societies will fall prey to leaders who "pay lip service to democracy" but view the "ballot box… as their passport to power."  A culture embracing the values of progress that Heggy outlines, would also be encouraging civil society and taking an important step towards democracy.

Heggy has no quick fixes to this issue.  His short-term proposal is to foster a cadre of competent management executives who can begin creating an appropriate corporate culture and, in the long-term, to engineer a massive reform of Egypt's educational system.  Unfortunately, Heggy admits that in Egypt and most of the rest of the Arab world, the authoritarian regimes block reform and social mobility, breeding incompetence and despair.

However, as the United States finds itself enmeshed in, but also with some influence over, Iraq Tarek Heggy's unique and pragmatic perspective on the intractable but unavoidable issue of cultural reform in the Arab world is worth considering.


Aaron Mannes is the author of the TerrorBlog (  His book "Profiles in Terror" is due out in September from Rowman & Littlefield - JINSA Press.