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CSR in the Middle East: Reality and Challenges by Lama Diab

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is becoming more fully integrated into the company’s core business strategy. CSR moved beyond philanthropy. It is identified as activity benefiting its shareholders. Industries, that are dependent on the exploitation of natural resources, such as chemical, mining and crude oil production, gas and electric industries, have identified environmental responsibility as their primary CSR focus.

In the Middle East, we can find companies that are still perceiving CSR as philanthropy and have not yet passed it to a “core business strategy “. Is it because of the cultural and religious belief, that we should give to the poor (Zakat or charity), so they consider it as their CSR? Should it be obligatory so that companies will start thinking about CSR more strategically?

Over the past few years, the interest has literally exploded in regional media and business community with a lot of foreign companies working in the field, companies hiring CSR specialists and setting up CSR departments. The focus is also getting more strategic and more diversified. We still see a lot of community initiatives but companies have started experimenting with other avenues and the focus on other aspects of CSR has heightened, as said by Dr. Fatih Mehmet Gul.

A survey “What Do Middle Eastern Leaders Think about CSR”, conducted by Sustainability Advisory Group (SAG) in 2009, revealed that the majority of leaders in the Middle East (106 respondents ranging from UAE, KSA, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Jordan and Qatar) work in CSR/Sustainability (22%). CSR becomes an essential part of regional business activity, but we can’t deny that there is a difference between Arab countries in applying and practicing CSR.

In Oman and Dubai, over the past couple of years, there have been various meaningful initiatives. Companies in these countries are taking CSR and sustainability very seriously and they are showing an increasing commitment to CSR. Other countries like Lebanon, when it comes to CSR and sustainability, have largely focused purely on PR activities masked as CSR.

What are the main challenges in the region?

In an article called “CSR in the Arab World: A Mission Impossible?” written by Kjetil Selvik, the main challenges of CSR in the Arab countries are displayed. It is hard to spot the difference between CSR and Zakat in practice. Moreover, in Arab countries, CSR is often reduced to some donations like money or food, or planting trees in public parks. Measures like these do not satisfy the ambitions of CSR promoters, who would like to see systematic changes in how companies are operating. Does this mean that CSR won’t have a development impact in the Arab World?

One of the main challenges is that CSR is associated with profit logic. The Zakat model differs fundamentally in its incentive for acts of social responsibility. This is something that the individual is supposed to do for God. On another hand CSR is promoted as a business tool to improve the company’s reputation, and companies frequently share successful CSR stories with the media and the public. The normative difference between CSR and Zakat complicates the entrance of CSR into the Arab World. The CSR model introduces an instrumental framework that collides with local sensitivities. This is a potential problem of which organizations and businesses trying to introduce CSR in Arab countries should take note, says Selvik.

In conclusion, companies in the Middle East are realizing the importance in adopting a CSR strategy and what it can bring for them as a benefit on their triple bottom line. They are trying to go beyond a simple donation or planting trees. Moreover, they are starting to measure their KPIs and to write sustainable reports. It is true that companies in the Middle East still have a long road for sustainability, but it is good that there is a will, and when there is a will there is a way!


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