The Gulf region is under pressure – both economically and politically. It isn’t hard to understand the factors that are driving this growing sense of unease, but what is infinitely more difficult is working out just how GCC economies can diversify effectively and sustainably.

The answer, I believe, is a move to technologically driven societies where intellectual capital is valued every bit as much as tangible, physical goods. And that requires two things in particular: smart, dynamic people at the top, and greater opportunity for women.

The aspirations and capabilities of women in the Middle East are changing fast. They are intellectually curious and often entrepreneurial – those things have been understood for some time – but now that they have access to education, they are ready and willing to make a real social and economic contribution, which could arrive just in time.

I have seen this first hand in my role at Brunel University. We have created a ‘PhD without residence’ in partnership with Bahrain’s Ahlia University, which allows people to undertake research and access a degree from their home country. This is a real alternative to lone, part-time PhD study, which limits access to supervision and resources, and is a key indicator of the way education is changing, both inside and outside the workplace.

Many of those who have benefited from the programme are women. Our first cohorts of female graduates are already in senior roles in government, business and the military.

Creating even greater numbers of female leaders is crucial to future economic prosperity. These women don’t need to work for men to forge opportunities – plenty are setting up their own businesses, with considerable success – but they are now enjoying greater support from many senior figures within governments, notwithstanding the odd pocket of resistance. They are transforming the healthcare sector in particular, and making an impact in countries as diverse as Kuwait and Lebanon, where the rate of progress among female executives and entrepreneurs is striking.

This is only one part of the picture, however. We need a cadre of people at the top of organisations – of both genders – who have the qualifications, intellectual capability and sheer charisma to drive real change. That’s not necessarily about creating more graduates, but it does mean having a strong and visible set of dynamic leaders, in both the private and public sectors, who set a strong example and inspire others to follow their lead.

Where, we might ask, is the Gulf Steve Jobs? It doesn’t fall on any one company or function to offer the answer, but HR has its part to play. As HR moves away from a model of manpower management, we see a dawning realisation inside organisations that people can make a real contribution to business growth. HR is developing fast – so why shouldn’t it be the function that nurtures the curious intellects we need to emerge? And who knows, perhaps it will contribute a few visionary business leaders of its own.

Zahir Irani 
Professor and chair of sustainable business operations, Brunel University, UK

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