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The Gulf is swamped with lazy project managers: It's time for a change

Omar Al-Ubaydli

Published: Updated:

Among their citizens’ talent pool, the Gulf countries are awash with project managers with huge egos, while lacking productive specialists, such as data scientists and sales managers. Realizing their economic visions, these countries need to downsize their army of project managers and to nudge their citizens into investing in tangible skills.

Twenty-first century work teams are diverse and maximizing their productivity requires good administration. That job belongs to the project manager, who is good at communicating, problem-solving, accounts, and so on. All successful organizations have several project managers among their ranks.

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In fact, successful project management is a common upward career path for these professionals to hold senior positions. In the public sector, ministers are often people who have exhibited their managerial acumen by effectively overseeing projects as mid-level civil servants. However, there are two important qualifiers.

First, project managers usually possess a core discipline, such as engineering or computer programming, which they initially practice. They acquire their managerial skills organically and through dedicated learning. As project managers, they continue deploying these core technical skills by being more involved in that part of team production.

Second, good project managers appreciate their team. While putting the ducks in a row is an important skill, it is a useless one if there are no ducks. Consequently, successful project managers nurture talent and laud team members in front of senior management, to ensure that workers remain motivated.

Among Gulf nationals, however, project managers are often cut from a different cloth to their Western brethren, resulting in an abundance of deluded and toxic team leaders.

Man typing on a laptop keyboard browses the web. (File image: Unsplash)
Man typing on a laptop keyboard browses the web. (File image: Unsplash)

First, rather than having a fundamental skill to which they append management, Gulf project managers often enter the labor force as project managers, meaning that the team cannot benefit from the insights that experience as a specialist yields. Thus, Gulf project managers are acutely reliant on their teams.

Second, rather than acknowledging this reliance, Gulf project managers are often highly arrogant. They misguidedly view the team’s members as generic and easily replaceable cogs, while with great delusion view themselves as the lynchpin.

Gulf project managers are sometimes distinguished by their aptitude in seizing maximal credit for a successful project, while burying the genuine contribution made by their teammates.

When oil prices are high, the economy can afford this unproductive class of project manager, but in the age of economic visions, they are a burden that must be confronted. They have long thrived in the Gulf for two reasons.

First, for citizens, the public sector has historically dominated employment, and measuring productivity in government work is notoriously difficult. There are usually no sales or profits to assess a team’s contribution. This allows project managers to distort performance metrics in their favor, and to conceal the contributions of their talented colleagues.

Second, there has been an abundance of migrant workers who have limited exit options in their jobs compared to citizens. This allows nefarious project managers to squeeze extra work out of the expatriate specialists they oversee, while simultaneously downplaying their contribution, aided by the expatriates’ inability to communicate in Arabic.

Together, these factors have made project management extra enticing in the Gulf compared to Western countries. Rather than taking the hard, but sound route of acquiring a tangible skill and then evolving into a project manager, many citizens prefer the easier route of directly becoming project managers. They eschew investment in cutting-edge knowledge, preferring to perfect the dark art of cozying up to higher ups and exaggeratedly marketing one’s success.

Naturally, not all project managers are alike, and the Gulf has many genuine talents. But the frauds are abound, and are generally unable to perform even the most elementary tasks, such as scribing a report or writing a line of computer code.

This problem is fixing itself automatically since public sector employment opportunities are shrinking, and migrant workers are playing a smaller role in the economy. Moreover, the COVID-19 crisis will have exposed the incompetence of some of the fraudulent project managers who have previously gamed the system. However, the Gulf governments should accelerate the process by encouraging investment in valuable skills, and by ending the era of the talentless credit-seizing project manager.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.