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By managing conflicts Gulf nationals can build the civil societies they yearn for

Omar Al-Ubaydli

Published: Updated:

Economic success demands effective commercial, governmental, and civil society organizations. This requires organizations to adroitly manage the interpersonal conflicts that emerge when humans work together. Unfortunately, Gulf nationals are poor at managing interpersonal conflict, denying them the dynamic private sectors and civil societies they yearn for.

Textbooks on interpersonal conflict management contain very specific recommendations on how to resolve conflicts. These include steps that individuals should intrinsically take, as well as systems that the organizations should have in place. While every conflict is unique, people can definitely upgrade their conflict management skills, leading to considerable improvements in quality of life and organizational performance.

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Sadly, many of the aforementioned recommendations are absent in the Gulf. Instead, these nationals rely on primitive and ineffectual methods for dealing with conflicts. This partially accounts for the persistent weaknesses in the Gulf private and civil society sectors, and for the dysfunction that many governmental entities suffer from.

To illustrate, suppose a worker is unhappy with the way their colleague (not a superior or subordinate – someone at the same level) talks to them. The textbooks make several recommendations. First, the company has policies that ensure that all employees have to be treated with respect, and has systems in place for allowing an employee to complain about a colleague’s behavior without fear of retribution.

Second, the employee will be culturally primed to perceive interpersonal problems as being resolvable in a win-win manner, usually because they are caused by a misunderstanding.

Therefore, the employee will feel comfortable raising the matter with their colleague, who will in turn feel comfortable listening. Each will discuss the matter openly, and if it turns out the one or both was in the wrong, they should apologize earnestly, and resolve to avoid repeating any misdeeds. The desire to resolve problems amicably is reinforced by the organization’s policies, and by the legal system in general, both of which help to protect wronged parties.

In the Gulf, such a scenario would unfold in a very different way. First, the organization will probably lack any policies regarding the matter, and the legal system will be too slow, expensive, and unpredictable to be a positive factor. That means that the two workers will have to resolve the conflict entirely interpersonally, which immediately plays in favor of a party who is looking to be obstinate.

Saudi office workers monitor the stock market at a bank in Riyadh. (File photo: Reuters)
Saudi office workers monitor the stock market at a bank in Riyadh. (File photo: Reuters)

Second, the employees will be culturally primed to perceive the problem as win-lose: either one party can’t talk the way they are comfortable talking, or one has to endure being spoken to in a manner that makes them feel uncomfortable. This makes both parties reluctant to broach the issue, because they fear it will lead to an escalation.

Instead, the party who feels least comfortable with the status quo will simply avoid the other party to the greatest extent possible, possibly disrupting the production chain. Alternatively, they may seek the intervention of a powerful intermediary; but rather than that intermediary overseeing a three-way dialogue that can help resolve the issue, the intermediary will hear from each party alone, and then decide unilaterally who is right and pressure them to change their behavior.

Due to the lack of transparency, this frequently results in at least one party feeling misunderstood and wronged, and persistent feeling of injustice undermine organizational performance. Moreover, whoever is deemed to be in the wrong will almost certainly not apologize, because apologies are culturally perceived to indicate weakness rather than contrition.

If an intermediary doesn’t get involved, then one of two things will likely occur. The first is that the uncomfortable party will start looking for a new job rather than addressing this problem head on. Employee turnover is naturally very disruptive, especially if it is motivated by something like an interpersonal conflict.

The second is that the two parties will eventually be forced to sit down together due to an event such as giving condolences during a family death, or giving blessings during a religious festival. Alternatively, on the eve of a pilgrimage, one party will issue a general “please forgive me for any errors that I have made,” without actually acknowledging or apologizing for any individual error. At that point, the wronged party may “reset,” but the feeling of injustice will linger, and the problem will remain unresolved.

While organizations in western countries don’t always get it right, and their conflict management is far from perfect, they do a lot better at these sorts of things than their Gulf counterparts, and that’s an important contributor to their superior performance.
Legal and organizational reforms help, but given how important cultural attitudes are to conflict management, a key step is to teach Gulf children the right methods from a young age via the education system.

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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.