Focus on Qatar

Western principles of leadership are valued and in demand, but Westerners should be careful not to be perceived as dominating the classroom.

Given the culture of growing global competition, businesses are developing executives based on talent, creating opportunities for nationals to excel—regardless of gender. In developing nations, ex-pats often are called upon to develop talent and anticipate the needs for the next generation of leadership demands.

Qatar is an excellent example of a national initiative with global impact: The Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development was established in 1995 by Qatar’s royal family, and proposes a shift in the state economy from oil to knowledge-based enterprises by supporting education at all levels.

As part of this initiative, HEC Paris (École des Hautes Études Commerciales de Paris), a business school for leadership education, introduced the region’s first Executive MBA Program. My work is the leadership development component of the program’s degreed curriculum.


The essential goal of any training session is to establish a safe learning partnership. Students and faculty should all feel comfortable expressing themselves and sharing ideas as peers. This requires making the content relevant to the lives and careers of everyone in the room, while still observing local societal and religious customs. Balancing the art of being the leadership expert with that of being a faculty peer is vital to establishing a mutually beneficial learning environment.

Qatar is home to some of the most diverse classrooms in the world. While this degree of diversity adds complexity to the work, it is also an opportunity to enrich the learning partnership by allowing the class participants to mediate cultural differences.The classroom then becomes a learning lab in itself, enhancing our ability to educate and develop personnel who drive the organizational strategy by being interpersonally effective in their roles.


Always understand and respect the values of the region to ensure content is congruent with its values and culture. Western examples that violate Islamic prohibitions (those associated with co-ed socializing, alcohol consumption, etc.) will diminish effectiveness and possibly offend your clients.

Further, teaming may not come as easily as it does in North America. Many Qatari and other Middle Eastern nationals are not accustomed to challenging instructors or addressing Socratic questions. If carefully organized, small groups prove effective by offering a more comfortable environment in which to share opinions. Given the way in which age interacts with gender for authority, it is also advisable to allow time for private consultation with female students who might feel restrained by the group’s dynamics (note that despite common misconceptions, women in Qatar are widely respected). This is often the case with older students, as well.

Western principles of leadership are valued and in demand, but Westerners should be careful not to be perceived as dominating the classroom. As Western educators, remember to use care when offering corrective statements or one-on-one feedback, for maintaining dignity is an important cultural element to be preserved.

Open dialogue is the goal. The ideal learning engagement should be shared between learners and faculty. Once it is clear that cultural differences and boundaries will be respected, training becomes a lively and mutually rewarding experience.


  • Respectfully manage breaks to coincide with prayer time.
  • Post the location for male and female prayer rooms.
  • Do not rush meals—including coffee and tea breaks— as food is key to comfort. It is not customary to eat and run; conversation is part of good manners.
  • Asking about life events is fine, but personal questions about family are not seen as appropriate. In the U.S., it shows interest, but here, it is seen as invasive.
  • Many men observe their faith in orthodox ways and, thus, hand-shaking is not permitted with women. It, therefore, is best to allow hand-shaking to be initiated by the participant.
  • English is strong in the region, but Western colloquialisms are not easily understood.
  • Be sure videos and training cartoons are culturally sensitive.
  • Women need to sign a consent form for video recording. Their faces are not to be photographed.
  • Provide opportunities for women in the class to consult with you privately as needed.

Lily Kelly-Radford, Ph.D., is a psychologist, executive coach, and leadership development consultant. She is a partner in Executive Development Group.