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Getting down to business with CSR in the UAE

By Katerina Nicolopoulou - Posted on 26 November 2015

Dr Katerina Nicolopoulou shares the findings of research into CSR in the UAE that she carried out with colleagues in Dubai and looks at how preconceived ideas of CSR being done in the region may be doing business a disservice.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a growing business concept throughout the world. Western countries have embraced it while CSR in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) and MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries may not yet have reached the same level of development. Existing research indicates the concept of CSR is misunderstood in this region and is mainly philanthropic in nature.

Over the past decades, the United Arab Emirates has seen remarkable developments in many areas, including business, education, construction, tourism and lifestyle. Looking at the expansive growth Abu Dhabi and Dubai in particular have experienced over recent years, it is possible that more is going on in CSR than we think. Research I conducted with PhD student Meera Al-Reyaysa and Professor Ashly Pinnington from the British University in Dubai, aims to examine the development of CSR in the UAE. In general philanthropy, one of the most-recognised types of CSR activity, has a strongly rooted presence in the country. It is linked to the Islamic religion and the giving-culture of the country and region.

However, the belief that CSR is mostly philanthropic needs further examination. The strategy of the UAE - including Vision 2021 and Expo 2020 - contains significant elements of CSR such as sustainability. The recent interviews and secondary data analysis conducted to find out more about CSR in the UAE provide plenty of evidence that it has become more strategic. Out of the organisations we studied, many have even consciously excluded counting the philanthropic side of CSR in their overall CSR strategy.

To these organisations the aim is to stimulate corporate governance, strategic alignment, cost-savings and gain competitive advantage. The majority of organisations with a strategic perspective on CSR researched in our study are headquartered in the UAE which shows that the general belief that CSR in the UAE is mainly philanthropic requires major reconsideration.

Data analysed from 30 interviews with CSR representatives from UAE based organisations showed that CSR activity in the UAE is more developed than the literature on the MENA region would lead us to believe, and this is particularly the case in the UAE.

Our study investigated developments in CSR in the UAE, especially those that reveal different levels of awareness and implementation of CSR. Analysis of the data uncovered themes relating to CSR in the UAE, including, education, leadership, CSR strategy, and industry and compliance contexts. The findings and identified themes were then compared with literature and theory on CSR in the UAE.

These comparisons revealed that CSR activity in the UAE is more developed than has been implied in the literature on the MENA region. Most studies predict that organisations in the UAE would show signs of awareness and activity in the elementary stages of CSR rather than the more sophisticated stages. However, it is evident that many of the organisations show a more sophisticated level of CSR activity, with a number of the organisations interpreted by the researchers as being at the “engaged-innovative” stages, some at the “integrated” stage and several at the “transforming” stage, implying that CSR in the UAE is developing and that philanthropic CSR is no longer sufficient for these organisations. Organisations are looking at their core business and how they operate, and then ensuring that CSR goes through the value chain. These companies are making sure that their agents, contractors and suppliers adhere to the same values, principles and practices that they themselves practice. They are seeking a CSR strategy that provides them with the strategic side of CSR, enabling them to pursue economic and social needs whilst also advancing their overall corporate and business strategy.

We found that projects and programmes have been designed by the organisations to be socio-economic and serve both the strategy and society. Overall, it is apparent that strategic and socio-economic levels of CSR exist in some organisations in the UAE. These organisations show that CSR related activity in the UAE is not just philanthropic and that CSR activities, projects and programmes in the UAE do exist across a range of dimensions, from elementary to transforming stages of development. It seems CSR is not just CSR, but a cross-cutting initiative.



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