Executive Coaching in the Gulf – A Cultural Snapshot


Executive coaching has swept through the business world in the last couple of decades as one of the most powerful and empowering leadership development tools. A 2011 CIPD report, for example, showed 77% of UK organisations use coaching in some form or another, with 84% of these reporting increased usage since the last extensive CIPD survey in 2009. And now it’s becoming widespread in the Middle East too. Kuwait has just held its second annual coaching conference, while most training institutions around the Gulf have introduced coaching as part of their standard offer. But with its origins commonly placed in the US, how does such coaching stand in this very different cultural arena? Let’s take a quick look at the cultural background to examine the nature of executive coaching in this part of the world.

Before we do this, there are any number of caveats we could mention, but perhaps the primary one to note is that, to date, most executive coaching has been done by Westerners in English (either locally or remotely), with comparatively few Arabic speaking coaches. This will undoubtedly change as more experienced coaches are attracted to the role locally, with the region reflecting the worldwide trend towards increasing professionalism and accreditation. Furthermore, coaching in the Gulf has yet to attract significant levels of academic research, and so we should be even more cautious than usual about any conclusions we draw.

So let’s get our definitions straight first. Most of us would go with Whitmore’s “coaching is unlocking people’s potential to maximise their own performance.” More specifically, Law et al define coaching as “a process of support offered to an individual, which is performance focussed and goal centred and results in action.” In short, as distinct from counselling for example, coaching is considered proactive, dynamic, and focused on the future, rather than reactive and past-looking.

It is also founded on the premise that the coachee has the personal resources to explore, find and effect their own solutions through determining individually defined goals. This might seem incontrovertible to the New York or City CEO fostered on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with self-actualisation at the top of the pyramid – but perhaps not so to an Arab executive.

If we take Trompenaars’ Seven Dimensions model, let us for a moment generalise (and yes, it’s a big sweep across some quite disparate states, let alone disparate individuals) about where we would place GCC nationals on the axes (in bold) –

Of most interest among these for executive coaching are typically the communitarian, ascribed and external elements (even if the synchronic aspect probably plays the most havoc with a US or UK coach’s careful focus and scheduling!).

With status usually determined through who you are in terms of age, education, and title, it can often be confusing for an Arab leader to work with an older coach – Gulf demographics being what they are in terms of an extremely young leadership – who refrains from supplying all the answers. In the same manner, they may be hard pressed to see the value of a younger coach. Changes in Gulf nations’ educational systems mean that there is, for example, increased development of critical skills thinking and less rote learning in schools, but there is still a huge gap between the ‘sink or swim’ style of US leadership development and the more protective, nurturing Arab style. A young Gulf leader will often look to their coach for advice and feedback, rather than fully exploring their own path to insight and a solution first. This is particularly true with internal coaching in organisations.

Consequently, executive coaches typically play more of a mentoring role here than they might do in some other parts of the world. Clayton would view this as ‘input learning’ – teaching the coachee to work in a way that the coach believes to be best – rather than ‘output learning’ – helping coachees discover for themselves what they need to learn.

This can be compounded by the Gulf coachee’s orientation towards an external focus of control, limiting not only the coach’s ability to facilitate change (Palmer and Arnold), but also the coachee’s own ability to create individually defined goals. As these writers note, this is evidenced through wasta and the intricate network of relationships, loyalties, and responsibilities that govern life. More significantly yet, with Islam present in every sphere of the personal and working self, the coachee may consciously balk at forging their own path, seeing the future as uncertain and outside their control.  Tied into the above, if in the US the insight in coaching might be about what the coachee discovers to change, then in the Arab world of face values, the importance of others’ perceptions is usually higher. A notable consequence of this can be the coaching focussing on what has happened, and, through this, more on remediation than might be the case elsewhere.

Ultimately, do these distinctions between US- and Arab-style coaching matter? To the coaches, unquestionably yes. Coaching is more than simple conversations with an element of questioning and feedback. It requires a fully individualised and tailored approach founded, as Hill has summarised, on mutual trust, respect, and freedom of expression. For this the coach needs to be able to adapt and tune into the coachee’s cultural values just as much as their learning and communication styles, and all the other facets that go into building rapport and a truly effective relationship. The authenticity of this approach is underlined by the coach looking beyond stereotypes to see the individual and their unique, self-construed identity.

We should be grateful for this. Coaching is a living, breathing conversation which demands as much from the coach as the coachee. And, as any practitioner will tell you, both sides often get just as much from this dialogue as the other.


  • CIPD (2009). Taking the temperature of coaching.
  • CIPD (2011). The coaching climate.
  • Clayton, S. (2005). Releasing talent through coaching. In P. Grant, S. Lewis, and D. Thompson (eds.), Business psychology in practice.
  • Hill, P. (2004). Concepts of coaching.
  • Law, H., Ireland, S., and Hussain, Z. (2007). The psychology of coaching, mentoring and learning.
  • Palmer, T. and Arnold, V.J. (2009). Coaching in the Middle East. In J. Passmore (ed) Diversity In Coaching: working with gender, culture, race and age.
  • Trompenaars, F. and Hampden-Turner, C. (2012). Riding the waves of culture (3rd edition).
  • Whitmore, J. (2009). Coaching for performance (4th edition).

About Julian King

Julian King is an international HR consultant and certified executive coach with a keen interest in intercultural matters.

  1. angela 06/16/2012, 10:10 am

    Very informative, good insight