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This article is part of a personal WordPress blog article serie, in english, on how to lead digital transformation in MENA region, written along my one year MBAMCI parenthesis.

When I presented myself to Alexandre Stopnicki, MBAMCI – Digital Marketing and Connected Commerce – program Director, to apply for my eligibility to the 2019-2020 year at Léonard de Vinci University in La Défense, I told him my aim was to be trained in France to further pragmatically lead digital transformation in the MENA region, in the retail / lifestyle / fmcg sector.

Along this extraordinary one year journey that allowed me to study pre-covid digital transformation, to digitaly adapt like many to pandemic times, then to set ahead about what should be the post-covid 19 new normal, I realized that leading digital transformation in MENA could only be succesful in achieving my own digital transformation through following a Culture Map and adopting IBM solutions.

1- Transform yourself to digitize your life

Endowed with many years of managerial experience as an expatriate, especially in the MENA region, I then felt the need to come back to France to make the effort to disrupt myself, to better tackle the third part of my career, to train myself pragmatically in the latest technological and digital tools, but also to take advantage of the formidable intergenerational melting pot offered by this high-level training, to grasp the ecosystem of agile organizations and start-ups, to work on my leadership skills and organizational behaviour with Z, Y, X Gen and even boomers; in short, to digitize my own personal life.

Having started in parallel a step-by-step process to work again in the MENA region, I will rely in this blog article on my recent experience, with successes and failures, to approach the challenge for a Frenchman like me, of the post-covid 19 leadership style to adopt in order to lead the digital transformation in the MENA region.

2- Digital transformation in the MENA region

In 2019, just prior coronavirus has occured, a Chalhoub and Condé Nast white paper stated that MENA region was expecting a booming in travel and retail thanks to expanding tourism and global events organization, that would require to quicky adapt to extensive Z and Y generation users of mobile.

2.1- Prior Covid-19, leaders have forecasted Travel and Retail as expanding

In 2018, according to Think with Google, over 85% of MENA travellers were carrying their phones when travelling for business and 85% when travelling for leisure. Spreading usage across social media, seeking places of interest and engaging with traditional communication methods.

Accessing information online was also a significant influencer of traditional bricks and mortar retail, with many travellers researching online before purchasing offline.

Nowadays, across the GCC, mobile usage is almost at 100% among Gen X and Gen Y, and internet penetration sits at between 98% to 99% in the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain.

When assessing social media usage, there are approximately 63 millions Instagramers in the Middle Eastern region and 33 millions Snapchat users. Not only switching on and logging off, in the UAE and Saudi Arabia these users spend around 2.5 hours per day on these two channels, presenting significant recruitment opportunities for brands.

This level of digital penetration has additional implications for travel service providers and retailers (source: Chalhoub Group and Condé Nast 2019 white paper).

According a UNWTO study, Retail is also one of the preferred activities for international travellers, particularly in metropolitan cities of the MENA region, including Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Jeddah.

“ From a marketing perspective – and I think China is a prime example – the way that we have been approach it is trying to analyze and understand the market’s travel behaviours, their interests and, of course, what ‘s the strongest proposition that Dubai has to offer that links back. An retail becomes another fundamental point that we need to focus on. “

Issam Abdul Rahim Kazim, CEO Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce Marketing

2.2- How pandemic chaos has accelerated the need for a digital transformation

Covid-19 put an end to many initiatives and postoned others among events like 2020 Dubai International Expo, FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, GCC Games

While tourism will have to be reinvented, many MENA countries having stated tourism in their 2030 vision, have also rapidly switched their digital transformation priority toward their National Health programs.

Whilst travel and tourism will decrease footfall to retail stores across the GCC, as well as the departure of foreign expatriates, brands should remain very conscious of the power of online for targeting real locals inhabitants.

Between 2015 and 2018, online remained the fastest-growing commercial channel with 22% growth and reaching 10% penetration of luxury sales globally.

Approximately half of all luxury purchases are being digitally enabled thanks to new technologies along the value chain, meaning that nearly all purchases will be influenced by online interactions inclusive of advertising, branded content and social media influence.

“ For the GCC consumer, tech is hugely important. Although the Middle Eastern consumer is incredibly private and family focused, they are influenced by a wider community — especially a technology-driven community so social media influencers are key. ”

Candice D’Cruz, Vice President Luxury Brand Marketing and Management for Marriott International Middle East and Africa

Video in particular will become increasingly important. A 2017 Cisco research revealed that 69% of global consumer internet traffic in 2017 was dedicated to video, while video-ondemand traffic could double by 2021.

Keep in mind that, The average 15 to 24 year-old in the Middle East spends 72 minutes a day watching videos online. With consumers in the Middle East, particularly millennials, consuming YouTube content daily, this is a powerful market segment and a clear media opportunity to encourage consumption.

Bellow discover some GCC countries populations pyramids (by age and sexe), whose consumers are expecting your company to offer a post-covid 19 digitaly transformed customer experience.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia_2020 population pyramid
Saudi Arabia 2020 population pyramid

United Arab Emirates

Population pyramid, United Arab Emirates, 2020
United Arab Emirates 2020 population pyramid


Population pyramid, Qatar, 2020
Qatar 2020 population pyramid

For achieving your digital transformation in MENA toward these populations, adopt the Next Normal perspectives.

2.3- New Normal or Next Normal perspectives are not normal

WorldBank has noticed that governments in the MENA region have been fast to act to respond in the time of pandemic to the need for improved broadband networks and enhanced internet services.

Digital connectivity in the time of Covid-19 is no longer about traditional communication and the search for information; it has become a lifeline for using data, consuming content and engaging in digital applications by individuals, governments and businesses to ensure continuity of economic and social activities in light of social distancing and the complete lockdown in most countries of the world.

In the MENA region, the demand for broadband services and data has increased significantly during the pandemic. According to Boutheina Guermazi, countries that were not ready for the surge of demand have seen network congestion, decline in average Internet speed and deterioration of service quality even in relatively mature markets. Unequal access to quality broadband connectivity has jeopardized stability and increased social inequality between those who can use digital connectivity to secure business continuity and observe social distancing and those disadvantaged groups, including the refugees, without adequate access to the Internet to hook up to the new normal.

2.4.1- The MAF digital transformation retail case

Majid Al Futtaim, also called MAF, is a Dubai-based lifestyle conglomerate operating in 15 countries and 13 diverse industries. It is the leading shopping mall, communities, retail and leisure pioneer across the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

For reorienting its digital transformation cascade process under pandemic, MAF relies on its  senior leaders and C-suites. To inculcate the necessary skill sets and make the transformation mindset a habit across operations, MAF have introduced a few ideas.

A few core habits are needed to build leaders and team members who think strategically:

  1. Observe to learn. Monitor the broader market, not just your sector but beyond, to see and learn from the changes taking place
  2. Encourage watchfulness across the organisation. Help staff – particularly those on the front lines – to be attuned to and flag changes they are seeing. In the market to help the entire company stay one step ahead of trends
  3. Train for disruption. Expose your leaders to disruption through visiting startups, learning from others and by digital immersion
  4. Reframe your mission and redefine your purpose : if you haven’t already so now is the time to do so. What is your true vakue to your consumer ? How will this help you lead in the current age ?

These habits will help teams constantly innovate, adapt and execute resulting in the overarching success of an organisation.

To discover more on how MAF Group reacted quickly digitally to the pandemic, supporting its mall tenants by launching a marketplace to allow them to service their customers online, read the following HBS article that details how the company relied on synergies across its businesses to support its swift reaction, in order to keep the momentum going and capture a large share of nascent e-Commerce market in the Middle East and North Africa region.

2.4.2- Tectonic / Techtonic of the plaques, or the moving map

During « Leading a Data-driven Transformation » recent INSEAD Webinar, Alain Beijani, MAF Group CEO described how Tectonic (and techtonic) changes would imply spending more on Experience. The real disruptor is not Amazon, but the Customer freer than ever from servitude.

Alain Bejjani, MAF Holding CEO
Alain Bejjani, MAF Holding CEO

Competitors are now global and can know better than the historical retailer its own local customers. With agile organization with tech capability and a seamless approach may cause casualties among its competitors. A priority in modern retail, with the help of data analysis and good sense, is to master the complexity of understanding communities, before the others.

For example, in disrupting organization’s own beliefs about its customers, a real local assortment strategy can arouse. In MENA, better know Egyptian or Bollywood movies than Hollywood ones, since in grocery retailers it definitely bring ROI to know customers and their preferences, as it used to be in the past on local markets.

Lastly, the talents should be given the opportunity to develop themselves through digital, in order to put data together and to understand better the communities they are dedicated to.

3- The digital transformation leadership and the culture map

Erin Meyer, INSEAD Senior Affiliate Professor of Organisational Behaviour, specialised in the field of Cross-Cultural Management, Intercultural Negotiations, and Multi-Cultural Leadership, who wrote The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business best seller’s might help anyone in leading digital transformation, notably in MENA.

Erin Meyer, INSEAD Senior Affiliate Professor of Organisational Behaviour, specialised in the field of Cross-Cultural Management, Intercultural Negotiations, and Multi-Cultural Leadership, author of The Culture Map
Erin Meyer, Insead Professor, author of best -seller The Culture Map

3.1- Erin Meyer’s Culture Map

There are 8 Scales composing the Culture Map to know about the different cultures that may improve your digital transformation leadership style by considering establishing relationships and international partnerships.

  1. Communicating: explicit vs. implicit
  2. Evaluating: direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback
  3. Persuading: deductive vs. inductive
  4. Leading: egalitarian vs. hierarchical
  5. Deciding: consensual vs. top down
  6. Trusting: task vs. relationship
  7. Disagreeing: confrontational vs. avoid confrontation
  8. Scheduling: structured vs. flexible

Of course Communicating, persuading, evaluating, deciding, and disagreing are key, but let’s concentrate on only three of the eight described by Erin Meyer.

Leading, because making happening the digital change is firstly a question of leadership.

the scale in leading in different countries from egalitarian to hierarchical
The scale in leading in different countries from egalitarian to hierarchical. The Culture Map

Scheduling, because if our lives are not extendable, those of our projects can be.

the scale in scheduling in different countries from linear time to flexible time
The scale in scheduling in different countries from linear time to flexible time. The Culture Map

Trusting, because the success of the project will depend on the unity of the association of people created under the pretext of its realization.

the scale in trusting in different countries from task-based to relationship-based
The scale in trusting in different countries from task-based to relationship-based. The Culture Map

3.2- Guided by IBM, lead the transformation in MENA

3.2.1- Adopt fate in MENA

Despite owning the cultural map, in MENA, like everywhere, invisible boundaries may create chock and chaos.

6 Mois au Caire is a French blogger discusses Egyptian fate, as I saw it from the Indian who is “not afraid to cross the road when the cars are going at full speed,” nor afraid “of breaking walls while he is on it”.

egyptian worker destroying wall while on it

In the Gulf, this fatalism has its acronym: IBM.

“ Inch’allah, Bokra, Malesh

3.2.2- My digital 2020 summer postal card with IBM and a culture map

First post-covid summer allowed me to embark (remotely) on many tracks in the MENA region. Dedicating my entire time to MBA MCI Amazon Marketplace Challenge assignment with a French start-up of organic and vegan sweets as well as to my job search in MENA, I successively came close of being or became CEO of 2 food start-ups of 5 to 25 people, Omnichannel Director of a non-food retail brand, and Merchandising Buying Director of a health and beauty products chain of more than 200 stores whose activity is now due to pandemic mainly done via the Internet and its mobile app.

I was approached by headhunters from Mumbai or Dubai, I chained the interviews via Zoom / Teams / Hanghout up to 3 per day with different companies and time differences up to 3.5 hours, as tricky questions I was asked if I could stop my one-year digital training program to join their fabulous corporate or unexpectedly saw myself demanded a digital strategy in 5 points in front of a Board of Directors composed of Emiratis, Saudis, English, Indians, Lebanese,

I passed assessments on my reasoning skills and I had to undergo a 3 hours debriefing on the interpretation of my results, I miraculously (mashallah) received 2 offers on the same day, I negotiated and signed a contract for a salary and a transport allowance, without even having traveled to have set foot again, for a position that should allow me to lead the digital transformation from one country, then from another temporarily and finally, remotely, from my office, in France, then I was told that they did a mistake in the contract I signed and wanted to modify it unilaterally, at their advantage,

Then I looked for other solutions to work and get paid, like consulting, I launched the process prior to obtaining a visa from an Embassy of a GCC country in Paris, namely the legalization of my many diplomas with the French Ministry of Foreign Office, who refused them to me on the pretext that they had been issued by French private schools… a private joke most probably.

Lastly, after having been taken care of by 4 hierarchical levels in human resources with a series of phone calls until no time (whatspapp also being not allowed in these territories) to force my hand on signing and suggest me to dye my beard to look younger (or more local) on my badge photo in preparation… silence for 10 days,

Until being announced by the Dubai recruitment firm that the Onboarding process ended there, without any explanation from my future employer, whose human value had been so much praised to me as being at the heart of the concerns of its Employer’s Brand.

My interlocutors, who for some did not know the subtleties of the cultural map in motion, did not question all of this, applying IBM literally rather than inter-culturally :


Inch’Allah , God willing, and not what I want (in this case my motivation was to work in a challenging environment…),


“ Bokra, in other words tomorrow, to get the tasks done and things to happen, now with me or even in three months … with someone else,


“ Malesh, because anyway it does not matter, and that it will allow the one who holds the power (here the employer) and who made errors or approximations (even written ones) to feel better and to get away with this feeling of the winner, despite the chaos created.

“ By approaching myself onboarding in being rather Egalitarian rather than Hierarchical (Leading), Structured rather than Flexible (Scheduling), Task rather Relationship (Trusting), if finally I also did not understood enough the culture map and IBM to adopt the necessary post-covid 19 leadership style suitable for a MENA organization ?

Damien Peyre, INSEAD and MBA MCI alumni, post-covid 19 leader, candidate for omnichannel commerce and digital marketing transformation in Middle East and North Africa

Pandemic is not the reason of your disorganization under uncertain period; Next time you want to achieve your post-covid 19 digital transformation in MENA with a French candidate from both INSEAD and MBA MCI and your Egyptian HR team, check if they all master the Culture Map and IBM solutions implementation.

Damien Peyre

Special thanks to Zohra*, Peter*, Lorens*, Naresh*, Mohammad* who gave me their precious insights about Saudi Arabia and UAE

*names were changed

Special dedication to all uncited characters** who definitely prefered chaos to a reasonnable expected win-win

**why practicing name and shame (I feel sorry for Egyptians people and French fellow citizens), it’s loosing time, better writting a blog article on my experience that may benefit to others

For further reading on Leading Digital Transformation in MENA region, I suggest you the following articles:

For reading author’s other articles, in French or English :

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