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Economics & Development | Global Arab Network
Spirituality, business ethics and clearing a crisis of conscience
Global Arab Network - Dr Mohamed Ramady
Saturday, 22 August 2009 20:15
The current financial crises have led to a moral debate on how businesses should operate and the issue of spirituality is coming to the fore.
In the Gulf this debate is welcomed by many, as there is a feeling that, in the heady rush for modernisation and the adoption of so-called modern business practices, the region has lost sight of a more deep-rooted and spiritual way of doing business that could have protected the region from some of the more publicised business dealing excesses.

While the core of Gulf spirituality is bound by Islam, the issue is a global one that touches on the beliefs of all major religions.

All of them have tried to give guidelines on business behaviour that basically differentiates from the modern business structure, built on a nexus of formal contracts between different parties and regulated by mankind’s laws, with the spirituality in doing business guided by a higher calling and judgment.

Some argue that if such basic tenets of conducting business in a spiritual manner had been followed, the Gulf would not have had the spate of international court claims and counterclaims between Saudi family businesses, nor the list of prominent UAE names awaiting trial on corruption charges.

In a world bound by generally accepted business conduct, the main preoccupation has been in setting up well-defined rules of how to play the game.

Business has been making great strides in terms of quality, describing the right method in management and organisation – optimality in the quantitative approach. Business, according to most economic models, is based on attaining the only goal of maximising stockholders profits.

But business is run by mortal men who have to grapple with their conscience, and for devout believers, the afterlife. This finds them caught between two visions. The first is a profit view representing the classic approach of business and based on a “business is business” approach.

The other is the value view which is based on “enlightened business”, which extends business to include the rights and the demands of stockholders and includes a moral spirituality, where the shareholders are not the only ones taken into account in business decisions.

This dichotomy can be staggering in practice. In 2000, Enron claimed that its revenues reached US$111 billion (Dh407.7bn). Fortune magazine named Enron the most creative company in America for six consecutive years. In 2001, after the Enron scandal, the company became the most popular symbol for corporate corruption. The scandal led to the dismantling of the accounting company Arthur Anderson and the fallout widely affected the entire business world.

But when it comes to spirituality in business, it is difficult to precisely define it or agree on a common definition. One method is to classify it into four groups.

Firstly there is an approach based on a higher power. These definitions are based on a higher essence or power, the creator or commanding force in the universe. This view supplies a spirituality concept that is related to the total essence and is effective in situations where many individuals work in huge projects and do not see the results of their work, which subjects them to feelings of worthlessness. Thus working for the “greater glory of God” aims to counteract these feelings. In the Gulf, this view is common.

Second, there is the approach based on inner experience. This spiritual definition is based on deep personal self-experience, and focuses on the deep meaning and the expanded purpose of life and work. Spirituality enriches the company with wealthy and various experiences. In this sequence, individuals taking control of their career and success will be measured in the language of psychic achievement as an alternative to financial achievement. In the Gulf, this is prevalent among those combining deep religious beliefs with senior managerial responsibility.

Third, there is the approach based on ethical values. These definitions are based on the fact that spirituality represents the rising need for ethical values such as fairness, straightness and spiritual values such as forgiveness, kindness, humility, sublimation, searching for significance and purpose. There is no doubt that the affirmation of these values has increased after the ethical scandals of big companies.

Finally, there is the Corporate DNA-based approach. Here a company’s spirituality is a business philosophy and an extraordinary method expressing its success in business fields, or more simply put as the company’s way, such as the IBM Way. As Gulf companies aspire to become regional and international players, the Corporate DNA approach becomes popular in moulding employee loyalty with a corporate moral identity.

Spirituality does not come easily. There is the potential misuse of spirituality in the workplace by employees or organisations. There is a legitimacy problem: do organisations have the right to impose spiritual values on their employees? Will those who are identified as being not spiritual enough be stigmatised in the workplace? Then there is the economics problem: are spirituality and profits compatible?

Spirituality in Arab countries is highly mixed with religion. A religious-based spirituality is the opposite of what exists in most western countries, which is based on the separation of spirituality and religion. Spirituality is seen, in most cases, as an additional source for ethics in business, and as a strong support to self-experience.

For most people, it holds an intimate link to faith and belief in something greater than themselves. In the current holy month of Ramadan, the issues of spirituality and transgressing away from a higher ordained way of doing business will be foremost in the minds of many employees and employers in the Gulf.

Global Arab Network

Dr Mohamed A Ramady is a former banker and visiting associate professor of finance and economics at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. this article appeared in The National on (August 22. 2009 ).

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