Wael Al Sayegh... "The key factor of us being where we are is a product of this blending of cultures in the UAE" Image Credit: Silvia Baron

Wael Al Sayegh has a mission in life. In fact, two missions. The first one, as he clearly states, is to "be a better human being". The second, which is implicit in his every action, is to connect people with the soul of Dubai - something that is missed beneath its gleaming chrome and steel exterior.

"Dubai has so much more than the chrome and steel people seem to think it's about," he says. "Me and a number of fellow Emirati writers are working hard to display that soul more clearly."

What Al Sayegh and other Emiratis like him are doing is coming to terms with the UAE's multicultural environment and using it to progress further. In the process, they are also connecting with their inner selves.

"There is a generation of Emiratis, and I am proud to include myself in this, that now has the ability to really communicate their emotions, their sentiments, their feelings and their visions, in an extremely multicultural environment," says the articulate writer and cultural consultant.

"True, it has taken time to come to fruition, but we are very much into that stage. So along with some very interesting, charismatic and very brave Emiratis which include the likes of Mishaal Al Gergawi, an Emirati commentator on socio-economic and cultural affairs in the UAE; Sultan Al Qasimi, a Sharjah-based businessman who is the founder of Barjeel Securities and a newspaper columnist, there are others as well. Nayla Al Khaja, film-maker; Reem Al Gurg, children's book author; Khalid Al Najar, architect; Ahmad Bin Shabib and Rashid Bin Shabib, entrepreneurs and Wasel Safwan, artist, are some of them. We are all very eager to express what we believe is the authentic, open-minded and tolerant, contemporary Emirati presence."

Creating new fields

Al Sayegh is a very persuasive young man, and you will soon find yourself convinced by him, not because of his undeniable articulate personality, but due to his earnestness and transparent honesty.

"Most people when traditionally approaching the Emirati concept, in business, social or cultural affairs, tend to normally limit themselves to what is referred to as heritage," he says. "Yes, heritage is a part of our culture, but we, the generation I am speaking about, are very much alive in the present and have a clear idea of where we want to be in the future. It's an exciting time, moreso because we have the backing of a government that is eager to support us. A lot of work is being done in various fields, whether it be journalism, film-making, artistic expression and even creating new fields that have never been in existence before."

What Al Sayegh is very excited about is ‘exporting' a new branch of knowledge called cross-cultural or intercultural intelligence.

This is obviously the big moment that Al Sayegh is building up to. "This new field will be pioneered by this region and is going through a very unique cultural blend and experience that other parts of the world can benefit from. I know the UAE is especially known for importing things. But here is the very foundation of a generation that will create things which will be exported to different parts of the world. That makes me really excited!

"Research in intercultural intelligence is being pioneered right here and Dubai is one of the best laboratory cities in the world," he says. "Which is why I am very excited to be involved in the field of intercultural intelligence."

According to Al Sayegh, a formal study on the subject is being pioneered in Dubai by a company called KnowledgeWorkx. Al Sayegh's company, Al Ghaf Human Resource Consultancy, a cultural consultancy, is collaborating with it on the study.

"KnowledgeWorkx has chosen to set up its headquarters in the UAE because they know this is the best laboratory for all their research. Through the collaboration between our companies, we will bring a tremendous amount of knowledge to a subject that traditionally anywhere in the world would be regarded as a soft or grey area. We now have the knowledge to put colour in an area which was otherwise black, or at best grey. We are not saying we are experts. It's a new field and we are journeying on this together. [But] we have a lot of knowledge that is maybe many years ahead of the latest study done in the US or any part of Europe. Together we are actually laying down the foundation for writing the syllabus for the universities in the future."

Producing global citizens

He speaks about intercultural intelligence as the key to the way societies will function cohesively in the future. He cites the example of the UAE.

"The key factor of us being where we are is a product of this blending of cultures in the UAE," he explains. "It is not a question of whether there will be a blending of cultures, it is already there. What it is doing is producing people who are Emirati but who are also global citizens. What I refer to as the global Emirati is nothing but the product of the blend.

"For example, we know how the vast array of cultures in India has evolved.'' The important thing, he feels, is to focus on the positive aspects of the cultural blend and harness its strengths.

"There are positive and negative sides to all cultures. We take the goodness from each and blend it with our own to form a whole new concoction and use that to do things that make people really interested in asking: ‘How did you manage to do that?' That will lead to stories of where these cultures blended. It will lead to whole new horizons."

Multiculturalism leads to success

While Al Sayegh, being a writer, may be given to exploring his imagination at times, his interest in this new field is also rooted in practicality. He thinks it is the key to success in a multicultural society like the UAE.

"On the journey of self-discovery - we are all on such journeys whether we like it or not, whether we realise it or not - when I see the success of a company, a school or any kind of success, I like to study the why of it," he says. "Why is it that an emirate like Dubai is being confused abroad for a country, and is very often referred to as such? I honestly can't fathom that. Where does that come from? If you bear in mind the history of Dubai, and my family has been in what is known as Dubai today since 1836, one really has to be very humbled by how much of that success comes from the multicultural environment."

This then is his mission right now. "I see how underutilised the capital of multiculturalism is in the UAE," says Al Sayegh.

"It's like money everywhere that we are wasting. If there is a crisis, then with intercultural intelligence you can tap the potential of people that can translate into real success. You just have to reach out, you have to humble yourself and say, ‘This guy who's washing my car has something to teach me'.

"It doesn't matter what nationality he is or what his cultural background is. Because when it comes to work, I have to adapt, he has to adapt, she has to adapt. It just shows me how all organisations have to utilise the wealth that is their staff.

"We are so eager to implement certain standards that come from the West in different parts of the world. But when you put all these cultures together you quickly understand that it doesn't work. The system has to be altered and changed. It doesn't matter whether a company is making a profit or not; they are just making a fraction of what they actually can. We all need to change to progress."

Al Sayegh is a keen sportsman with a special interest in the martial arts. He instinctively turns to sporting metaphors to illustrate his points. ["It makes you focus, keeps you grounded; a big requirement for a writer or artist."] "When I first started looking at the success of Dubai, I was struck by how it was punching way beyond its category. If we talk about it in terms of heavyweights and middleweights in the boxing field, this is a lightweight that is taking on super heavyweights. That was when I first stopped and tried to study what the success factors are. It was very clear that a major part of that success had to do with what academics today call intercultural intelligence." Al Sayegh firmly believes that success in such an environment depends on how well you understand the concept and use it to your advantage.

"Intercultural intelligence is tied in with all the cultures in your work place, be it in the public or the private sector. It is by and large the missing link. You have so much potential. How much of this structure does your business follow, to what extent does it harness that potential? How much do they see you as a human being, as a whole culture in yourself? You are a walking culture, and you have strengths and weaknesses. But if one does not realise that and is not utilising one's strengths fully, then the success you and your company are enjoying is minuscule compared to the potential."

This is the strength that Al Sayegh is looking to lever so that the UAE can surge ahead. "That is why I am so excited to be involved in the field of intercultural intelligence," he says. "My company, Al Ghaf Human Resource Consultancy, started out mainly offering cultural inductions or awareness workshops for multinational companies that have a large number of expatriates coming in from all over the world. What I basically used to do was conduct workshops where I formally introduced the Arab world, then the GCC and then zoom into the UAE... all the way to the factors that you can use when you work with Emiratis or GCC nationals."

Now Al Sayegh plans to go deeper to ensure that companies leverage their staff to the fullest extent for greater success. "We have to start somewhere, and I feel intercultural intelligence is the key. KnowledgeWorkx calls it the tip of the iceberg. I prefer to call it the tip of the sand dune, as a person of the desert! The logo of my company is the ghaf tree. What's interesting about the ghaf tree is that what you see on top may not be very impressive, but what is beneath are the roots that go down about 30m. That's interesting. You are seeing the tree but most of it is invisible to the eye.

"Intercultural intelligence is like that. My workshops until recently only catered to the surface level. It is important, but I noticed that a lot of the challenges at work were of cultural origin."

The issues and frustrations in the corporate world have to do not so much with issues relating to Arab culture, as with intercultural issues. It goes far beyond a national culture, says Al Sayegh. "You have different people from different parts of the world, which throws up myriad issues at work. We all have a world view that is nurtured by our parents. Some parts of the world have a very strong ‘honour and shame' way of raising their children.

"You are taught what brings honour to your family, and how to avoid shame. In other parts of the world, children may be brought up more in line with a ‘guilt and innocence' approach. You do what is legal and avoid what is not. You have another world view that is power; you are told at a very young age who is in control, who is in power and how to move up the ranks. All these views may be present in all parts of the world, but in different proportions. It depends on which view dominates.

"When we do something wrong, an Arab will say, ‘No, it's shameful'. My friends in another part of the world may say, ‘No, that's wrong, don't do it.' They are examples of the honour-shame and guilt-innocence approaches. The power approach would be when they say ‘Don't do it, or I'll beat you!' This is deeply embedded in your psyche. You carry that with you wherever you go, and it is very important to understand these issues when people of different cultures work together.

"The sooner you learn to deal with these issues, the better you will be at your job."

According to Al Sayegh, this is just a small portion of what lies beneath. "There are issues that go deeper than this," he explains. "For instance, every person has 12 dimensions of culture within himself. To name just a few - how you regard formality, time, whether you are flexible or rigid as a person, and so on. You can't function any more with just your national identity at the workplace. We need to figure out how to relate to each other, and make it work for us.

"What intercultural intelligence does is give you the ability to adapt."

Al Sayegh had first-hand experience of what he's now advocating when he took up residence in a locality where people from different nationalities lived. He found that he was living the experiment that is Dubai. "It was serendipity, my move to the house where I now stay," he says. "I had heard of this villa which belongs to my family, and I was passing that way and went to see it. I felt a very strong connection with the house, especially the trees in the compound that were planted by a previous tenant, an Indian man. Those three magnificent trees brought out the poet in me. I felt a very strong connection with them, and I just had to live there. So when it fell vacant, we moved in.

For a Scotland-born (when his father was studying to be a doctor in Edinburgh), Dubai-raised Emirati, moving into the villa was "an education in itself, and I am still learning how to co-exist with people of different nationalities and social strata," he says.

"It helps me tremendously in my present venture. I live among people who have to work very hard for their living. I see it every day in the lives of taxi drivers who work very hard throughout the day with barely any break and in the lives of the dock workers who live here to be near their place of work.

"I chat with my neighbours. Being here very clearly puts me in a situation where I have to utilise my intercultural intelligence. If not for that, I would have moved out a long time ago.

"If you move to some place where it's very different from what you've been brought up with, and you are able to ease the adaptation process, you will get assimilated very quickly and then things which appeared very alien and almost fearful can turn into an opportunity."

Wael Al Sayegh does not just preach, he practises - perhaps a lot more than he preaches. He lives his theories and principles, and is the prime subject of his own researches. "When I talk to you about intercultural intelligence, I am not trying to sell you something or trying to fill in a few minutes of your day," he says. "I am sharing with you something that I do every single day."


Wael Al Sayegh is an Edinburgh-born UAE national poet, storyteller and cultural consultant. He was raised in Dubai and educated in the prestigious Rashid School For Boys. He did his undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.

His family has a long history in the region of the Arabian Gulf and has contributed immensely both politically and socially to its development.

Al Sayegh writes poetry and short stories. He is also the founder of Al Ghaf HRC, a cultural consultancy, and a member of the Mohammad Bin Rashid Establishment for Young Business Leaders. He plans to start a publishing company soon, to publish mostly the works of authors in the region.

Al Sayegh's five-word autobiography: Left the herd, discovered myself

His books:

  • A Poet's Oud (poetry) in English, published in 2006
  • I Often Wonder (poetry) in English, published in 2007
  • The Ghaf Tree Speaks (short stories) in English, to be published shortly.

Mission in life: to be a better human being.