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A MILE Ahead

The irrepressible Dr. Mohamed Moustafa Mahmoud (a.k.a. “3M” to his many friends and business contacts) weaves a bracing mix of past and future and business insight into every ten-minute presentation. As I sat listening to 3M welcome a group of CEO’s from the likes of Siemens, the Ulker-Turkey conglomerate and Jordan’s Hikmah Pharma group to a “Meet The Leaders” forum at the Madinah, Saudi Arabia headquarters of his Madinah Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship (MILE.org) last month, I learned not only about the roots of Islam in the 7th century A.D. – I also absorbed the full scope of his vision for leadership and economic growth in the Arab and Muslim world over the coming decades.

And what a big vision it is, full of optimism for growth and wealth creation across a huge swath of North Africa, The Middle East and Asia. It’s not just about oil, of course. There are companies in Saudi and the region doing extraordinary things with saltwater irrigation, solar energy, logistics for FMCG (Fast-Moving Consumer Goods), and much more. But 3M, with his Ph. D from Wharton and stints in business and academia in North America and the Middle East, believes that businesses and governments from Indonesia to Morocco must address what he calls a “leadership deficit” before that vision can become reality.

“Many of our initiatives have been constrained by a lack of available business leaders who can take our new ideas and implement them on the ground,” he says.

3M cites a Financial Times survey of the world’s top 100 business schools that lists more than half in the U.S., a handful in Europe, a few others scattered elsewhere across the globe – and precisely zero in Arab and Muslim countries. Same story with mid-career executive education programs. There are also few corporate universities like those at Proctor and Gamble or Nestle’ in the West. And the companies in the region that do provide some kind of in-house training tend to offer it at the beginning or mid-level – there’s very little for senior executives. So the corporations send their executives overseas to the top business schools, which sometimes feature case studies with little relevance to the needs of the Arab and Muslim worlds. Add to that the jet lag, the occasional visa problems, the networking and business contacts that don’t amount to much when the students return home, and even the allure of the top Western schools begins to fade.

So with advice from McKinsey and Co., 3M and his backers at the Jeddah-based Knowledge Economic City, the Savola Group and the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority launched MILE two years ago. Every day over the course of each two-week program, a different marquee-name b-school professor delivers an eight-hour program to a group of 30+ senior executives rom the Middle East and Asia. During my stay in Madinah, Dr. Felix Oberholzer-Gee of the Harvard Business School led an overview of “Strategies for Profitable Growth.” Professor Philip Moscoso from the IESE Business School in Madrid shared best practices for “Operational Excellence.” Dr. Basil Mustapha of Oxford led the group through an overview of “Competencies of Star Executives.” The content rivals that of any top-tier Executive Education program around the globe.

I spent a week conducting media training and presentation skills coaching in small breakout sessions for the group last month, and heard nothing but praise for the program from the attendees.

“I was really surprised, because I’ve done this kind of leadership program many times in the U.S. and the U.K. and France, with large organizations like GE,” said Anass Patel, CEO of the Paris-based Islamic finance company 570easi. “The mix of skills and cultures was really impactful. The participants bring not only their rich culture, but also very advanced technical skills.”

Alrasheed Abdullah Alkibsy of the Saudi Naghi Group (distributorfor BMW and Range Rover in the Middle East) said “It’s a journey. From the first day, I was really impressed by the reasoning behind MILE – the ‘regionality,’ the relevance of the case studies.”

And this from Ali M. Sheneamer, Deputy Governor & COO at the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority: “I’m impressed by the richness of the content and the relevance of the content to what we do. This will lead to improvements in the service we offer to investors and internally, how we become a more efficient organization.”

But MILE itself is just the beginning. Surrounding the MILE headquarters on the outskirts of Madinah sits a 50 square kilometer construction site that will one day become the Madinah Knowledge Economic City. At the moment it looks like a dusty patch of not very much, but by the time the Cisco-wired smart city project is completed in the next decade, no fewer than 150,000 people will live and work here in a massive green mixed-use development complete with a high-speed rail link to the holy city of Mecca 210 miles to the south.

And therein lies the business and cultural genius of the idea. Every Muslim with the financial means and physical capability is obligated to make a haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime. And Madinah, where the Prophet Muhammad spent the last years of his life, is an almost obligatory stop for every pilgrim. 3M noticed that after these pilgrims – many of them well-educated business owners and executives – finished their prayers and tours of The Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, they didn’t have much to do. So why not gather them together for networking and business education? Not only that, why not convince them to move their families and businesses to one of the most important and beloved sites in Islam? The leadership of the Madinah Knowledge Economic City is well on the way to achieving that right now, having signed commitments from numerous companies from Saudi and elsewhere in the region to establish offices, homes and administrative and manufacturing facilities on the site.

And the appeal reaches beyond the Muslim and Arab worlds. On my last day at MILE, as I sipped cardamom-scented Saudi coffee and nibbled on Madinah dates with a Saudi business contact, I was struck by the simultaneous familiarity and exoticness of the scene. In his traditional white kafiyeh and thobe, my friend spoke of exactly the same goals, hopes and anxieties that I regularly express myself, and that I hear every day from executives from D.C. to Dallas. How can I make more time for my family? How do I grow my business? I realized that we had a lot more in common than I thought, and that there are ample opportunities for mutual benefit. And that’s why I plan to return to Madinah soon.

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