Interview with Nick Nadal, the former head of Hawkamah and Mudara
1. You were involved with Hawkamah from the very beginning. It has been quite a journey, but could you please take us through the early days – why and how was the Institute set up?
The institute was started to respond to an articulated regional need to address corporate governance in the Middle East and North Africa region. Prior to the development of the institute, the World Bank’s Global Corporate Governance Forum and the Center for International Private Enterprise initiated a series of regional dialogues to bring together various stakeholders to understand the lay of the land on corporate governance, responding to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) critical review of the corporate governance principles in 1999. These regional stakeholders—regulators, auditors and accountants, businessmen, academics, and others—called for the set-up of a regional platform to facilitate and drive discussions on corporate governance concerns first looking at transparency and disclosure practices on a regional level. Eventually as Hawkamah developed as the regional platform we became more focused on specific sectors, recognizing that drivers for corporate governance improvements vary from sector to sector.
2. Could please describe the initial governance landscape in the Middle East and North Africa? What were the early challenges? And how did Hawkamah address those challenges?
I remember in 1999 reaching out to a number of business associations and chambers of commerce and also having discussions with regulators on corporate governance and discovered a severe mismatch in understanding of corporate governance between the regulators and the private sector who would be directly impacted with any corporate governance frameworks introduced on a national level. Likewise most of the initial corporate governance frameworks followed an Anglo-Saxon regulatory approach which did not reflect the nature of a majority of businesses in the Arab world. In the seven years of Hawkamah’s existence, I believe Hawkamah has had a role in trying to bridge the understanding on corporate governance but also facilitating discussions on appropriate regional approaches on corporate governance issues that focus on owners/shareholders and boards.
3. The corporate governance eco-system comprises a number of key actors such as governments, regulators and companies. How responsive have these parties been to Hawkamah?
The initial group that was responsive to Hawkamah’s work have been regulators, particularly capital market regulators and central banks, which see corporate governance as a way to ‘level the playing field’ and protect investors. Of course, movement towards convergence of corporate governance regulations/frameworks globally particularly on the securities and banking side also played a role in the corporate governance push from governments. It therefore made sense that OECD with its focus on governments and its work with MENA governments in addressing investment climate issues, from which the OECD-MENA working group on corporate governance was developed and through which Hawkamah as a regional institute was institutionalized, made more headway in building regional momentum.
As I mentioned, the biggest challenge earlier on in Hawkamah’s development was private sector engagement. Because of the nature of ownership structures of regional companies and that most of them do not necessarily tap into the capital markets, approaching corporate governance from a regulators’ perspective did not effectively articulate the sustainability and competitiveness message that good corporate governance practices bring to companies. Over the years, Hawkamah sought to build intellectual capital, through the director development programme, research activities, and the eventual development of the S&P Hawkamah Pan Arab Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG) Index, to be able to show companies the value-adding role that corporate governance brings.
Having said that, however, I think the evolution of Hawkamah’s work from working with regulators first and then eventually with the private sector made sense in that the work with regulators allowed Hawkamah to develop and understand a regional corporate governance vision with private sector engagement.
4. How has the governance landscape evolved in the MENA? How do you assess Hawkamah’s role in these developments? In your view, what have been the key milestones and achievements of Hawkamah?
Hawkamah facilitated the building of awareness of corporate governance within a regional context and the need to address corporate governance reform issues on a regional level. Being in the region and producing quality thought pieces and forward-looking initiatives, Hawkamah was a convenient access point for regional corporate governance drivers from various backgrounds and interests to work with.
In these seven years, Hawkamah has had a number of key milestones, some of which include:
5. This really has been pioneering work. With the evolution of corporate governance in the region, the challenges have also changed, meaning that the Institute has had to evolve. Hawkamah is also a very unique organization in that similar institutes do not exist in other parts of the world. What challenges has this brought to your work?
Complementing the ‘think tank’ nature of Hawkamah’s work with the ‘doing’ advocacy and company engagement that needed to happen in parallel to make a dent on corporate governance practices in the region continues to be a very big challenge for Hawkamah. Initially, one of the biggest challenges Hawkamah had to face was to build its credibility as a serious regional voice for corporate governance reform. The research work, coupled with strategic alignment and coalition building efforts with key international and regional institutions such as the International Financial Corporation (IFC), Union of Arab Banks (UAB), Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), and others, helped put into focus the enormous task ahead of Hawkamah and the region in trying to address the regional corporate governance gaps.
As with many non-profit organizations, Hawkamah also faces the financial sustainability challenge. Being able to be a serious corporate governance advocate while ensuring Hawkamah maintains corporate and member support is no easy task.
6. Looking back, if there is one thing you could change in the evolution of Hawkamah, what would this be and why?
In many ways Hawkamah’s institutional development reflected how many enterprises in the region have evolved. Starting with one big idea—addressing corporate governance issues are key to the region’s economic sustainability—we developed products and services to build on this idea. We built on work already done by international and regional organizations, but I think constituting a board earlier on would have given Hawkamah more gravitas and regional depth earlier in its evolution. Hawkamah now enjoys a very active board, steering the organization to new heights. I have always wondered what would have happened if Hawkamah had a board earlier in its evolution.
7. How important have Hawkamah’s partners been to its work?
By design, Hawkamah has always been an organization that seeks and appreciates partnerships. It is therefore not surprising that in its over seven years, Hawkamah has signed active memorandum of understanding (MoUs) with over 60 international and regional organizations. The initial regional exchanges supported by CIPE and the World Bank prior to the development of Hawkamah yielded a number of organizations that support and continue to support Hawkamah. Alone, Hawkamah or its partners have limited resources; joining together and building coalitions, resource challenges were surmounted.
Hawkamah, true to its ‘building institutions for the region’ message, have also supported and become a catalyst to develop special interest groups that would be supportive of broader corporate governance reforms such as the Middle East Investor Relations Society (MEIRS), Gulf Bond and Sukuk Association, and others.
So while Hawkamah may have had an initially over-ambitious goal of ‘bridging the corporate governance gap’, Hawkamah was also pragmatic in the sense that we knew that by ourselves we could not do it all. Coalition building and developing active relationships with partners to create ‘win-win’ situations were equally important to our work.