Pearl Initiative's chief is looking to translate ideals into concrete results

Carla Koffel reminds me that the Pearl Initiative is only in its sixth year, and I must admit I’m surprised. It seems to have been a feature of the UAE business landscape for at least the decade that I’ve been here.

“The achievements have been significant so far, but it’s reached a stage in its development where it needs to be taken to the next step,” says Ms Koffel, who took over in June as executive director of the organisation from the indefatigable Imelda Dunlop, and who has been easing herself into the role since then.

“The vision, objectives and mission remain the same. It was founded by Arabian Gulf businesses to promote good governance, but now it needs to expand further across the region and globally,” she says.

Pearl has always assumed a high profile among the governance initiatives launched in the region, perhaps because of the gravitas of its founders. Members of the ruling families of Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, the ubiquitous Badr Jafar of Crescent Enterprises and a board of governors comprising some of the region’s best-known movers and shakers have guaranteed Pearl is never far away from the headlines.

At the same time, its link with the United Nations (in alliance with the UN’s Global Compact initiative) and its presence at big global arenas like the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos have kept it firmly in the regional and global public eye.

Since 2010, it has pushed its message to more than 6,000 business leaders in a series of 65 round-table events across the region.

Tomorrow in Dubai, it hosts a regional forum on sustainable development that will get across its key messages: that business has to be responsible, accountable, transparent, but above all ethical in its forward thinking.

Attendees will be asked to sign a “business pledge” that includes the promise: “I commit to make every effort to ensure my business activities adhere to principles of ethical and responsible conduct when interacting with society.”

Fine words, and it is up to Ms Koffel to see that they get translated into practice during her term as head of the Pearl Initiative.

One crucial aspect of that will be to promote gender diversity in a region which has faced its own peculiar challenges over the role of women in business and the workplace. The UAE, which has a better record on gender policy that most of the rest of the Gulf, is well placed to make recommendations to the forum.

“The report on gender issues Pearl produced last year looked at what companies could do to promote policies that encourage a better work-life balance and higher achievement by women within a corporate. The next report will have case studies on how to implement those measures on the ground. The crucial issue is the culture within a company. Women have to feel there is a culture of support,” she says, pointing to several female business leaders who play a prominent role in the Pearl organisation, and on big corporate boards, who could be viewed as role models by the next aspiring generation of working women.

There will be a large female contingent at the forum who will hear how they can help the move towards sustainable growth.

“It’s been proven that companies that encourage sustainable policies attract more foreign investment and better talent, so it makes practical sense to promote it too,” she says.

The other segment of society she views as essential in the sustainability struggle is youth. Pearl is involved with about 25 universities around the Gulf region, and there will be a big student participation at this week’s forum.

“If our aim is to create prosperity and value for future generations, we obviously have to look at the problem of unemployment and I believe the private sector has a big role to play here,” she says.

Pearl’s message is aimed at private business, rather than the government sector, but Ms Koffel is aware that the two are interlinked, especially in the Gulf.

“There has to be more trust in the private sector and in the small to medium and entrepreneurial businesses. I see it not so much a matter of reducing the attractiveness of the public sector but of increasing that of private business. We need more ways to encourage partnership between public and private,” she says, citing health care as one area where government and private sector have worked together with mutual benefit.

There will be a significant presence from Saudi Arabia at the forum, with leading business figures explaining how far the kingdom has come, and could go, towards greater cooperation between public and private sectors – one of the key areas of the 2030 transformation strategy.

The other key watchwords of the Pearl Initiative are transparency and accountability, and Ms Koffel has firm views on their role in the move towards better corporate governance and sustainability. It is worth remembering in this context the environment in which Pearl was created in 2010, when the UAE and the region were just working through a financial crisis that, some argued, was caused at least in part by lack of financial transparency in the system.

“I think there is a much greater awareness now of what the private sector can do to address the issue of integrity. Over the past five years, it has been a real issue that has been looked at and tackled. We have looked at the problem in family firms and asked the question: how can large businesses impact the integrity of their total supply chain? It is not just about financial reporting, though that is important of course, but should be about getting integrity into a company’s very way of thinking,” she says.

Until now, her career has been about developing legal structures to promote good corporate governance.

A lawyer by training in her native Australia, she spent some years at a large multinational company with responsibility for governance, before she got lured into the development field.

A stint in Tajikistan involved setting up legal structures to support youth, women and development. In 2012, she went to Bahrain when that country was trying to repair the image of a legal system that had come under attack from critics, working for a non-profit organisation involved in training, education and reform across the legal system. “It was based in Bahrain, but it was an opportunity to address issues common to all legal systems – too many cases before the courts, too much delay, in a system that needed to be more effective,” Ms Koffel says.

At the Pearl Initiative’s forum this week in Dubai, there will be a continuation of that push for concrete results.

“The UN sustainable development goals have a very tangible target. They are trying to make it a practical and measurable goal,” she says. That is also her priority at the Pearl Initiative.

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