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What’s top of mind for Middle East CEOs in 2021?
While there is still uncertainty across the region, for Middle East CEOs, tomorrow starts today.
Like their peers worldwide, Middle East CEOs are emerging from the COVID-19 crisis with a remarkably positive outlook. 52% of Middle East CEOs, compared with 47% globally, are very confident that their organisation’s revenue will grow on a one-to-three year horizon. This represents the sharpest rebound in sentiment of any region worldwide, compared with the previous survey.
To drive growth, CEOs are planning to launch new products or services, enter new markets and form strategic alliances. They are looking towards Egypt and Saudi Arabia as key growth destinations.
Our findings suggest that Middle East CEOs are drawing on their experience of withstanding the dual shock of COVID-19 and an oil price collapse to build smarter, more resilient organisations.
Two lessons in particular feature in our results. Firstly, the abrupt mass shift to remote working last year amid worldwide economic upheaval has pushed employee welfare up corporate agendas. 50% of Middle East CEOs regard the good health and wellbeing of the workforce as a priority that businesses should help to deliver, up from 43% in 2016.
Secondly, COVID-19’s wrenching social and economic impact has prompted CEOs across the region, in line with their peers worldwide, to reassess and overhaul business and operating models, as well as corporate transformation programmes, that were conceived and developed before the pandemic.
In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, in our 2010 survey, only 11% of Middle East CEOs planned to increase their digital investments substantially.
However, planned investments will only realise their full potential if organisations ensure that employees have the skills to utilise new technologies. 70% of Middle East CEOs, more than any other region, believe that a skilled, educated and adaptable workforce is a top business priority.
46% of respondents, compared with only 6% in 2016, are prioritising automation and new technology to increase productivity and competitiveness – the steepest rise of any region globally during the same five-year period. This increasing focus by Middle East CEOs on technology to raise productivity does not necessarily mean that they envisage smaller workforces when growth returns. 50%, more than any other region, plan to increase their headcount by between 3% and 10% or more in the next 12 months.
This growing anxiety about cyber threats across the region is an inevitable by-product of fast and increasing digitisation by organisations as they implement new technologies and upskill their workforces. The urgency is demonstrated by the fact that 43% plan to increase investment in cybersecurity and data privacy by 10% or more over the next three years, well ahead of the global average of 31%.
There is also a significant gap between the global survey average and Middle East CEOs on the question of lack of skills as a major threat. 39% of regional business leaders cite this shortfall as a specific issue for their organisation, compared with 28% worldwide, illustrating why upskilling features as a business priority for Middle East CEOs.
Australia’s CEOs appear less focused on risk management than their overseas counterparts. To date, Australia has escaped many of the pandemic’s worst hardships and this may explain why risk appears lower on the agenda. Risk management strategies need to be revisited and re-engineered so that CEOs can make more informed and reliable decisions in the pursuit of business and economic growth, and achieving their strategic objectives.
Middle East Senior Partner, PwC Middle East
Clients and Markets Leader, PwC Middle East