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American University of Beirut starts first Mideast corporate governance program

The first corporate governance program in the Middle East was launched Thursday at a ceremony at the American University of Beirut (AUB).

"A program as much needed as corporate governance doesn't exist anywhere in the Middle East and this is a gap we need to bridge," said George Najjar, dean of AUB's Suliman S. Olayan School of Business. "Corporate governance is simply at the heart of business leadership."

The National Bank of Kuwait (NBK) donated $100,000 to fund the program for a year and is expected to renew funding for subsequent years.

Corporate governance, the study of how corporations are run, will be particularly important in helping the Arab world attract investment and modernize infrastructure.

"Today the Arab world ranks only above the sub-Sahara in terms of development," said AUB trustee Ibrahim Dabdoub, who as CEO of the National Bank of Kuwait helped engineer the donation. "We account for only 1 percent of foreign direct investment in the world. It is simply because we have a lack of visionary leaders, viable democracies, and quality educational organizations."

International ratings agencies have consistently awarded NBK the highest credit ratings in the Middle East, and Dabdoub said the bank should provide a regional example.

"The Arab world lacks transparency in our markets, accountability, and adequate laws and regulations," Dabdoub said. "The challenge is how to move from central corporate bureaucracies to systems that are effective and rule-based."

Challenges to transparent and accountable markets in the Arab world, according to AUB professor and corporate governance program coordinator Assem Safieddine, are presented by economies dominated by family-run businesses and a limited ability of the state to enforce proper governance.

"Legal regulations often seem vague and ill-defined," Safieddine said.

"There is no single corporate governance solution that promises the silver bullet," he added. "Reform must be tailored to individual countries."

AUB's program is currently focusing on launching a research program and developing courses, which will begin in the fall.

"It's like we are starting to teach the alphabet. People don't know what best practices are," Safieddine said. "Creating awareness is our first priority."

Beirut,05 16 2005
Will Rasmussen
The Daily Star
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