Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has been gaining ground in the region as more companies demonstrate their willingness to give something back to the community. But while multinationals appear to be leading the way in the UAE, local companies are catching up and realising its value, not only in helping others, but also in enhancing credibility among their peers.
Dubai has moved on to such a degree in the area that it has formed a CSR committee that encompasses a number of firms with common goals. A CSR summit will also take place at the JW Marriott hotel in June, organised by international event management company, IIR, which aims to connect business values with CSR.
IIR has reported that almost half of the world's top 250 companies have an established CSR programme.
"CSR is quickly becoming a buzzword in the region, with many talking about environmental issues," said Richard Beggs, managing director, MVM Group, which has conducted research into CSR around the world. "However, we need to ensure that companies based here don't take the same road as their counterparts in the United Kingdom, who continue to discuss the issue without positive action. They need to actively drive CSR and environmental policies."
Amina Taher, the executive director of corporate communications at Zabeel Investments, believes there is a fine line to successful CSR that is not based around money.
"There is a great misconception that CSR can be achieved with charitable donations. CSR is about putting back a little more than what you take out," she said.
However, while multinationals, such as Nokia, General Motors and Crocs donate much of their allocations to charity, a new breed of CSR is emerging in the Emirates, in which companies are ploughing money back into training and making a difference to the lives of local people by developing skills that will help them in the workplace.
The National Bank of Abu Dhabi (NBAD) is one such company that is doing just that. Last October NBAD appointed Belinda Al Baluchi as its corporate social responsibility officer and since she started, its CSR programme has moved on leaps and bounds.
"We're helping students with sponsorship to university, then internally we're developing a culture of empowerment in order to become an employer of choice, paying fair wages," she said. "We are trying to draw staff in and see what is important to them, such as financial literacy – as many marriages end in divorce due to financial difficulties – so we want to find what their expectations are and help couples understand money."
Meanwhile, Taher is reluctant to call Zabeel Investments' initiatives a full CSR offering, but it is also helping students through its Bidaya programme. Run in association with Nakheel, Bidaya helps UAE students through university, gives them career advice, training and work experience.
"We want to have a long-term investment and those individuals might well go out in to the community and do greater good. As we all know, education helps break the cycle of poverty, of crime and allows youngsters to develop their own course in life," said Taher.
But investment in people is not the only way companies in the Middle East are helping the region, others are focusing on the environment. The Grand Hyatt Hotel in Dubai completed a tree planting exercise in Mirdif last year during a meeting of the group's general managers from all over the world, while Nokia is also trying to reduce its impact on the environment by redressing the way its mobile phones are packaged. Having realised they were using too much cardboard, they have reduced the amount used in packaging, which has had knock-on benefits down the production line.
Yolande Pineda, Nokia's communications director for the Middle East and North Africa said: "We started the initiative in February 2006 and we're now using 54 per cent less material than we used to. By 2007, we had 250 million phone packages in the new boxes and have used 5,000 fewer trucks to transport them."
Nokia has had its CSR programme in place for more than 15 years and also has internal initiatives to help staff understand its ethics. On top of this, it has a programme that offers employees involved with community projects half a day off each month to pursue them – something Pineda fully supports, as she believes it is about more than money.
"A real commitment is not about sending a cheque, but about having a programme that people in the community and employees can get involved in," she said.
But even though a number of companies are working on environmental issues, a recent survey by MVM Events Dubai discovered 78 per cent of firms are unaware of the importance of such initiatives. The survey included local and multinational firms across the Middle East, Europe and Australia and found just 18 per cent of companies in the region have increased their awareness of CSR issues over the past year compared to 22 per cent in London and 34 per cent in Sydney.
But Beggs said that despite the GCC having the lowest rating, it has still improved. "A year ago our survey showed that only 10 per cent of the region's companies had a CSR eco-policy when organising events. A staggering 87 per cent of companies stated that they would be considering CSR ecological issues more over the next five years, when organising events."
So it seems the time is ripe for a change in the corporate responsibility arena in the UAE. There is still a way to go to be at the same level as Europe and Australia, but Al Baluchi for one is pleased with the progress that is being made.
She said: "Some people get scared by CSR because there is a misconception they have to do activities in the community that aren't aligned to anything, but more companies are gradually coming to understand it and are making a start to help."
Individuals are not the only ones who benefit from corporate social responsibility – charities are often the biggest winners.
A number of organisations in the UAE have been able to better execute their initiatives thanks to CSR donations. The Dubai Autism Centre has received cheques from both Zabeel Investments and General Motors, while All As One (AAO) has a number of companies that regularly contribute.
AAO is an international charity that aims to help orphaned and abandoned children in the world's poorest country, Sierra Leone, and has been able to do more thanks to CSR, says its UAE Country Director Matthew Morgan-Jones.
"Without corporate donors we would still be on a day-to-day existence, but now we are three or four months ahead of schedule. We have bought land on which we plan to build a school and health centre now the orphanage is up and running, so it's a critical part of what we do" he said.