Our 40-foot container was loaded onto a vessel to sail gulfs, seas and oceans – heading to a port on the other side of the world.
A larger shipment of warm memories encoded in our brains and souls also departs, as we step onto the plane and bid goodbye to Bahrain.
Other than my birth home in the Nahr el Bared Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, Awali has been my second longest dwelling – and the longest for my children.
Even though I lived most of my years in the US, we never stayed in one place for more than four years.
Yet even in Awali we had the feeling of a provisional arrangement: More than 13 years after arriving we still had unopened boxes stored in the garage.
This sense of instability was down to the two-year renewable work contracts.
While I appreciate the impetus for expats’ short-term contracts, it is self-defeating.
In accepting a job with Bapco, I implicitly understood that my skills needed to fill a “temporary” specialised gap in Bahrain’s workplace.
When I joined I was surprised to discover some expats had been on “temporary” contracts for more than 20 years!
Being a little familiar with the education level of Bahrainis, I was dumbfounded that those technical gaps still existed.
In the Global Management Master Programme, we conducted case studies on how multinational corporations embrace local talents to achieve successful knowledge transfer, gaining competitive advantage globally by controlling costs locally.
In Bahrain, companies put an emphasis on farcically short time periods instead of measured deliverable plans to develop local expertise.
Absent of defined objectives, expats’ primal instinct kicks in and preserving their livelihoods takes priority.
Their commitment to the company gives way to job security.
Naturally, employees become occupied with managing the longevity of their contracts first, putting that ahead of the greater good.
In the absence of a strategy to bridge the gap, lopsided demand for imported knowhow is open-ended.
For expats, delaying knowledge transfer is rewarded by a semi-automatic contract renewal, inevitably becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I have worked with competent Bahrainis who were sidelined because they were perceived as a threat, not an asset.
And I’ve worked with so-called expat “experts” who I wouldn’t have hired as support staff in my previous job in the US.
Balancing knowledge transfer and developing local talent involves walking a fine line and requires audacious, yet prudent company leaders.
The two are complementary, not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Throughout the world, organisations have succeeded in maturing the local workforce while at the same time providing job security for expats.
But company leaders I worked with favoured divide and conquer work silos, instead of unite and lead. They define performance by setting easy-to-achieve goals, rather than challenging the organisation to reach new heights.
There is a risk of creating an environment of cultural conformity and normalised submission, by conferring financial perks on acolytes to secure personal loyalty.
In this scenario the collective mentality becomes self – and self-preservation before organisation. More alarming, this usurps checks and balances on CEOs who assume unfettered discretion to manipulate information, accentuate the positives and conceal unfavourable data from boards and owners.
This is compounded when internal auditors and watchdogs answer to organisational hierarchy, rather than independent boards.
It breaches basic principles of best management and breeds a culture of corruption and favouritism.
Financial greed takes precedence over excellence, while self-interest transcends that of the company, hinders creativity and destroys morale.
Bahrain has made great strides towards transparency through bodies such as the Financial and Administrative Audit Bureau and the Auction and Tender Board. There is, however, a limit to how much governments can do.
Organisational transparency and independent inspectors are the first bulwark against unethical practices.
The plague of cliquishness and structures of conformity are relics of the failed 20th Century communist ideal.
The future is for companies that leverage their employees’ maximum potential – and value performers before conformers.