Guest Blog Post: Steve Lee takes over the Middle East

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Dinner cruise on the Nile.

As many of you know, I am always looking for guest bloggers to be on my blog. Just the other week I reached out to Steve Lee -- a friend since elementary school -- who I know is currently taking over the Middle East and Asia. He is on an amazing journey right now and I wanted him to share with both myself AND my readers. Thanks so much, Steve, and best of luck!!!!

4:40 A.M., I hear the horns blare Arabic chants across the city, as the first of six prayers commences. I generally snooze till the next prayer, which begins around 6 a.m., and begin my day.
Coloseumm, Rome

Late last year, I accepted a job as a management consultant specializing in restructuring financial institutions in emerging markets. This means I work with banks in high-level strategy to increase growth and productivity while maintaining or lowering costs. Emerging markets would constitute fast growth countries in regions such as the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and South America. People often ask me, “Where are you now Steve”. For those who do not know, I am most likely in Riyadh, the ultra-conservative capital of Saudi Arabia. On my off weeks, I live in London and like to vacation within Europe. My first project is with one of the largest banks in the Middle East. I won’t bore you with the details of my job but further explore my experiences working and living in Saudi Arabia.
Exploring the old country #saudiarabia #ruins 

Like most Middle Eastern countries, Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country. It hosts the two holiest sites of the Islamic religion, Mecca and Medina. Due to the countries religious nature, their laws are based on the holy book Quran, known as Sharia law. Some of the well-known laws of Sharia law include the ban of alcohol, pork, public dancing, cinemas, and gambling. These rules are enforced by the Mutawa aka the Religious Police. Also, there are public beheadings every Friday…yikes. This was a huge culture shock for me! Anyone who knows me, no bacon or beer for long periods of time can be dangerous!
230km into the desert northwest of riyadh we searched and found camels and camped in an oasis
The biggest culture shock for me was the limited rights for women in this country. Women in Saudi must always be accompanied by a male guardian in public, designated entrances for restaurants and stores, are not allowed to vote, and is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive. As my Saudi colleagues put it, “it’s a system created for women to always rely on men”. From most of the men I talked to (I am forbidden to talk to women-- sigh) they feel progress needs to be made, yet they are very protective of their wife and sisters. They feel the guardianship is the best way to make sure the women in their life is safe. But issues such as not being able to vote or drive are something many would like to see changed. It was 30 days until my first interaction with a woman, and that was on the plane heading to London! Only if you saw that interaction, it was a total disaster .
Giza Pyramids

The people in this country are very open and generous people. They love engaging in geopolitical, cultural, and even religious conversations. These conversations are always done with the upmost respect and which is something I admire. I have been invited to many homes and enjoy the cultural experiences Saudi has to offer. It maybe they were just as curious about me. Either way, the perception the media created about the region as a whole couldn’t be further from the truth.

My journey and story does not end there. When I took the job as a management consultant I also joined Bankers without Borders. I wanted to leverage my current location and experience in banking to begin making a small footprint in this world. This is where my true passion lies. Passion is the engine that keeps us going no matter the circumstance. 

Bankers without Borders is a Grameen Foundation Initiative which helps the world’s poorest, especially women, improve their lives and escape poverty by helping to provide access to appropriate financial services (small loans and accounts) and new ways to generate income. My role is in the development, deployment, and teaching of financial projections modeling to microfinance institutions that service the poor. What I do for this organization is a very small fraction of the impact it makes in some of the worlds poorest regions. I had the privilege of meeting with a MFI in Egypt to educate them on tools to better run their bank. Egypt is a very poor country with 16 million people living on less than 2 USD a day. Don’t let my beautiful pics of the pyramid fool you! It was a high dosage of reality to walk through the city and see the rapidly worsening conditions in the cramp capital of Egypt. I will continue to work with MFI’s in many countries including a slated visit to Tunisia and Pakistan as long as it remains safe.

When I found out my project was in the Middle East, I had no roadmap plan nor do I know where I will end up next. The possibilities are endless and it’s the uncertainty that makes it an enjoyable experience. As the great Joe Dirt once said, “ Life’s a garden, dig it!” I plan to continue to learn new cultures & experiences and grow in many aspects.

To my family and friends back home much love and cant wait to grab a pint and catch up with you all! Cheers and hope to see some of you in Greece or Turkey next month!
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