The Middle East, on average, had the highest percentage of new CEO appointments (16%) across the world, with Saudi Arabia clocking one of the highest percentages of new appointments at 20%.

Other markets with similarly high percentages include Poland at 29% and Switzerland at 26%. Middle East companies also ranked the highest globally for CEOs with prior C-suite experience (90%); followed by Latin America at 84% and Asia-Pacific (APAC) at 79%, said Heidrick & Struggles, a premier provider of executive search, leadership assessment and development services, in its 2023 Route to the Top report.

Only 10% of newly appointed CEOs in the Middle East have no prior C-suite experience, the lowest among all other regions in the world.

Young CEOs

The Middle East is also showing a preference for young CEOs, with the current lowest average age at 54.5. In particular, appointed CEOs in the UAE have the lowest average current age of 52.7 globally. Africa ranks second lowest with appointed CEOs having an average age of 55.5.

The annual study analysed 1,221 CEO placements at the largest publicly listed companies globally and their profiles. Between 2022 and 2023, 68 appointments were made in the Middle East region, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Organisations increasingly value CEOs who bring expertise from various sectors and exposure to diverse regions in their positions. The data shows that Middle East companies have the highest share of CEOs with cross-border experience (50%), exceeding APAC and Europe who are jointly in second place (38%).

Over the past three years, the region has also seen a rising preference for CEOs with cross-sector experience. Leaders with cross-sector experience in Saudi Arabia increased from 20% in 2022 to 27% in 2023, and in the UAE, this number jumped from 12% in 2021 to 23% in 2022, and to 26% in 2023.

Trailing gender diversity

However, the region continues to trail behind in terms of gender diversity, with an average 3% of appointed CEOs being women, less than half of the global average (8%). In particular, there are no women among the appointed CEOs in Saudi Arabia, the lowest globally.

“The continued trend of hiring more CEOs with cross-border and sector backgrounds is heartening as it reflects that organisations are increasingly seeing the value of diversity, especially in meeting longer-term strategic goals for their businesses,” said Maliha Jilani, Partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Dubai office and Social Impact Practice lead in the Middle East and North Africa region. “On the other hand, there are certain talent strategies that companies should start emphasising, such as increasing gender diversity in leadership positions.”

“Heidrick & Struggles’ data highlights the strong demand Middle East companies have for experienced and ambitious leaders who can accelerate growth sustainably,” said Richard Guest, Partner-in-Charge at Heidrick & Struggles' Middle East and North Africa based in the Dubai office and the Regional Managing Partner of the global Technology & Services Practice for Asia Pacific and the Middle East.

“Companies must prioritise CEO succession planning by analysing how they might evolve in the competitive landscape and what type of leader can best navigate changes.” 

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