Fluent in Arabic and English and with an MBA from the United States, Sahar Ali could have pursued coveted posts at a multinational. Instead, after spending nearly a decade in the United States, Ali returned to Sudan to lead the business administration department at Sudan International University, a private institution in Khartoum. She describes fueling her passion for teaching through her courses, including principles of management, marketing, organization behavior and entrepreneurship. In her classes, she adds, she stresses learning English fluently and mastering soft skills, such as learning how to do a professional presentation.
While Sudan’s private sector expands, the country still faces economic obstacles such as high unemployment. Ali acknowledges the struggles, but tells her students to build their own futures. She sat down with Arabic Knowledge at Wharton in April, providing a rare snapshot of the country’s economic prospects, the nature of business training in Sudan and how women are at the forefront of carrying the private sector forward.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How would you describe Sudan’s economic situation?
Sahar Ali: Sudan, right now, is going through very tough times in terms of the economy. The inflation rate is over 46%. [Politicians] here say it’s only 20% or 30%. But it’s over 46%. Everything has doubled. It has risen tremendously for the past two years, especially after the separation of South Sudan. Everything is very expensive. We don’t have industries in Sudan, like the production of oil or just consumer products; everything is being imported from outside. So everything is affected by the dollar rate; the dollar rate is shooting high, so for everything you just have to triple the value of it or the money. So now, people who are working in the public sector are struggling, there’s not enough money, salaries are very low, the average salary for an entry-level employee is less than 1 million [Sudanese pounds], which is US$20 a month.
If you go to the private sector, you can go up to 3 million [Sudanese pounds]. So that’s the issue here: It’s more appealing. It’s better for you to work in the private sector than the public sector — which is exactly the opposite of the U.S. [where] if you get a federal job or a state job, it’s more secure; but if you go to the private sector, there’s more work, a lot of hassle, a lot of stress and so on.
So here, it’s exactly the opposite. What all my students are striving for is getting a good private sector job. Politics also plays a part in the game. If you are politically affiliated to the governing party, then you’re going to get a better job. If you are politically affiliated, then you get a good public job, a well-paid job. If you’re not, then you’re not going to be well paid; you don’t go up in your career and so on.
Students are struggling just to ride on the bus. They need about 10 Sudanese pounds a day for them to come on the bus, from different places, and you need another five pounds for breakfast, so 15 pounds a day. If their father is paid 1,000 Sudanese pounds a month and he has five or six children, how is he going to make it? It’s very difficult. Sometimes, some of our students, they just come hungry. They’re tired, they don’t have any interest, they don’t have any motive. [They ask] "Why should we study? Why should we do this and why should we do that?" So this is exactly what’s happening right now.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Is there a lot of growth in the private sector?
Ali: Yes, thank God for that. A lot of multinational corporations have been invading Sudan, which is good, Alhamdulillah. One of the biggest Sudanese corporations [is] called DAL Group… We’ve got a lot of oil companies, which are multinational corporations, not Sudanese corporations. All the telecommunications companies are multinational corporations; we’ve got almost four telecommunication companies in Sudan, [and their jobs are] very high paid and they require applicants or employees with proficiency in English. So you have to really speak and write proper English.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Is this a good time to do business in Sudan?
Ali: Everything is being privatized in Sudan, from electricity to railroads. All industries are being privatized. The government doesn’t have money to develop those sectors, so everything is being privatized. Some people say [it’s] for the good of the country. And some people say it’s going to make things even worse. We don’t know. The future for all Sudanese people is gloomy. Nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. What is better? Nobody knows.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What sectors have potential for development in Sudan?
Ali: The two industries that are really good are the food industry and the telecommunication industry. These are the things that Sudanese people can’t live without — their cell phones and their food, that’s it. These ones are emerging and they’re so profitable beyond average people’s imaginations, especially the telecommunications industry, they’re making a lot of money.
We still [need] more companies to produce more consumer goods. Yogurt, oil, tomato sauce, the simplest food necessities, we have to get it imported from outside. So we still need to develop more in that sector. The problem is such sectors need to be backed up. Either you’re backed up by the government, then you strive and grow; if you’re not backed up, [then] you have a lot of hurdles and a lot of problems.
[As for the] clothing industry [there’s] none whatsoever. Thirty or 40 years ago, we had factories that produced shirts and clothes, [but] none whatsoever right now. And we used to grow cotton, the best cotton in the world [was] Sudanese and Egyptian cotton, but not anymore. It’s been eradicated. I don’t know what happened. It just closed — the Jazirah scheme plantation, that’s where they grew cotton — and eventually the clothing industry ceased, because everybody is importing from China. China has invaded Sudan in a monstrous way.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Can you tell us about the university’s background?
Ali: It started in 1990. It was developed by a group of professors from different universities and that was the old management of the university. Around about 2003 or 2004, I think, new management came over and the president of the university was Bakr Osman Saeed, he is a professor in pathology and he started really directing activities of the university toward the name, which is [an] "international university." Before it was named the "international university" but there was nothing international about it. But right now, we’re going toward the international aspect. We have a lot of foreign students, especially from Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan, teaching in English; the university was only teaching in Arabic for about the past four or five years.
When I came to this university, I was appointed as the head of the department of business administration in the faculty of management sciences. It was the first year that we started teaching in English. And as you know, when you shift from a language that is the mother tongue of those students to the English language, the shock was very strong for those students. It took us two years for them to be adjusted to the English language. We’re teaching in English, but we have to translate and use a little bit of Arabic to ease the students.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Why is it important for students to learn in English?
Ali: Because everything is becoming international, everything is becoming global. We have a lot of international companies in Sudan; interviews conducted even in the Bank of Sudan are in English; all of the multinational corporations like DAL Group, like MTN, the telecommunication industry, the oil companies, all of them conduct interviews in English. They require students to have good proficiency in English.
Everything is becoming global, we have a lot of international companies in Sudan. If you want to get a good job, it’s not for you to work in the government, [it’s] for you to work in a multinational corporation — that’s where they pay a lot of money.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Besides English proficiency, what else are you doing to prepare your students to enter the business world? What’s your approach?
Ali: We start from the lecture. We try to make the way we teach, hands-on teaching. When I talk about marketing or I talk about business or I talk about any field of business, I have to connect it to the outside world. What is happening in outside companies? What are so-and-so companies doing — outside and inside Sudan? We’ve got few examples in Sudan, so all of my examples are [about] what Americans are doing, what [the] British are doing; what should we be doing in this country, for us to develop. So, first we start with the lecture, we try to have a connection between what is happening outside and applying the theories of management, theories of marketing to the real world. That’s the first way.
The second way [is] we try to make our students have internship programs. We require all our students in the business school to have an internship between the third and the fourth year, which is the senior year. They have to have a one-month internship; <spa