Oussama Tabbara has contributed to the development of
the Middle Eastern accounting and audit profession for more than 40
years. He speak with Nicola Maher about how the industry is growing
from a little-understood phenomenon to an established player in the
global profession.

The Middle Eastern accountancy profession’s interest in the global
profession and the global profession’s interest in the Middle East
are stronger than ever before. But there are still hurdles, both
cultural and professional, that industry figures are working hard
to resolve.

One man at the heart of the development is Oussama Tabbara.

The 70-year-old managing director of Nexia International member
firm Usamah Tabbarah & Co (UTC) was born in Beirut in 1938 and
brought up in Lebanon and Jordan.

Tabbara graduated with a Master’s degree in business administration
at the American University in Beirut in 1961. He then pursued a
career as an auditor, establishing UTC in 1962.

The firm has now grown to 14 offices in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia,
Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq, with a total of about 400
professional staff.

At the same time, Tabbara’s resume has grown to include
vice-president of the Arab Society of Certified Public Accountants;
chairman of Nexia Middle East; member of the Saudi Organisation for
Certified Public Accountants (SOCPA), the Saudi Accounting
Association and the Association of Lebanese Certified Public
Accountants; and representative at the United Nations
intergovernmental working group of experts on international
standards of accounting and reporting.

A long way

Backtracking to the beginning of his career, Tabbara says the audit
profession in the 1960s was not well known in the Middle
East.

“At the time, numerous people around me asked me why I wanted to
work as a bookkeeper. I had to explain that the bookkeeping and
auditing professions are completely different,” he explains.

The profession has come a long way since then. Tabbara says he has
been associated with the International Accounting Standards Board
and has promoted international standards for many years, and there
is now more interest in IFRS in the Middle East than ever
before.

Most countries in the Middle East are leaning towards adopting IFRS
and the changes and decisions will take place within the next year
or so, Tabbara says.

“I don’t think we are expecting to find any difficulty whatsoever
with the implementation of international standards,” he adds.

Interaction between local and international accounting bodies has
increased in recent months, Tabbara says, pointing out that there
have recently been conferences in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the
United Arab Emirates that have attracted representatives from the
International Federation of Accountants.

Despite moving ever closer to the global profession, there are
still some challenges to be met.

Saudi Arabia is one location where Tabbara is encouraging
development – he recently submitted a letter to the secretary
general of the SOCPA, Ahmed Maghames, which made a series of
recommendations. One recommendation was to grow the number of
professionals.

Saudi Arabia has a population of about 25 million, but only 160
licensed practicing professional auditors, Tabbara explains.

“I recommended in the letter that, to serve such a large economy,
Saudi Arabia needs a minimum of 1,000 qualified auditors. In
Lebanon there are 2,000 qualified auditors serving a population of
only four million,” he says.

Tabbara explains it is important to motivate Saudi graduates to
join the profession and says his firm plans to employ 30-40 Saudi
university graduates, who will be trained at UTC’s Saudi Arabia
offices on condition that they sign a contract to stay with the
firm for three years and to sit for SOCPA’s exams.

One major barrier to growing the Saudi profession is that current
law in Saudi Arabia forbids female auditors from working in public
practice.

Tabbara says this is an important issue and “hopes it will be
resolved in future”.

UTC itself is performing strongly. Despite the economic crisis it
has continued to increase its professional staff and grow its
practice. Tabbara says the credit crisis has provided the firm with
opportunities. In particular, the firm has picked up audit clients
as companies ensure their accounts are in check. There are also
more professional people on the market.

“However, we need people who can speak Arabic and English fluently
and not just one or the other, which is still hard to recruit,”
Tabbara adds.

For the future, Tabbara expects UTC will continue to increase its
staff, provide them with additional training and make sure that the
firm overcomes the global recession “and remains in a very strong
position”.