Diana Hollmann

Best Ideas of 2011: Revolutionizing mindsets for a new Arab World

Nobody had foreseen what we witnessed happening throughout the Arab World in 2011: Three heads of state have been ousted from office, at least two still fear for their power as citizens fight for their rights, shaping a new Arab World. It’s an Arab World that people from both inside and outside the region are beginning to associate with the terms ‘opportunity’ and ‘change’ rather than ‘disenfranchisement’ and ‘stagnation’. This revolution of mindsets might set the ground for a cultural shift toward more risk-tolerance, activism and entrepreneurship in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Barriers to unleashing entrepreneurial activity

Through the media we mostly hear about the political transformations sparked by the Arab Spring; but the dire economic situation, particularly of the youth in the region, was the final straw that actually got the ball rolling: two thirds of the region’s population is below 30 years of age. Some 20 to 30 percent of youth, in some countries up to a staggering 45 percent, are unemployed while barriers for starting a new business persist. By 2020, 50 million new jobs will have to be created just to keep current unemployment figures on the same level. Business creation will be an important motor for job growth; however, barriers for aspiring entrepreneurs are still commonplace in MENA. When Steve Jobs (who was half Syrian) passed away, a 28-year old from Damascus said: “I think that if (Jobs) had lived in Syria he would not have been able to achieve any of this, or else he would have chosen to leave Syria.”

Barriers to setting up a new business are multifold, ranging from a culture with little appreciation of risk and entrepreneurship in favor of secure government jobs (according to a recent report government is considered the second most popular sector to work in after oil, gas and petrochemicals) to a lack of finance for start-ups paired with regulatory frameworks and corruption that stifle private enterprise. The story of Mohamed Bouazizi whose self-immolation triggered the protests in Tunisia is instructive: at 26 years old he couldn’t find a job.

Tapping promising sources of entrepreneurship

The Arab Spring has set the stage for entrepreneurial energy to surge despite the numerous challenges in the region. Massive inspiration comes from the collective experience of having challenged the status quo successfully; space opens up for taking risks and seizing new, for this generation mostly unheard of opportunities in their home countries. Responding to local needs with local business acumen and entrepreneurial spirit might spark further great examples of (social) enterprises such as Souktel from Palestine. Through cellphone services, the Souktel-team connects people from low-income communities and those with restricted movement, e.g. living in the Gaza strip, with job opportunities. Founded in 2006, Souktel already reaches more than 200,000 cellphone users and has replicated its model to five countries.

The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor indicates another source of untapped entrepreneurial energy that the revolutions might help to harness: compared to other regions, MENA demonstrates a rather large gender gap with an average of 19 percent of adult men but only 9 percent of adult women involved in entrepreneurial activity. Women activism – as impressively showcased by the recent march of thousands of women in Egypt – is an idea to be put into practice more broadly over the coming years. It is encouraging to learn, for instance, that Injaz Al Arab, a major regional initiative promoting entrepreneurship education, recently announced a girls only team from Palestine and another one from Saudi Arabia as winners of their entrepreneurship competition.

An idea whose time has come

The revolution of mindsets for a new Arab World has also taken hold outside of the region: international interest for the MENA region has risen sharply. Numerous initiatives have highlighted entrepreneurship in MENA in the past, including Obama’s Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship, the truly inspiring Celebration of Entrepreneurship and Ashoka’s Arab World Social Innovation Forum. But few from outside of the region have paid particular attention. This year, however, MENA has come to the center stage of international interest. Just have a look at Arab entrepreneur role model Fadi Ghandour’s filled agenda with keynote speaking engagements, e.g. at the Skoll World Forum.

All in all, MENA’s youth is no longer a disenfranchised generation in waiting and it’s time for Arabs to believe in themselves and for the world to notice. Seldom has Vicor Hugo’s quote been more appropriate: “Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come!“

Impact Assessment
business development