Entrepreneurship in Saudi Arabia

Jonathan Ortmans, President, Public Forum Institute

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to join an extraordinary group of women entrepreneurs mostly from Saudi Arabia for a lunch at the home of the Honorable Esther Coopersmith.  All were both proud of their higher education in Saudi Arabia and had started companies in a wide range of businesses from construction to IT.  I should not have been surprised.  Starting a business in Saudi Arabia is relatively easy. Its “ease of starting a business” rank is 13 out of 183 economies, according the World Bank’s Doing Business 2010 data. This is not surprising. Saudi Arabia is widely recognized as a leader in promoting and enabling entrepreneurship and innovation.

Entrepreneurship enjoys high level support in this country. Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, the advisor to the King of Saudi Arabia, chairs the Saudi Arabian National Entrepreneurship Center (NEC), an institution created to empower the young to be successful entrepreneurs by creating the needed supportive environment through specialized education, training, knowledge, mentoring, and finance.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia is home to the one of the most influential Middle Eastern educational institutions, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). The university is an international, graduate-level research university dedicated to inspiring a new age of scientific achievement in the Kingdom, across the region and around the globe. KAUST recruited top education leaders from around the world to ensure high-impact education, and engages in academic relationships and research collaborations with various global academic institutions.

KAUST and other government efforts to facilitate entrepreneurship and innovation have many stakeholders. Saudi Arabia is the home country for some of today's most innovative and entrepreneurial individuals. The youth consists of more than 70% of the country’s population and many of young Saudis are looking to entrepreneurship as a career path.

Maria Mahdaly, for example, formed and managed a company called Fainak while still in school. Fainak is an online social network that reached over 30,000 members within only one year. Maria employs other young people to develop Fainak as a youth platform that helps organizations and business owners. Her team has succeeded in attracting sponsors from telecommunications giants, Unilever international and small businesses because Fainak is able to put them in direct contact with their targeted customers, the youth. Currently, Fainak is focusing on developing a socially responsible youth culture through events, the website and a magazine. Maria’s success and entrepreneurial drive led her to become one of the six young Saudis selected to attend President Obama’s Summit on Entrepreneurship in Washington at the end of this month.

Saudi Arabia will be an important participant in this Summit, which will focus on the Muslim world, given the country’s experience in creating an enabling environment for Saudi entrepreneurs through assistance in all aspects of the entrepreneurial endeavor, from education to startup financing. The Muslim world and the rest of the globe will benefit from these examples of building peace and economies by growing the culture and practice of entrepreneurship.


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Jonathan Ortmans is president of the Public Forum Institute, a non-partisan organization dedicated to fostering dialogue on important policy issues. In this capacity, he leads the Policy Dialogue on Entrepreneurship, focused on public policies to promote entrepreneurship in the U.S. and around the world. In addition, he serves as a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation.

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