Entrepreneurship in the Arab World: A Report from Dubai

Jonathan Ortmans, President, Public Forum Institute

It is an important week for entrepreneurship in the Middle East. Here in Dubai, two important global summits will be convened by His Excellency, Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, United Arab Emirates Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, and Carl Schramm, President of the Kauffman Foundation: The HCT Global Entrepreneurship 2010 Conference (E2010) and the Kauffman Foundation’s Global Entrepreneurship Congress which I will emcee.

There is no doubt about it. The promotion of entrepreneurship as the key economic driver is a burgeoning global phenomenon. These two summits, which run parallel to each other, bring together impressive leaders in entrepreneurship from nearly 100 nations.  Later today, we will be joined here in the UAE by a long list of dignitaries from the Prime Minister of Georgia to the Duchess of York, from prominent academics to high growth startup entrepreneurs such as Tom Scott, who founded Nantucket Nectars.  Also arriving here today are the new movement leaders from nearly every one of the 88 nations participating in Global Entrepreneurship Week.  Entrepreneurship is no longer a side-show at the circus. It is increasingly being examined as the engine of new growth around the world.

The Middle East is the appropriate setting for these efforts not just because, as has been thoroughly reported, President Obama has chosen to focus on entrepreneurship in the Muslim world as one of his first forays into promoting entrepreneurship on the global stage.  It is fitting because of the region’s unwavering commitment to entrepreneurship. Our meetings here with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries show that when faced with high youth unemployment and new challenges to their economy, they are choosing to focus on encouraging "nations of entrepreneurs" fueled by creativity, initiative, and risk taking.

The UAE and other countries in the region are at the forefront of the global entrepreneurship movement. Throughout the Arab world, hundreds of initiatives are being launched to encourage youth to innovate and start their own enterprises. In Dubai, the Centre of Excellence for Applied Research and Training (CERT), which started in 1996 as the commercial arm of the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), is now the largest private education provider in the Middle East and also the largest MENA (Middle East North Africa) investor in the discovery and commercialization of technology. CERT is just one example of the exceptional work being done to advance entrepreneurship in the region. 

The focus on entrepreneurship as a tool for development in the Arab world is not necessarily new.  The U.S. State Department's Office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) has worked to encourage youth entrepreneurship in the Middle East and North Africa since 2002.  MEPI has a Regional Office in Abu Dhabi that administers MEPI local grants in Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Yemen.  What is new is the plethora of new attention to this field from existing organizations. These organizations extend beyond the traditional public sector players such as the United Nations Development Program or USAID. Programs like the Brookings Institution’s Wolfensohn Center for Development, the Aspen Institute’s 90 organization strong ANDE program, and Harvard University’s Dubai Initiative are all devoting considerable attention to the role of entrepreneurs in the development of the region.

Data suggests that these efforts are bearing fruit. The UAE ranks among the top ten global reformers in 2008/09, according World Bank’s Doing Business in the Arab World 2010 report. Gallup polls in turn revealed that except for Egypt and Yemen, majorities of young respondents in all other Arab countries surveyed perceive their local areas to be good places for entrepreneurs. In the UAE, three-quarters of young respondents say that their communities are good places to live for entrepreneurs forming new businesses. Such perceptions are similar to those expressed by young respondents in the U.S. (73%) and the U.K. (71%).

Many are planning to announce new and exciting efforts around the President’s Entrepreneurship Summit at the end of April. Look to the Policy Dialogue on Entrepreneurship (PDE) in April for an advance look at what is coming up.  In the meantime, stay tuned for future posts from me on the discussions that take place here in Dubai at the Global Entrepreneurship Congress where momentum is building towards new and exciting ways of building entrepreneurial economies with globally-focused entrepreneurs.

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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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