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Syrian Quest for Freedom

Jonathan Ortmans, President, Public Forum Institute

As I read this morning’s news about Syrian security forces renewing attacks on the city of Hama, I become even more committed to finding stories of Syrians looking beyond the divides of politics, class and religion, who can help shape the fate of the country and its four-months-long revolt against President Bashar al-Assad. This is particularly so because unemployment, which is always an underlying cause for any revolt, is essentially a youth issue in Syria, where young people represent nearly 80 percent of the unemployed.

An entrepreneur is someone who is willing to take a risk—seeing solutions and opportunity where others only see problems—and someone who has a drive to create value and wealth. Obviously, the current situation in Syria is not favorable for risk-taking. But as has happened in other strife-ridden countries, many people take control of their own lives through entrepreneurship, a career path that provides the opportunity for greater freedom and prosperity. It also helps that there is a tradition of entrepreneurship and commerce in Syrian culture at all levels of society. For thousands of years, it has been one of the great trading nations of the world.

Syrian leaders could do much to improve the current situation through policies that ease the repressive business environment. There are also many regulatory and policy areas that can be reshaped to help channel people’s unease toward entrepreneurship. For example, Syria is among the bottom three countries worldwide in the ease of getting credit, according to the World Bank. Although the Commercial Bank of Syria was officially charged in February 2009 with increasing loans for small business startups, a climate of corruption and instability deter many would-be entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurship education is also key. If Syria is to break free from inter-group dependencies and to prosper, it needs a generation of young disruptive entrepreneurs who are taught how to bring their ideas to market. Teachers must be trained to teach these skills. The government needs to think about this in its education plans and entrepreneur mentorship program designs, a recommendation issued for the country time and again by International Labor Organization (ILO) and local leaders, such as Abdulsalam Haykal, the president of the Syrian Young Entrepreneurs Association (SYEA). An entrepreneur whom the World Economic Forum selected as a Young Global Leader and as one of 10 leaders from the Arab world in 2009, Haykal expressed in an interview that year that the education system, despite undergoing reform, was still not very supportive of free initiative, questioning, critical thinking, problem solving, and thus innovation.

Partnerships like the one between the Ministries of Education and Higher Education with SHABAB are also important. SHABAB was created in 2006 to work with young people between the ages of 15 and 25, helping them build entrepreneurial skills through entrepreneurship curriculum for schools. This partnership with the government has allowed the organization to introduce courses to train teachers to help young people to know about business and enter the private sector.

Entrepreneurs emerging from this deep socio-political crisis have local idols, such as SYEA’s Abdulsalam Haykal, and Omar Hamoui, who founded, grew, and sold his mobile advertising business, AdMob, to Google in late 2009 for $750 million. In just three years, AdMob had become an approximately $100 million business, with 140 employees and important investors sitting on its board, like Jim Goetz from Sequoia Capital and Richard Wong of Accel Partners. The acquisition was so important to Google that both Larry Page and Sergey Brin personally negotiated with AdMob’s founder.

There is no doubt. Entrepreneurship will be key to Syria’s future. For its economy to prosper, it needs energy to be channeled to entrepreneurial thinking at all levels and in all parts of society. I leave with you a quote from Abdulsalam Haykal, who, when named to be among the 200 most distinguished young leaders in 2009, said:

“[This honor] does not give recognition to me only, but to all the young men and women of Syria, who have taken upon themselves the commitment to lead their societies through serious and creative initiatives. Those are the ones who are leading the positive change, building on the country’s legacy as a principal contributor to the human civilization for thousands of years. They are courageous individuals that take charge at this time of reform and transformation, and stand up for Syria’s historic role as a maker of peace and prosperity for the region and the world.”

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