The Middle East and North Africa have the largest number of young people of any region in the world. More than half of the individuals living in the region are under the age of 25. According to last year’s World Economic Forum report, the region also has double the global average of youth unemployment. What these numbers fail to reveal, however, is the amazing potential of young people throughout the Middle East. Reports have shown that the region has some of the highest penetration rates of mobile phones in the world, and many of these young people have an impressive mastery of emerging technologies. This strong inclination toward technology has proven a major driving force in the technology startup boom, especially in terms of mobile technologies, occurring in the Middle East.
While many people have viewed the massive population of young people in the Middle East as problematic, some have now begun to see it as an asset. As young people have already demonstrated, they hold the tools for economic empowerment and job creation in their hands. The question then becomes one of how governments and other organizations can help these young, innovative minds translate their ideas into companies, products, and jobs.
Many large entrepreneurial organizations have opened in the region to provide this support. One of the first was Yahoo’s Maktoob, which launched the first e-commerce site in Arabic, Souq.com, which is now valued at more than a billion dollars. More recently, Google for Entrepreneurs launched the technology hub AstroLabs in Dubai. The movement of major companies like Yahoo and Google to the Middle East, not to mention the high valuations of companies like Souq.com, has captured the attention of many investors around the world who are actively seeking out opportunities in the region.
Looking to Youth as Future Technology Leaders
As the Middle East continues to draw more investment interest, the spotlight is falling on young minds. The trend was voiced by Hala Fadel, the founder and chairwoman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Enterprise Forum of the Pan-Arab Region, at this year’s ArabNet Digital Summit. An angel investor, Fadel serves as a partner with Leap Ventures, a venture capital firm with offices in Dubai and Beirut that has raised $71 million for investment in regional companies. Fadel argued against the concept of “brain drain” in the Middle East and pointed to the increasing prevalence of smartphones and high rate of Internet usage among the 100 million Middle Eastern people under the age of 15. These young minds have incredible entrepreneurial promise, as they come of age in a fundamentally different land than their parents did.
Fadel earned her master of business administration from MIT and recognized a marked lack of inspiration and motivation in the Middle East upon her return. She has, in turn, focused on inspiring and motivating to Middle Eastern youth, who have unprecedented potential for driving development in the region through entrepreneurship. Through the MIT Enterprise Forum for the Pan-Arab Region, she instituted the annual MIT Arab Startup Competition, which drew more than 5,000 applications this year. The competition has three different tracks to recognize the different paths that young people may take. One track is dedicated to companies that are already established, but that wish to expand in an innovative way, and another is for people who are still in the idea phase of their startups.
The third track focuses on social entrepreneurship and points to the real potential among Middle Eastern youth for revolutionizing the region. Social entrepreneurship projects look beyond profits and strive to create a strong social impact.
Middle Eastern Youth Engineer a Brighter Future
Some pushing for entrepreneurship in the Middle East have met with resistance from people who argue that it alone will not solve the immediate challenges facing the region. While companies driven purely by profit can spark economic development and create jobs, the reality is that young minds in the Middle East are driven by more than making money. Social entrepreneurship is becoming increasingly common as companies focus on bringing educational tools and other opportunities for social empowerment to their respective nations. Nafham, for example, an online education site, has made more than 20,000 lectures conducted in Arabic available for free on a wide range of subjects. Within a year, the videos had several million views.
As Fadel explains, the problems facing the Middle East have become creative fodder for its young minds as they seek to envision new systems that address the most flawed elements of society. Last year, one of the MIT Arab Startup Competition winners was SudaMed, a medical software company that maintains an online directory of hospitals, clinics, and similar institutions throughout the country. The company also negotiates cheaper prices on prescriptions by bypassing insurance companies hindered by bureaucracy.
Similarly, this year’s ArabNet Startup Demo competition winner was Otlobdoctor.com, which provides access to doctors’ resumes, allowing individuals to request house calls online, and maintains a doctor rating system.