Entrepreneurs throughout the Middle East face a number of regulatory challenges. Area governments have proven slow to change policies to support the growing number of startups in the region, which has generated some strong criticism in recent months.
One of the most outspoken figures on this topic is Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, who points to restrictive regulations as a signal of governments’ continued focus on big business despite many signs that the future of the region depends on the development of entrepreneurship. Al Qassemi is an Emirati columnist who focuses on business affairs in the Middle East, as well as a fellow with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Labs. In addition, he is the founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation.
While Al Qassemi’s opinion may be provocative, it nonetheless points to an important problem. Governments throughout the Middle East talk about the importance of entrepreneurship and heavily publicize their programs without actually addressing some of the root laws that discourage startup growth. Al Qassemi argues that governments create the perception that they are doing a lot to support entrepreneurs through the media, but in reality they are doing more to promote big business.
Sultan Al Qassemi’s Loud, Influential Public Voice
Al Qassemi’s criticisms have a large audience. He entered the public realm when he began retweeting and translating social media posts made during the Arab Spring. Time magazine included him on its list of 140 best Twitter feeds, and he currently has well over 407,000 followers. His voice is widely heard within the Middle East and beyond.
Since he has made his name largely through digital media, he remains particularly concerned with legislation in this area. Al Qassemi is supportive of new digital media policies focused on cyber security, but he is also distressed by the potential for abuse of these policies that would lead to censorship.
Much of Al Qassemi’s opinions come from his own personal experiences. He started his first business at the age 19 and is currently the owner of Barjeel Securities, a prominent financial services provider and brokerage firm. In addition, he owns a handful of photography studios and other companies.
Al Qassemi sees the creation of a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem as vital to the future growth of the Middle East. He is especially interested in getting youth involved with startups as early as possible to keep them challenged and motivated while also giving them the practical experience they need to succeed.
To encourage children to consider careers in entrepreneurship, Al Qassemi points to a need for a subtle cultural shift. Today, parents in the region still focus on jobs like doctor and engineer for their children. Entrepreneur has still not entered the vernacular to the extent necessary to drive children to this choice, possibly because of all the regulatory blockades that continue to plague startups.
Al Qassemi claims that government regulation is the biggest hurdle that entrepreneurs need to clear, and that the struggles remain real despite public efforts from governments to support startups. Governments are leery of change, especially when it comes to big businesses that serve as the backbone of many societies in the Middle East.
Other Criticisms of Middle East Entrepreneurship Policy
Al Qassemi is far from the first person or organization to criticize government policies concerning entrepreneurship in the Middle East. A major accelerator in the region, 500, has criticized area governments for focusing too much on big numbers and headline-making deals, which means that entrepreneurs struggle to gain access to the small grants they need to make their initial launches.
Highlighting the importance of building a functional entrepreneurial ecosystem, 500 has called for several smaller funds that can make smaller loans to help people start their companies. Then, over time, as these companies realize success, they can in turn provide startup funding to other rising entrepreneurs, and the ecosystem will continually reinforce itself.
Other people have criticized governments for failing to support the private sector even as oil prices fall and diversification becomes more necessary than ever before. Unfortunately, drops in the oil market often mean that governments have even less money than before to invest in small business.
People who have written about this issue point to the fact that governments focus too much on job creation and too little on the business creation that would organically improve the job market. Thus, what money Middle Eastern governments do have to invest in private sector growth is funneled into ultimately unproductive pathways.
Moving forward, perhaps it is best to highlight what governments are getting right, to encourage more growth in those directions. Some governments, like that of Iran, seem truly committed to expanding access to resources among local entrepreneurs. However, even with all the programs that Iran has created for entrepreneurs, a number of regulatory hurdles continue to exist, not to mention bandwidth limits that make company creation and development extremely challenging.
With public figures like Al Qassemi giving these issues international attention, perhaps this dialogue will provide the momentum necessary for governments to create better policies and begin addressing the toughest challenges faced by their most creative minds.