While for most people, the most significant thing to have happened in the Middle East was the so-called “Arab Spring”, there has been another revolution going on, which has been largely under the radar. Entrepreneurship in the Middle East is thriving and how!
Hundreds of startups have sprouted over the last few years, driven largely by young people, most of them women. In fact, when it comes to startups, women entrepreneurs in the Middle East are just as prominent as men – this is something we don’t see even in more developed hot spots for entrepreneurship such as the Silicon Valley in the US and Israel.
Whether in Beirut, Dubai, Cairo, Alexandria, Riyadh, and surprisingly, even in Gaza City, tech start-ups are mushrooming, creating their own version of the Start-Up Spring. This is a fascinating new development and gradually the whole world is waking up to the fact that the Middle East is not just about oil billionaires – it is about young men and women armed with nothing but grit, deep knowledge of technology and should we say entrepreneurial chutzpah, to bring real and more effective change to the region.
It’s not that entrepreneurship is something that is new to the Middle East. Prophet Muhammad was after all a trader during the early part of his life. There has always been a culture of trade and business in the Middle East, but for some reason or another, the Middle East languished while Israel became the “Startup Nation” of the world.
The slow start to entrepreneurship in the region may be attributed to the rigid bureaucracy, and perhaps a fear of failure which is strong in the Middle Eastern culture. It’s certainly not because of religion, as many Western commentators conclude.
Sure, it is possible that a majority of the young start-ups that have sprung in the Middle East over the last few years may not make it – even in the Silicon Valley, 80 percent of new start-ups are forced to shut down in just 4 years.
But that’s the whole point of entrepreneurship – failure is not something to be scared of. Failure is normal, something you go through several times, before finding success. A complete absence of the fear of failure is perhaps the single most important reason why so many Israelis are successful entrepreneurs – many try and fail at half-a-dozen ventures before finding success with one.
So, what’s driving the new culture of entrepreneurship in the Middle East? One may point at the high penetration of smartphones and the social media, the growth of e-commerce, the almost universal use of the Internet and the cultural and linguistic barriers that prevent global technology companies from succeeding in the Middle East – which creates space for young Arab entrepreneurs.
In Egypt, the economic turmoil and leadership crisis seen following the 2011 revolution are a thing of the past and the country is economically and politically stable yet again. And young entrepreneurs have been quick to take advantage.
There is a mass of young, highly educated young men and women in the country who are churning out new start-ups almost every other day. While it is as yet difficult for these young entrepreneurs to find funding for their new businesses, this is gradually changing with the growth of crowdfunding platforms and startup accelerators such as Flat6Labs.
Flat6Labs is a promising Egyptian startup accelerator which has given birth to successful ventures such as Instabug, which makes it possible to offer in-app feedback for mobile apps. There are several other promising new startups in Egypt like that, many on the verge of their own breakthrough moments.
That being said, the tech hubs in the region are still miniscule compared to the Silicon Valley and even to Israel; but as Christopher Schroeder, an American investor who has written a brilliant new book on entrepreneurship in the Middle East, “Startup Rising” says, “the rise of a new generation of business entrepreneurs cannot be ignored.”
We tend to agree with that. For young Middle Eastern entrepreneurs, the world is their oyster!