We do not have to puzzle long over what ignited the Arab Youth to take over the streets calling for reforms in their governments. The protests have been against long tyrannies, unemployment and have been fueled by the power of social media. The act that triggered the pro-democracy movement in many Arab countries, the self-immolation of a Tunisian in protest over the confiscation of his fruit stand, shows that the events of late are also an uprising against anti-entrepreneurial barriers. Clearly, protesters have issued a call to Arab leaders to not stifle the innovative aspirations of their people–especially the younger generation–which leaders themselves have armed through education and who are now impatient to put their education to good use.
Channeling the anger and frustration into building a start-up culture in the region would transform what today seems a threat into a great stabilizing asset. Last December, I had the opportunity to meet many young aspiring entrepreneurs from Libya at a conference focused on the Maghreb countries (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia,Libya, and Mauritania). The objectives of the Maghreb Entrepreneurship Conference, was to discuss entrepreneurship-based strategies to fight high unemployment in the region. The conference paid special attention to youth entrepreneurship in North Africa. With over 50% of the population under 25, the Maghreb countries face the challenge of a large number of educated but unemployed young people. If more people like Lybia´s Omar Abdelaziz Abdelati al-Obeidi, who started the Arab world’s first online library for the blind, see opportunity to prosper in the new systems that emerge in the coming months, they will be supportive. Entrepreneurship generates a bottom-up push for reform. As I´ve expressed before, in the midst of the chaos, a positive sign has been obvious. The events were a result, not just of desperation, but of initiative and a belief that they should be allowed to have a say because they can contribute to their countries’ economic future.
Today, I have been in Abu Dhabi at a meeting to explore just how all this energy can be channeled through such initiatives as Global Entrepreneurship Week that can bring together members of the entrepreneurial ecosystem from throughout the Middle East and North Africa to create a vibrant and growing community that works together to advance entrepreneurship in the region. There is a whole different tone to this conversation since I was last here. Major events like the Abraaj Capital summit last November and Endeavor’s decision to open an office in Dubai have all helped. However, more important is the emergence of a common bond between both young people and their elders to forge a path that allows for entrepreneurial activity as a positive force of individual expression.
Other evidence of this urgent attention to entrepreneurship in the region can be found in my invitation to visit Muscat, Oman where, although a cabinet re-shuffle was announced today, I am meeting with the Minister of Higher Education who is eager to leverage entrepreneurship to keep diversifying the Sultanate´s economy and will be formally committing the nation to participate in Global Entrepreneurship Week. Oman is an interesting case. Unlike in many neighboring nations that rely almost entirely on oil revenues, in Oman several non-energy business sectors, such as tourism and light manufacturing are expanding rapidly. According to some, the Omani economy is one of the freest economies in its region.
The Omani government has worked hard to create infrastructure to fuel and support a rising generation of entrepreneurs. In 2009, the Ministry of Education launched “I’m an Entrepreneur” Campaign to create more awareness about entrepreneurship amongst students and recent unrest has doubled Omani efforts. For example, other governments might make note that His Majesty Sultan Qaboos already established a Fund for the Development of Youth Projects (known today under the name ‘Sharakah’) in collaboration with the private sector to provide capital and assistance for business projects set up by young Omanis. A royal Decree exempts the Fund from company income tax for 10 years and from corporate tax and tax on profits for five years.
And non-governmental organizations are now active too, such as Injaz – Junior Achievement in the Middle East. One 18-year-old university student I met, Rihab Ahmed al-Rhabi, often speaks of her interest in entrepreneurship. Rihab happens to be a member of the Omani all-girls team that won the 2009 Injaz Arab world entrepreneurship competition.
Not too long ago, the New York Times published a piece on Oman remarking that just 40 years ago, Oman was one of the most isolated and repressed societies in the world, with few schools and poor communications infrastructure. But the country made a sharp deviation from its historically similar neighbor, Yemen, which now has become an incubator for Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. “Visit Oman today, and it is a contemporary country with highways, sleek new airports, satellite TV dishes and a range of public and private universities. …”
Big changes in government rule in these nations will be slow to take hold. However, as the case of Oman shows, faced with an opportunity to tackle high youth unemployment and channel youth dissent, fueling an organic entrepreneurial revolution at the grassroots level is increasingly looking like the smartest strategy for today’s leaders in the Arab world. Put simply, entrepreneurship in this part of the world is the best remedy for one of the root causes of the discontent – unemployment. Someone once told me that in every problem, there is a gift for you in its hands. Let’s hope that anxious current regional leaders can see it and, as here in Oman, be bold enough to encourage it.
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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.