Will Entrepreneurship Save the Arab World?

Arabic Graffiti
By Raghda Butros · 13 August 2013
Arabic Graffiti

Entrepreneurship is suddenly huge in the Arab world. The hype around the concept grew from nothingness to infamy practically overnight. Does this mean the Arab world was devoid of entrepreneurship before the hype? Is the guy who started out selling sunglasses on a cart, and who now has three shops and a large extended family living very well as a result of his efforts an entrepreneur?  How about the guy who still lives in poverty, but who has invented a cost-effective heat-reflective resin from recycled materials for which he cannot afford a patent? Who is an entrepreneur and can the notion grow, as is claimed, to meet some of the needs of all those millions of young Arabs?

Entrepreneurship is in the doing, not the being, which is where some of the confusion seems to start.  Professor Howard Stevenson of the Harvard School of Business says: 'the entrepreneurs I know are all different types. They’re as likely to be wallflowers as to be the wild man of Borneo…they see an opportunity and don’t feel constrained from pursuing it because they lack resources…they’re used to making do without resources.'  Research shows that entrepreneurs are more likely to start out poor, but how does this gel with the notion of the entrepreneur touted in the Arab world? Many of the region’s most recognized entrepreneurs are the children of the well-connected and the well-to-do, and the array of personal and circumstantial qualities that have come to define the entrepreneur in the Arab world have little in common with the vast majority of young Arabs.

Are the doors of companies that support start-ups and entrepreneurship open to the average Arab on the street? They claim to be, and they may even believe they want to be, but given the almost exclusive tech-focus, extensive use of English, and type of networking needed to access such opportunities, this is doubtful. Of course, there are the token few. The poor boy makes good stories that keep us all enthralled. But these are certainly the exception and are probably the kind of people who would succeed regardless.  Dictionary.com identifies an entrepreneur as 'a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk.'  This blend of initiative and risk is what shapes the entrepreneur, and having a lot of comfort to fall back eliminates half the equation, and in so doing renders the definition moot.

Much is made of the fact that many of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs never finished college, which somehow seems to suggest that education and entrepreneurship are not connected. In much of the Arab world - where thousands of children leave public school at grade nine or ten unable to read, write or do simple arithmetic - this is a very misleading notion. It would be difficult to argue that a lack of basic education would not curtail the efforts of even the most entrepreneurially spirited and minded individual. The Arab public educational system is also such that those who are the most creative are the least likely to do well. A focus on revamping education should be of utmost priority to any effort that is looking to unleash talent not just at the top but also throughout the pyramid. In today’s educational climate, many of the region’s most creative people will not be able to access opportunities laid out for the region’s future entrepreneurs.

Another notion that gives rise for concern is that the success of an enterprise rests on the shoulders of the maverick - the lone person willing to put his or her neck out and attempt to succeed at all costs. But that one person, no matter how formidable, is never enough. In an attempt to promote entrepreneurship, much more needs to be said and done about the teams that make it all happen - the people who put in the guts but get little glory. The last thing we need in the Arab world is more glorification of that single man - the only one who can make it work, the over-burdened patriarch who valiantly struggles to make everyone follow his brilliant vision of progress. This image is reflected in the way that many businesses in the region are run - as mini-autocracies with no succession plan beyond a hand over to the family heir.

Enterprises succeed when they meet a demand – some by identifying a need, and others by inventing it. More often than not, entrepreneurs and their teams build on existing technology, research and trends. To access this information, a huge and accessible base of knowledge is needed. This is still lacking in the Arab world, making many of its startups end localized copies of existing concepts, or stabs in the dark that are more apt to fail than to succeed. And while plenty of creativity and change can be found in the streets of today’s Arab world, its businesses – both old and new - seem to be stuck in consumerist mode. Forward-thinking, purpose-driven innovation is needed to meet the challenges of the Arab world head on, but this is often compromised in favour of quick wins and instant buzz in the world of conveyor-belt entrepreneurship.

Everyday young Arabs are out in the streets fighting for social justice, equality, self-actualization, and the end to tyranny and elitist self-interest. Yet, if the past three years have taught us anything, this is not enough to achieve long-lasting change.  Any movement that proposes to meet some of the aspirations of young Arabs has to take the risk of rejecting business as usual and embracing an inclusive, groundbreaking, purpose-driven, representative and knowledge-based process. Otherwise, the entrepreneurship movement is not being very entrepreneurial.

About the author

  • Raghda Butros

    Activist Consultant
    Raghda Butros
    Hamzet Wasel
    An urban activist and community developer, Raghda Butros is the founder of Hamzet Wasel, a social venture that works to revive and enrich the cultural and social identity of urban communities in the... Read more

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

This website is maintained by the Faculty of Social Sciences at The Open University · Website privacy at the OU

Seventh Framework Programme (FP7)ERC: European Research CouncilThe Open University