Golden age of innovation looms for Arab world's entrepreneurs

Mohammed Mahfoodh Al Ardhi

Mohammed Mahfoodh Al Ardhi, the executive chairman of Manama-based Investcorp and the chairman of National Bank of Oman, profiles entrepreneurs from across the Arab world. We will share four of his profiles with readers this week.

The Arab world is at a watershed. With some 220 million people under the age of 30, it has the world’s second highest percentage of youth, trailing only sub- Saharan Africa.

The region also has one of the highest rates of joblessness; approximately 10 per cent of the population is unemployed. Young people shoulder a disproportionate share of that burden, and as more and more enter the job market, the need to absorb them grows more urgent.

According to the World Economic Forum, Mena countries will have to create some 75 million jobs by 2020, just to maintain employment at current levels.

How leaders address this challenge will determine whether those youth drive future growth and prosperity or hinder economic development, potentially inflaming the unrest that has gripped the region in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings.

As the experience of Oman shows, one key to avoiding the latter is promoting education for all.

Whereas in 1970, there were only three schools in the entire country, Oman today has more than 1,200, guarantees free education through high school for boys and girls alike, and boasts a range of public and private universities.

It’s upon this educational foundation that Sultan Qaboos built the modern state we have today. As Oman transitions to a knowledge-based economy, education reform with an emphasis on critical thinking and life skills remains a national priority. Of course, education alone does not create jobs. If Oman and other Mena countries are to successfully address the challenge of youth unemployment, it’s imperative that we – business leaders, policymakers, educators – cultivate a climate of innovation, one in which business can flourish and entrepreneurs can thrive. Meanwhile, we have to foster in young people the conviction that they themselves can be the engines of change. That, as entrepreneurs, they can generate ideas, launch new ventures and create the jobs the region so urgently needs.

For the youth of the Arab world, entrepreneurship offers the promise of empowerment. But entrepreneurs will only emerge from an education system that nurtures their talents and provides them with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.

As it is, entrepreneurs in the Arab world are severely underserved, with little access to formal education or qualified instructors.

According to a recent report by the World Economic Forum, fewer than 10 per cent of universities in the Mena region offer courses on entrepreneurship and just five universities offer a major in the subject.

But there are signs of change. Universities in Saudi Arabia are beginning to strengthen ties with the country’s business community through initiatives like the Innovative Industrial Collaboration Program at King Abdullah University of Science & Technology.

At Abu Dhabi University, the Centre of Innovation and Entrepreneurship is bridging the gap between academia and industry by helping students incubate their start-ups.

Also, in countries across the region, an organisation called Injaz Al Arab is sending thousands of private-sector volunteers into schools to teach kids financial literacy and the basics of starting a business.

Slowly but surely, this movement is gaining strength, and yet, amid the region’s upheaval, much of the good news is going unnoticed.

One reason for this is the news media’s tendency to portray Arab youths not as budding entrepreneurs but as criminals and terrorists, an image that belies their immense power to affect positive change.

Drowned out by unrelenting reports of bombings, kidnappings and executions, by the daily horrors of war, are quieter stories of success.

These stories challenge the prevailing stereotypes, and as a result, seldom make headlines. But they are no less relevant to the world around us, and no less worthy of our attention.

No, in fact, they demand it. For far too long, we have looked to our past for inspiration – for examples of greatness from the Golden Age of Islam, and to be sure, we have much to be proud of; the Arab world has nurtured a number of brilliant minds, men, and women, whose contributions – to mathematics and medicine, physics and biology, poetry and philosophy and much more – shaped the course of history and are deeply cherished around the world.

But I believe it is high time we shifted our gaze.

While we venerate our forebears, it’s imperative that we also identify and celebrate the present-day luminaries of the Arab world – those whose achievements beg for a fuller portrait of the figures behind them, whose tales of overcoming hardship, of forging ahead in the face of adversity, will undoubtedly serve to inspire young readers across the region.

Now more than ever, the Arab world needs a new narrative, something to counter the prevailing perception of its people as primitive and prone to violence.

The people whose stories I tell in my book Arabs Unseen surprised me.

It wasn’t the stories themselves but rather how much they all had in common. Regardless of where they’d grown up – Jordan or Saudi Arabia, Tunisia or Lebanon or Bahrain – these men and women had confronted many of the same challenges, harboured many of the same fears and struggled with the same doubts.

Not one of them knew, upon starting out, where the journey would take them, or that it would all work out in the end.

They all took risks and at one point or another, one way or another, they all stumbled. But they all had a vision and a burning passion for the work and they were all determined to stay the course no matter what obstacles life threw in their way, and no matter how distant the finish line seemed. I realised, too, how much their stories resembled my own. Having endured the deprivations of a premodern Oman, I know what it means to struggle.

Especially being a former fighter pilot, I know well the pressures of performing, the terror and thrill of being alone at the controls and the consequences of a miscalculation.

At 450 knots, there was never time for fear; a fighter pilot is forced to be decisive, to act quickly, to hit the target on time and in their own way, the Arab achievers I’ve profiled here have done just that – fearlessly, if figuratively, taking to the skies, executing plans and learning to lead.

They are also a testament to the value of education. Without it, and without working hard to excel, none of these individuals would be where they are today.

It’s true that education in its current state isn’t enough to guarantee employment and that’s a problem that people are working hard to address.

But if Arab youth are to have any shot of realising their potential, education is imperative.

From the book Arabs Unseen by Mohammed Mahfoodh Al Ardhi, copyright © 2015. Published by arrangement with Bloomsbury Publishing India.

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