Arab and Emirati Youth – The UAE as a well-source for entrepreneurial development in the region

Since October I have been leading the 2011 UAE GEM Report with Dr. Victor Huang - since I moved here in August 2009 I have been very active with youth as supervisor of the Business Associations on both female and male campuses and with entrepreneurial organisations such as Tamakkan. Dr. Victor has been the supervisor of the ZU Entrepreneurship Club since its dynamic launch and has seen the development of the Club and its executive members as the have become among the youth leaders in entrepreneurship in Abu Dhabi. This blog is a result of our work, observations and long long hours of analysing mountains of data and our own anecdotal experiences.
The UAE is similar to the Arab world in that the majority of the local population is under the age of 24. Although there appears to be an abundance of resources, full and gainful employment of local Emiratis is and will remain to be a challenge in the coming decades. The reluctance of the private sector to hire Emirati youth, coupled with the saturation of government positions by mid-age Emiratis, foreshadows a great need for future entrepreneurial activity – self-employment – by today’s youth.

The challenge for the government and for entrepreneurial support agencies such as the Khalifa Funds, Intilaq and Mohammed bin Rashid Establishment for SMEs, Tatweer and others, is complex, both because youth entrepreneurship in the Arab world in general, and in the UAE in particular, is little understood and the blueprints developed and used in other parts of the world are not suitable for the local cultural, economic, social and environmental context.

According to the data from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report in 2011, the vast majority of Emirati early stage entrepreneurs choose to become entrepreneurs due to opportunity recognition and the desire for independence and autonomy, rather than through necessity or economic need. Although there is no current data or research on Emirati youth and the motivations for starting their own businesses, anecdotal evidence from our experience as professors and faculty supervisors of the Business Associations on the men’s and women’s campuses and the Entrepreneurship Club, Zayed University students, suggests that they are motivated by passion for their idea or project, a craving for independence and a craving to be well known as a successful business person – a “self-made” success.

Although this seems to be widely “known” and accepted that these are the motivators for Emirati youth, there is almost a complete lack of understanding of how to get from spark – to fully formed idea – to business model development – to financing – to opening the doors for business.

However, an understanding of the motivations and possible incentives is only part of the story. The sustainable economic, social, cultural and environmental needs of the UAE, and its diverse regions, need to be understood to develop “incentives” and guidelines for future Emirati entrepreneurs to follow and be inspired by.

This understanding can only be developed through on the ground research, talking with key young Emirati entrepreneurs, their Emirati role models who inspire them and youth advocates. Discussions with faculty at Federal universities supporting entrepreneurship needs to be carried out – to understand what is happening on the ground and what resources and support are needed to scale up successful initiatives. Enterprising high school teachers, who have proven track records of inspiring projects and support for their students, need to be consulted and their best practices gathered into a resource guide for teachers in all subjects and grades.

Oil was the key resource needed to drive the industrial age – and the UAE has been a source for this. Entrepreneurship, while not a magic wand for economic development and diversification, will be key in the developing the knowledge economy, especially in the Arab world. The UAE can be a source of innovative ideas and business concepts tailor made in the Arab world, by Emiratis and this will be the fuel for the sustainable knowledge economy of the future.

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