Beyond the Barrel: A Story Banished in Washington

By Sarah Elzeini

Whether walking cobbled souk paths or marbled ministry halls, the future of Middle East economies is being carried everywhere in the pockets of the region’s residents. With processing power greater than what NASA used to put the first man on the moon, today’s smartphones have an unparalleled capacity to turn thought into reality.

The news on the region has certainly been saturated with fear and conflict, however, truth be told that very few of these countries are immediately affected by strife and the real issues the region is tackling regard development and climbing up the ladder in global competitiveness.

It has been predicted by 2020, over two-thirds of the region will be internet capable or possess a smart mobile device. Seventy-eight of the generation born between 1977-1997 prefer the Internet to TV. This rise in tech has led to a surge in information accessibility, ushering a new transformative group; “The Participation Generation.”

According to Atlantic Council’s Middle East Economic Recovery and Revitalization Report by Christopher Schroeder and Sherif Kamal, this Participation Revolution means universal access to the world, having the same knowledge as everyone else at their fingertips despite borders, leading to an influx of idea sharing and digital collaboration.

According to the report, 90 percent of young citizens in the region believe internet access can help them realize their career ambitions and over 40 percent of them aspire to start their own business. Remarkably, information sharing brought by tech has already begun to reshape the mindset of individuals; to create, dream, and innovate beyond, returning back to their rich culture of entrepreneurship.

On February 3rd at the Youth, Tech, and Entrepreneurship hearing at The Atlantic Council, Madeline Albright stressed the importance for Middle East governments to encourage skills critical to the 21st Century. This means redesigning laws and education systems that promote critical thinking. With today’s technological and communication advancements, there has not been a more advantageous time of individual empowerment and an ability for anyone to change the fate of the future.

“An economy that encourages and enables startup ventures, creates an ecosystem that facilitates other types of productive economic activity.”
– Madeline Albright

I spoke with Christopher Schroeder, Executive in Washington, Venture Investor and Author of Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East, on the future of the Middle East, who joined Madeline Albright in convening the discussion.

With vast experience in the field, I asked him if he witnessed any notable changes in attitude towards entrepreneurship. He shared that his greatest exposure to this is the United Arab Emirates: “Which has not only leapt beyond many nations in offering government services utterly enabled by technology, but is walking the talk of encouraging men and women to create businesses and to innovate. When the remarkable Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum recently noted that the UAE will celebrate “the last barrel of oil,” he sends a huge signal to his country, the region and to the world what is coming.”

The United Arab Emirates is aggressively leading the region in fostering an entrepreneurial ecosystem, Schroeder added that this is a clear model oil economies have access to.

Although there have been great leaps in entrepreneurship, there are ways to go. One challenge that Schroeder emphasized was the need for educational systems geared towards the flourishing of new enterprises in the 21st Century.

“A system that focuses on rote learning and memorization at the expense of critical thinking and creative problem solving, where class sizes are way too large and teachers are paid way too little –simply is not competitive.
– Christopher Schroeder

The 2007 International Bank for Reconstruction and Development Report found that regionally, the Middle East spends a higher percentage of their GDP on schooling than almost any emerging market with similar levels of per capita income. The predicament here is not the quantity allocated, but both the quality and relevant application of the education to 21st Century demands.

An additional challenge pointed out by Schroeder was the rule of law. “On the rule of law, the guide lines are pretty basic — does policy support the freest movement of people, ideas, goods and services and capital predictably and sustainably?” Schroeder cites the UAE as a prime and aggressive model in the region.

I would like to draw attention to another challenge impeding entrepreneurship to flourish in the region, and that is sponsorship systems.

Having lived abroad in the Gulf for several years, I always admired the job security that governments ensured for their citizens. An example being that most university students are sponsored by a company, in Qatar that may be Exxon, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and so on. Upon graduating, the individual must work several years with their sponsor in order for the tuition to be covered.

However, with that, there is a downside, which goes in hand with entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship requires critical thinking, flexibility in thought, ability to change career paths, and creativity, however if a student goes into university with a sponsor and then upon graduation realizes their heart is set on something else, it is hard for them to change paths at the most pivotal part of their life. As this is a time in their life where they have space to creatively think, and greater ability to pick up on current trends.

In one way, sponsorship can inhibit ambition, creative mindsets, and mental flexibility, because one generally knows what he will be doing with his career. Often this is where complacency steps in and the desire to create wanes.

Sponsorship is good, however, I would propose greater flexibility within them and other methods around paying off sponsorships if one chooses to switch career paths. Possibly multiple companies can have exchange programs amongst eachother for sponsored citizens seeking to change paths. This not only makes for a happier and ambitious individual but strengthens the company, as it …read more

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