The Expert Commentary

Leading commentators offer their perspectives on the key findings of the ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2018.

Bright future beckons –
if entrepreneurial youth can rise to the challenge

Maysam Ali

Maysam Ali

Maysam Ali is Assistant Director of the Stevens Initiative, an international public-private partnership that connects youth in the US and the Middle East and North Africa through online educational programs. She was previously Deputy Director of Middle East Programs, leading Partners for a New Beginning, an economic development initiative promoting entrepreneurship in the MENA region. In this role, Maysam launched boards comprised of business and civic leaders in Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, and forged partnerships with US-based businesses and early-stage investors to support the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.

Venture capitalists in Silicon Valley often encourage aspiring young entrepreneurs to think about resolving “big problems” rather than conceiving “big ideas”. In this context, the Middle East and North Africa – plagued by decades of instability, mismanagement, and stagnation – are overflowing with opportunities for enterprising and innovative Arab entrepreneurs.

While the 2018 ASDA’A Burson Marsteller Arab Youth Survey reveals that 10 per cent of young Arabs believe the digital revolution to be the “most impactful” development in the Arab world over the last decade – after the rise of ISIS and the Arab Spring – this figure could increase dramatically in the coming decade, as four essential Arab ‘Es’ – education, employment, entertainment, and enterprise – are ripe for transformation.

Arab parents and students alike are painfully aware that their national educational systems offer inadequate preparation for higher education and an increasingly globalised, hyper-competitive labour market. The growing demand to supplement local education is being addressed by several regional start-ups. In 2012 Egyptian entrepreneurs launched Nafham (Arabic for “we understand”), an online platform that offers free video tutorials – similar to Khan Academy – for the national K-12 curriculum. It has since expanded to Kuwait, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

At the higher education level, Edraak (meaning “realisation”), a ‘massive open online course (MOOC)’ platform similar to Coursera, is collaborating with the region’s leading universities, including the American Universities of Beirut and Cairo, to offer popular courses online for free.

In Saudi Arabia – which boasts the highest per capita consumption of social media and YouTube viewership – young people creating entertainment videos from the convenience of their living rooms are gaining millions of followers. Eager to capitalise on this trend, YouTube opened a studio in Dubai offering vloggers the tools, training, and studio space to create content. Audio content is next: journalists across the region are starting to experiment with Arabic podcasts and expect their listener base to grow in the coming years.

Finally, in a region famous for its world-class souks and merchants, the digital revolution is slowly but surely beginning to transform Arab commerce. Arab millennials increasingly use their smartphones to order food and transportation services via apps like Careem. Yet only 53 per cent of Arab youth – more in the Gulf than the Levant and North Africa – shop online due to a combination of high shipping costs, cumbersome customs regulations, obsolete online payment laws, and limited shopping options.

Given that only a small fraction of Arab businesses have an online presence, the majority of online purchases currently goes to regional behemoths like Souq.com (purchased by Amazon), newcomer noon.com or international outlets that offer shipping to the Middle East and North Africa. Fostering online Arab enterprise will require greater co-operation with local governments to improve the region’s financial and logistics architecture to provide secure payment transactions and faster shipping.

As Chris Schroeder documents in his compelling book Startup Rising, young Arab entrepreneurs are continuing to launch companies despite the obstacles presented by political instability, excessive red tape, scant venture capital, and a business culture which penalises rather than celebrates failure.

In Morocco, a failed business risks a jail term for bankrupt owners. Tunisian tech entrepreneurs are lobbying their government to facilitate the process of shutting down failed startups, which can currently take up to a year. Algerian entrepreneurs have sought to wean customers away from the government – a bloated rentier – as the sole provider of services and introduce the concept of citizens as customers. In Jordan, the Arab world’s largest online bookstore Jamalon is ingenuously battling government censorship while trying to grow its offerings.

The Arab world’s first wave of digital transformation – in education, employment, entertainment and enterprise – has helped to address problems exacerbated by both governmental inadequacy and excessive government regulation. As more and more Arabs acquire access to high-speed mobile Internet with 4G-enabled smartphones, the opportunity for further growth – including in industries such as healthcare and transportation – is tremendous: McKinsey & Company estimates that the digital market could add $95 billion per year to the Middle East’s annual GDP by 2020. While the next wave of digital transformation – including artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and virtual reality – offers a promising sign of what’s to come, as the old Arab proverb goes, a single hand cannot clap. Success is a team effort, and both Arab business and Arab governments must rise to the challenge.

Watch Findings Debated

Watch our panel of experts discuss the key findings of the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2018. The wide-ranging conversation takes on hot-button issues facing youth today, including how they view their future, the digital revolution and shifting attitudes to the region’s friends and enemies.