Morphing the MENA Mindset: Entrepreneurship Means Meeting Challenge with Change

While the dramatic, often violent events in the Middle East have dominated most attention, it is widely recognized that economic development -- jobs -- will ultimately either sustain the autocracies now in power or force change by uncontrolled, largely negative influences. The Middle East can and should learn from the economic consequences of failed governance elsewhere and harness the energy of entrepreneurship and its youth to its advantage with a recognition that change and challenge are inevitable components of visions for the future.
Photo credits: John-Mark Smith

Much has been written about long-term “vision” strategies being implemented by almost all the MENA governments. Vision 2020, Vision 2030, and others represent commendable government efforts to structure programs that recognize the essential role economic development plays in diversifying and strengthening an economy.

Media analyses of these economic plans have been unable to offer much certainty, however, as to whether these plans will actually succeed. The plans themselves require extensive detailed preparation. Implementation has not offered much detail of success to date. The Saudi Aramco public offering delay is the most visible example. If recent past experience is any indicator of the future, these Visions may sadly remain mostly that, just apparitions, with some equally undesirable economic and socio/political consequences.

Specifically and most importantly, much of the new economic development intended through these plans is modeled around extensive expansion of the IT/tech sector. Many start-ups have already become global successes, such as Souk.com and Careem. But for the MENA region to compete globally in the IT/tech sector (against India, China, USA, and others), serious attention must be paid to the essential attributes of entrepreneurship. These include networking, risk taking, and learning from failure.

Few places in the world other than the Middle East are actually less suited to encourage, nurture, and sustain entrepreneurship. Why?

The answer is multi-staged in structure, which in itself demonstrates exactly how complex the issue is.

Today, significant constraining influences are holding back the potential entrepreneur in the MENA region. These limiting influences are tribal and sectarian in their nature and origin, and together they reinforce similar objectives. Especially limiting are the challenges potential women entrepreneurs face.

Tribal customs are extremely powerful in Saudi Arabia, for example. Such customs are generally conservative and male-dominated, strictly hierarchical, and based as much on birth as on performance or competence. In the broader MENA region, such tribal customs are indeed very strong conservative, traditional influences. After hundreds or even thousands of years of such customs, the repression of change, risk-taking, and even failure is limiting for entrepreneurs. Yet traditional, conservative cultures discourage such aspects that are essential to successfully managing commercial risk.

Conservative religious traditions often stress what is seen as divinely directed imperatives, not individual human choices. Manifestations of this include rote memorization of holy scriptures at Madrasas to the detriment of critical thinking, and of challenging beliefs and norms so essential to science, technology, and new business development.

The economic transformations hoped for by the various Visions necessarily embody new freedoms to think and to debate. The leadership in the MENA region needs to understand and adapt to the essential elements of entrepreneurship. These include a necessary entrepreneurial mindset that employs critical thinking and problem-solving in order to innovate. The leadership must allow for people across their societies to engage in intellectual challenges, at a minimum with respect to business, commerce, and finance. In other words, leaders must unlock the entrepreneurial spirit. Without that, there will be inadequate economic development and an inability to compete with the rest of the globe, effectively nullifying their aspirations of modernization and economic growth.  

Without that degree of intellectual freedom which is the most critical attribute of entrepreneurship, such Visions are doomed to fall short of their goals.