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Khalid Al Ameri: Emirati culture is the biggest challenge to Emirati entrepreneurs
July 12, 2015
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Growing up I never really thought about being financially independent, even throughout university owning my own business was something I just never considered. What worries me more thinking about it today is that it was something I didn’t really know about.

My mentality from as far back as I can remember was set on being an employee, for some reason I couldn’t wait to grow up and walk out of the house to work in the morning, with a briefcase just like my dad. I still remember my first day of work, walking into the office with a briefcase, only to have everyone asking me what I needed it for. It got awkward quickly because I didn’t know why I needed it, it was really awkward.

I realised then how little I had thought about the professional world, about the many careers and opportunities that lie beyond an employment contract and a cubicle. For me employment, namely government employment, was the only way I knew how to be financially successful, gain respect in my community, and funnily enough, get married. Fathers of your bride-to-be like to see “government employee” on your resume.

Now don’t get me wrong. The issue is not with youth wanting to work for the government or become civil servants; on the contrary, in many cases it gives you the opportunity to have widespread impact on your community and your country. What concerns me however is when youth have an understanding, whether it is from their family, or society in general, that it is their only option.

It’s 2015 and our youth today are no more aware of self-employment or entrepreneurship than I was during high school or university. As youth grow up and enter the job market the result is that we are left with a government sector that is the number one employer of citizens (the number I usually hear is upwards of 80% of Emiratis are employed by the government), and only 2% of UAE youth who consider entrepreneurship a viable career choice.

Our government is certainly doing its part. The Khalifa Fund is now UAE wide which launched in 2007 with 2 billion dirhams in capital, and Dubai SME has just injected an additional 600 million dirhams to help new and existing Emirati businesses grow. Both funds offer zero interest loans to Emiratis interested in starting their own business. Tell this to entrepreneurs anywhere else in the world and they wouldn’t believe it, but that is how important our leadership view entrepreneurial contribution to the development and diversification of our economy. They don’t want the money we make from our business, they just want our energy.

During a recent UAE cabinet meeting the ministers proposed a national programme to support small and medium enterprises. The programme includes a federal council for SMEs, privileges and incentives for entrepreneurs, technical training, and marketing support for projects. Our government couldn’t be making things any easier for us if they tried, in part all they are telling us is to show up and they will do everything in their power to ensure we succeed.

Having said that it has never been financially difficult for an Emirati entrepreneur to start their business here. Entrepreneurs from all over the world view the Middle East, especially countries like the UAE, as a hotspot for raising money for their ventures. This is why I believe that the real issue holding back any entrepreneurial movement amongst the Emirati community is cultural.

The first cultural issue is from a societal perspective, and how Emirati entrepreneurs are viewed by members of the community. In a sense as an entrepreneur you are not seen as a dynamic and energetic builder, but as someone who probably can’t get a job. You are not seen as someone independent, but as someone who probably can’t fit it. You are not seen a pursuer of passion and dreams, but as someone unstructured who doesn’t know what they want in life.

It is only when we start to see community support for entrepreneurs that we will see a mind shift towards how people in the UAE view entrepreneurs, or youth that want to become entrepreneurs. Families should support it, schools and universities should teach it, and industry leaders should promote it, the government can only do so much, the real work has to come from us, the people.

Taylor Swift, arguably the most powerful woman in music today, recently wrote a Tumblr blog in which she told Apple, a 700-billion-dollar company, that she would not put her music on their new streaming service if they wouldn’t pay the artists during the initial three-month trial period.

Her exact words were, “Three months is a long time to go unpaid, and it is unfair to ask anyone to work for nothing.”. It is pretty remarkable to me how a young artist who is worth approximately 200 million dollars will fight for every cent she feels that people in her industry deserve. Apple took her seriously, very seriously, and changed their policy to start paying artists during the free trial period. This short story leads me to my second cultural concern, how companies in the UAE treat Emirati entrepreneurs.

I’ve noticed that for some weird reason organisations in the UAE think Emiratis become entrepreneurs because it’s cool, or because it’s a fun thing to do on the weekends. The ideology amongst many companies, even nationally owned, is that due to the strong government support for citizens we are already taken care of or already employed, and that our own businesses are just side jobs or hobbies.

Emirati entrepreneurs are also given little benefit from companies with regard to contracts or how much they are compensated versus international entrepreneurs or businesses, Why? Because they are international entrepreneurs, and they wear suits, so they must be serious.

Even negotiations are harder, several Emirati entrepreneurs have mentioned that simply asking to be paid for their work becomes a job in itself. For some reason companies feel that UAE nationals should offer their services for free because it’s our “National Duty”. It is our national duty to give back to our country, support our leaders, develop our youth, and build our communities, it is not however our national duty to offer our services to multi-billion-dirham organisations for free.

After one year of building my business it saddens me to say that for the first time in my life I feel being an Emirati has made things harder. All I ask of companies is to understand that not every Emirati is a millionaire, and just like other entrepreneurs around the world we are trying to build a business and a way of life to support ourselves and our families. For that to work out we need you to take us seriously and support us, the same your founders had support when they first started.

We have all the necessary ingredients to create a vibrant entrepreneurial eco-system in the UAE. We have creative and energetic youth, we have an engaged society that is very active on technology platforms, and we have funding and support from our government. What we need is for family and community members from all around the UAE to change their view of entrepreneurs, for the business community to show us some love, and for entrepreneurs to take action.

It is our hope that we can put all those elements together and create an environment where youth can’t wait to start their own businesses, where being self-employed or government employed is the same in the eyes of society, where Emiratis are proud to call themselves entrepreneurs.

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The author is a columnist on education and youth development.

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