Arab SMEs Must ‘Export Their Champions’

Experts at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit say MENA businesses must look beyond their borders.



Badr Jafar, second from left and Tom Speechley, second from right.

Startups and SMEs in the MENA region must “keep up or be left behind” and look beyond their country’s borders if they want to be a success.

That’s the thoughts of several leading business names from the region, speaking at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Dubai on Tuesday.

Badr Jafar, managing director of Crescent Group, blamed a lack of global thinking for restricting local SMEs from improving their awareness in the rest of the world.

He said when compared to the global awareness of business leaders in the Western world, the biggest names in the Arab business world are relatively unknown outside of the region.

“Unfortunately, you walk through the streets elsewhere in the world and Arab names are unknown,” said Jafar.

“We need to export our champions. Entrepreneurs need to start thinking globally, beyond our borders.”

Tom Speechley, CEO of Aureos Capital and a senior partner at Abraaj Capital, agreed that Arab countries’ borders are restricting business growth.

Speechley identified three main challenges – including the border issue – a startup business or SME faces in the MENA region, the first being access to capital.

“The DIFC reckons the funding gap in this part of the world, the scale of the issue, is $140bn,” he said. “I can tell you that there are millions of dollars going into this place but there are not billions, certainly not $140 billion.

“Issue number two is have you got the skillset required to stay in business. The skills you need to build a business and take it from $5 million a year to $50 million is a completely different skillset.

“The main challenge I think we really face in this part of the world is we don’t have access to a global market. If you look at the largest economies in the world – U.S., China, EU, Brazil – they have got massive domestic economies.

“When you’re building a business in this part of the world, you quickly find you come across a border around your country. That border has been put up to stop people coming in and out of countries but it’s also stopping the movement of trades, goods, people’s ideas – and that’s the real issue.

“You need to bring down the borders, so it becomes cheaper to ship something in from Saudi Arabia then it is to buy it online from the U.S.”

The summit was opened earlier in the day following speeches from HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum and a video message from the President of the United States, Barack Obama.