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GSEN in the Gulf

May 27, 2016

Zain #3

In March this year, GSEN & UnLtd were invited to speak at several events arranged by the British Council across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Zain Miah, UnLtd Award Manager for London & the South East, duly joined the British Council team and proceeded on a tour which took in Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

The British council promotes the development of social enterprises and social investment to help foster a more sustainable, inclusive and prosperous future for all.  Their programmes draws on UK expertise, striving to share best practice and create opportunities between the UK and other countries.  We were contacted by Alliyah Jaffrin Choudhury, Partnerships Manager for the Gulf Region at the British Council, to support a programme of information and inspiration across the Gulf. Alliyah said:

“There is a huge opportunity for us across the Gulf to benefit from the experience and learning that is available when it comes to social enterprise from the UK. We have to move the conversation forward, we have to act now.’’

Regional context

We are currently seeing a period of unprecedented change in the Arab world. A lack of economic opportunity for tens of millions of young Arabs has exacerbated a youth unemployment figure of close to 40 per cent. Compounding this problem is a burgeoning population, 65 per cent of which is under the age of 30. The population of the Middle East and North Africa has grown by about 50 per cent since the 1990s and is set to grow the same percentage again by 2030.

Research has shown that nearly all new net job creation in developed economies derives from new, small businesses, which make up more than 70 per cent of the economy in these countries. By contrast, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) make up less than 20 per cent of the economy of the GCC countries on average. This makes the need for investing in the SME sector here all the more important, especially when we consider that just to stop unemployment figures from rising, in excess of a further 120 million new jobs are needed across the next 20 years, more than were created in total over the past 100 years.

Although non-profit organisations have existed here for several decades, for-profit businesses with a social purpose embedded into their vision are relatively rare across the Gulf.  Further, while there is a strong tradition of entrepreneurship across the Gulf, there is an area which has yet to be explored: social entrepreneurship.

In Arabic, various terms exist, but there is general consensus that social enterprises are a key disruptive, hybrid model at the intersection of the public, private and non-profit sectors – the ‘missing middle’ between corporates, governments and traditional social entities.

social enterprise in the gulf

Moving the conversation forward

In response to this emerging picture, the British Council organised five major events to show how social enterprise can drive social change and inspire the next generation of Gulf leaders.

Starting off in Oman, showcasing some of the best entrepreneurship skills to the young people of Oman, the British Council organised a seminar at InterContinental Muscat called ‘Business for Social Change’, the event was attended by more than 150 people. At the event, four experts spoke about their personal and professional experiences.

Speaking during the event, Safia Minney, founder and director of People Tree, a Fair Trade fashion and lifestyle brand based in the UK, said,

“One must realise that the second largest polluter of our environment in the world is the clothing industry.” She also highlighted the plight of women factory workers and their potential.

“I have undertaken trips to cloth manufacturing countries like Bangladesh and witnessed the bad conditions of workers. With our researches, we have developed several strategies that aim to uplift these workers. We also aim to improve the conditions in factories and have women as role models at the management level.”

Alongside Zain, two other speakers who enlightened the audience with ideas for a positive social change were Nasra al Adawi from Tawasul, the Omani organisation with a vision to be ‘the primary and preferred catalyst for an effective and efficient civil society in Oman’ and Khalid al Haribi, deputy CEO for operations at Riyada. Khalid said, “At our organisation we always want to take care and help develop the best of SMEs in the country. We aim to nurture new talents, create a healthy, competitive environment and help them not only to establish themselves but also to flourish. “We started in 2003 and experiences say that providing the right environment is the main tip for a social change. There must be job creation and a fair competition with the right culture.”

The biggest appetite came from Kuwait and Qatar, where over 300 people attended the Smart Talk session in Kuwait and over 150 in Doha. In the past five years, Kuwait has witnessed an extraordinary rise in entrepreneurship and small business start-ups. However, there is an area which has yet to be explored: social entrepreneurship.

Zain highlighted that whilst donations from those of Islamic faith (the majority religion in GCC) across charitable causes remain the highest in the world; instances of Muslims running social enterprises is still fairly low. He said ”We must take the ‘teach a man to fish’ analogy very seriously. Today we face a world where we must not only prioritise teaching a man to fish, but we must also be conscious that the fish is in danger too. Charity cannot be used to appease our conscience, we must act to create tangible, workable solutions for the problems that we face.”

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