Reflections on Bahrain’s Shifting Entrepreneurship Landscape

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After an energetic Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW), which included a week-long agenda of entrepreneurship activities organized by the GEW Country Host Young Arab Leaders (YAL) Bahrain for the fourth consecutive year, as well as the recent Bahrain Startup Weekend and 2nd MENA Angel Investor Forum, I found myself reflecting on the entrepreneurship scene in Bahrain.

It seemed as though someone had wound up a rubber band that was now steadily unleashing ideas and innovation. Curiously, I decided to ask a few YAL members and entrepreneurs for their thoughts on Bahrain’s shifting entrepreneurial landscape, and what more needed to be done to ensure this self-propelled entrepreneurship engine didn’t lose its momentum.

The entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship supporters I spoke to were:

  1. Suhail Algosaibi, Founder and CEO of Falak Enterprises W.L.L (DreamBody Centre), and YAL member
  2. Ehsan Al Kooheji, General Manager of Kooheji Systems
  3. Amin Al Arrayed, General Manager of First Bahrain, founder of Majaal, and YAL member
  4. Mariam Al Mannai, Executive Manager of YAL-Bahrain

How have you seen entrepreneurship in Bahrain shift over the last four years?

Suhail: When I started 10 years ago, none of this entrepreneurship infrastructure existed, so it’s really amazing to see the effort the government and various NGOs and private sector organizations have put in to promote entrepreneurship. At GEW, it has been great to see people coming back year after year saying things like: “Remember me? I spoke to you last year; I just now got my C.R. [commercial registration],” or “This is what I’m doing now with my business.”

Ehsan: The accessibility of information and tools such as social media have significantly reduced barriers of entry and helped startups reach a previously unreachable mass audience. A business owner can now start a company and get a logo, website, and office address in less than 10 minutes by utilizing online resources. 

Also, access to international manufacturing and global logistics means that products can be sourced quickly and cost-effectively. A new business owner can simply white label a Chinese factory and immediately compete with top clothing brands, without a lot of initial investment.

Amin: I think the financial and political flux over the last 4 years has made traditional jobs harder to come by, as companies have been downsizing. This has made entrepreneurship an increasingly attractive alternative for young people.  Also over the past 4 years, a number of organizations, including YAL, have been actively advocating and supporting entrepreneurship and small business.  As a result, both awareness and cultural acceptance of entrepreneurship has increased.

Mariam: Over the past four years, I have noticed that our participants keep getting younger! This year, the GEW participants that most impressed me were high school students, who had very unique and relatively successful businesses. I have to give credit to Injaz for that, as they are doing an amazing job with their entrepreneurship masterclass.

What more do you think can be done to support entrepreneurship in Bahrain?

Suhail: I think we have come a long way and we should give credit where credit is due. Having said that, it’s still not enough. There aren’t enough school programs that encourage entrepreneurship. And while there are a greater variety of funding options, there could be more. For instance, many successful businesspeople don’t consider venture capital or angel investing to be a viable option.

Mariam: It is sad that despite the many services, funds, and programs available for people who want to start their own businesses in Bahrain, there are still many who are not aware of these opportunities. There is also a lot of paperwork along with requirements that need to be eliminated or simplified to encourage more people to start their own businesses.

Ehsan: The government really needs to stay more current and recognize new business models. I have been hearing that an e-commerce C.R. is in the works for the past 10 years. It simply does not make sense that today, I can launch a website in 10 minutes for less than $10 and start selling, while the government requires me to rent an office with electricity and municipality approval—which is an added cost and something I don't need and won't use.

Amin: A lot more can be done to support entrepreneurs.  Access to funding and guidance at project level, and the provision of low-cost platforms and incubators are necessary investments for the government to make.  

My personal view is that we need to set up a Small Business Administration (SBA) similar to the one in the USA, and enforce a quota or preference of annual government business contracts to local SMEs and start-ups as support for a limited period. 

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