What it will take to maximize business success in the Middle East

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How can business choices yield high profits and high social impact in a rapidly changing consumer culture? What are the appropriate metrics for successful ventures? What are our social and ethical responsibilities towards underserved populations?

These were a few of the strategic questions at the forefront of Wharton's 3rd Middle East and North Africa Conference, held on April 12, 2014 on Wharton's campus at the University of Pennsylvania.

The day-long conference focused on "Unlocking the Region's Potential," by bringing together some of the Arab world’s leading players to discuss its rapidly changing business climate.

A series of panelists presented novel initiatives and approaches to venture capital, impact investing, private equity, and entrepreneurship, while others addressed privatization, politics and business policy, infrastructure, and education.

In keynote speeches, Nassef Sawiris, CEO of OCI N.V, and Dr. Freddie C. Baz, Genral Manager, Group Chief Financial Officer and Strategy Director for Bank Audi, emphasized the need to seize opportunities, take high risks to gain high profits, and yet allow time to yield returns. Despite the turmoil of the last three years, Audi has grown in Egypt and even maintained operations in Syria, while OCI's cement plant in Aleppo continues to operate today, even if at 30% capacity. Both actors encouraged engaging in corporate responsibility as a good business practice that yields financial returns rather than praiseworthy actions alone.

While current political instability and a lack of legal framework can be hindrances to many investors, Reem Asaad's achievements remind us that change, albeit slow, is possible through perseverance and effort. Several thousand jobs have opened to Saudi women in the last five years, with many women being paid equally as their male counterparts. Asaad, a Saudi Arabian Financial Advisor, asserted that economic change causes social change, and several panelists confirmed the rising presence of women entrepreneurs in the MENA region, especially given the flexibility in hours and location of the digital sphere.

Although access to technology is no longer a generational marker amongst Arab consumers, the way technology is used in relation to purchasing decisions can vary widely. Joe Saddi, Senior Partner and Managing Director of Strategy &'s Middle East business, revealed that consumers are shifting away from mass media and are increasingly drawn to online sources. Yet advertisers have been slow to catch on; 62% of advertising in the MENA region goes into mass media, compared to 10% for digital sources, he illustrated, arguing that policies that ease online payment and delivery could help both businesses and governments leverage the untapped potential of e-commerce customers.

Investors, on the other hand, advised startups to find a market need and fill it creatively. While Khaled Talhouni of Wamda Capital Fund I saw the need for a regional rather than country-specific approach, Shayan Habib of Ideavelopers emphasized the importance of locally tailored business ideas, and Hanan Abdel-Meguid of Karmelizer viewed Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE as core markets, noting the large potential of the mobile app market, with 200 million regional mobile users.

Habib, as well as Con O’Donnell of Hindawi Foundation (speaking on a panel of entrepreneurs) pointed to examples of successful ventures that have responded to site-specific needs, encouraging entrepreneurs to identify very particular local problems, and conceive of non-traditional solutions. Habib warned against committing the common mistake of replicating successful projects abroad with little consideration of local realities.

Panelists also frequently mentiond the need to provide better educational and health care services; Dr. Sherif Kamel of the American University in Cairo, Salah Khalid of Alexandria Trust, and Dr. Safwan Masri of Columbia Global Centers all called upon Wharton students and attendees to unite in their efforts and do more for our communities by developing skills that respond to the market's needs.

Philanthropic organizations were also present to demonstrate their role in developing skilled professionals for the market and leveraging the Arab diaspora. Mona Mowafi described her work with Rise Egypt, which channels global resources towards capacity building as a high impact investment strategy, arguing that measuring impact with data is essential for boosting investor confidence. 

In sum, panelists and attendees concluded that the stabilization, improvement and recovery of the MENA region are the responsibility of all economic actors. The private sector must deploy capital strategically in order to mobilize effective change. Opportunities are there for those ready to tackle real problems with creative solutions. Understanding and addressing the needs of the next generation will be the key to unlocking the region's potential.

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