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Emirate looks to build an economy driven by knowledge and SMEs, not by oil and gas

Article - September 1, 2017

For more than two decades, Qatar has been moving its economy away from hydrocarbons towards information technology and learning. This shift to a knowledge-based economy is a critical part of Qatar’s National Vision 2030


To make that vision a reality, Qatar has been promoting three key areas: education, innovation and entrepreneurship. It is harnessing educational institutions and private companies, and setting up incubators to help new companies and start-ups to get off the ground.

The Qatar Business Incubation Center (QBIC) is one of the leaders in the transformation effort. One of the largest mixed-use business incubators in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, QBIC was founded by the Qatar Development Bank and the Social Development Center, a government entity that provides training courses to develop capacity in many career sectors.

QBIC’s CEO, Aysha Al Mudahka, says positive change is already evident in many areas, and QBIC is working to make sure those changes are sustained and built upon.

“Our mission is to create the next 100 million Qatari Riyal companies in Qatar and to make sure they survive the initial stages of joining the private sector and eventually grow into an SME.”

Aysha Al Mudahka
CEO, Qatar Business Incubation Center

“Our mission is to create the next 100 million Qatari Riyal companies in Qatar and to make sure they survive the initial stages of joining the private sector and eventually grow into an SME.”

QBIC welcomes budding entrepreneurs, and “startups with potential to grow, and equips them with the tools and facilities they need to reach new levels and scale up,” Ms. Mudahka says.

All a future business owner requires to seek incubation assistance from QBIC is a good idea –no business plan or university degree required. QBIC will take that idea and “transform it into a tangible product or service, while being as cost-efficient as we can, test it in the market and find out if this is needed and wanted by the target customers.”

QBIC has incubated more than 50 companies spanning a range of industries. Several successes have been spawned, including the launch in January 2016 of the first specialized incubator for tourism start-ups. QBIC Tourism works to help aspiring tourism professionals to get new businesses off the ground by giving them privileged access to tourism-specific business development tools, and guidance from decision-makers in the industry. With Qatar set to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, tourism is an area ripe for development.

Another incubator, helmed by QBIC and the Ooredoo telecom company, aims to encourage the creation of technology-focused startups to drive knowledge-based development.

“There is no denying that the future of Qatar’s knowledge-based economy will depend on technology, and we believe that the technology we provide to our people, be it state-of-the-art products or high-speed connectivity, can ensure access to the best educational tools available,” says Waleed Al Sayed, Group Deputy CEO and CEO of Ooredoo Qatar

Ooredoo is not only working on “cutting-edge projects for some of the biggest organizations and initiavtives in Qatar, such as Qatar Airways, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Smart Cities,” according to Mr. Al Sayed, but also has several programs that are intended to improve the lives of women in Qatar and around the world. These include a project called Mobile Health Clinics in Myanmar, Algeria and Tunisia, and a project to increase mobile penetration among Iraqi women.
In Qatar, Ooredoo has partnered with ‘How Women Work,’ a national community of practitioners that aims to provide information and networking opportunities to empower women, Mr. Al Sayed says.

Women lead the way
Qatari women like QBIC’s Ms. Mudahka are helping to drive the transformation of their country from a resource-dependent economy to a knowledge-based one. Ms. Mudahka says she was driven to focus on the development of women in the workforce–alongside entrepreneurship and innovation–after joining a program at the Doha branch of Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon University.

“I think there is more of an opportunity for women to start their own business than to join the workforce,” she explains.

“A recent report by QDB and SDC showed that there are a significant number of Qatari women working from home. Their contribution to society if they were to register their companies would affect the current market considerably.”

She cites several examples of successful women entrepreneurs, including the two partners behind S.Ishira, Qatar’s first deluxe perfume maker. QBIC provided S.Ishira co-founder Shiekha Al Misnad with training, contacts and other assistance, and encouraged her to take what began as a hobby and turn it into a job and successful business. S.Ishira formally launched a line of six perfumes early this year, and recently landed several international sales deals for its line of luxury scents.

Qatar not only encourages women to contribute to the local business scene, but also to get a university education, which is seen as a key step toward building a knowledge-based economy. Women make up half the staff and administration at Qatar University, and according to data gathered in 2012 by U.K. newspaper The Independent, six Qatari women attend university for every man.   

The vital role of education
One female graduate of Qatar University–and a holder of honorary degrees from several U.S. and British universities–is Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al Missned, the mother of Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. Sheikha Al Missned has for nearly two decades been a driving force behind efforts to encourage more Qataris to pursue higher education, and for social reforms in Qatar. She chairs the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, a non-profit organization whose flagship project, Education City, has brought some of the most respected international universities and educational institutions to the Gulf emirate.

Ms. Mudahka says the presence in Qatar of “top schools–both American and European–is playing a pivotal role in driving [the country] towards becoming a knowledge-based economy.”

Qatar University (QU) President Dr. Hassan Rashid Al-Derham agrees: “Education City has been a valuable addition to the higher education landscape. International branch campuses have contributed, not only to expanding choices in higher education, but also to high-quality research, community development, and national capacity building.

“We are constantly seeking ways to further our partnership with Education City universities, and I believe we strengthen each other through complementary and healthy competition.”

QU is another key player in realizing the vision of a knowledge-based economy, entering into numerous collaborative degree and certificate programs with international institutions. In February, QU and The Hague Institute for Global Justice signed a memorandum of understanding to promote knowledge exchange, executive programs, student opportunities and shared research projects.  The previous month, QU and Durham University in the U.K. began offering a dual Ph.D. program in Gulf Studies. QU was ranked number one on the list of the world’s 200 most international institutions–a fact evinced by the presence on campus of students from around the MENA region and the world. Dr. Al-Derham is recognized for the role he played in establishing a strong research agenda at the university.

QU has also sought to instill a sense of civic responsibility in students, and in June signed a collaboration agreement to that end with Qatar Charity.

“This agreement highlights QU’s commitment to developing partnerships with private and government organizations with the aim to drive social and economic growth in Qatar,” Mr. Al-Derham said at the signing ceremony.

“It also underlines … ongoing efforts to provide students with various opportunities through which they can strengthen their teamwork, organizational and communication skills which will serve them in their future roles as Qatar’s leaders,” he said.

Signing on behalf of Qatar Charity, CEO Yousef bin Ahmed Al-Kuwari, said the new partnership will help develop students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills, which will, in turn, help them as they learn to become the leaders, both in Qatar and worldwide.

“QC capitalizes on this area of expertise to increase the impact of its educational projects locally and internationally; it is worth mentioning that Qatar Charity has built 621 schools worldwide”

Yousef bin Ahmed Al-Kuwari,
CEO, Qatar Charity

Speaking to United World, Mr. Al-Kuwari says education is one of the “areas of expertise that QC has developed over the years. In collaboration with (local and international) partners, QC capitalizes on this area of expertise to increase the impact of its educational projects locally and internationally; it is worth mentioning that Qatar Charity has built 621 schools worldwide.”

Building a vibrant SME sector
Since 1998, The Qatar Development Bank (QDB) has granted QAR 4.85 billion ($1.33 billion) in loans and advances to Qatari small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) to promote the nascent entrepreneurial and startup culture in the emirate. In a move in  May, aimed at encouraging SME growth, QDB signed a memorandum of understanding with the Public  Works Authority (Ashghal), to allow Qatari SMEs to take part in national infrastructure projects. The bank has also set up a loan guarantee program aimed at overcoming “financing barriers faced by economically viable Qatari SMEs,” says Abdulaziz Bin Nasser Al-Khalifa, CEO of  QDB.

The Al-Dhameen Partial Loan Guarantee Program “is designed as a partnership with Qatari banks to improve SME access to financing by covering a significant part of the credit risk,” Mr. Al-Khalifa explains. “Al-Dhameen has unlocked capital for SMEs and is helping to change the culture of SME lending.”

Adel Ali bin Ali Al Muslimani, the chairman of one of Qatar’s largest private retail and distribution companies, the Ali Bin Ali Group, says Qatar is already beginning to reap the benefits of a meticulously planned transformation away from oil and gas and toward knowledge as the central driver of the economy.

“A simple comparison of Qatar’s skyline from 1995 to 2016 will tell you an amazing story of growth and prosperity, of vision and future-focused thinking,” Mr. Muslimani says. Qatar is diversifying its economy in a “very decisive way,” while maintaining steady growth and economic and political stability, he adds.

“Through many initiatives, including the hosting of the World Cup in 2022 – which is fully on course to positively impact the entire region–Qatar has placed itself in at the forefront of global awareness.

“The country not only has the right leadership, but also stability, vision, versatility and resilience–all factors that are in short supply, not only in this turbulent region but across the world. These are the winning factors that make Qatar shine and stand tall, carving out a position for itself as a hugely attractive market.”

Looking closely at the interwoven layers of Qatar’s transformation, it becomes clear that the move toward a knowledge-based economy is about more than improving companies’ bottom lines. As Qatar recasts itself, it is seeking to build a diversified, international business community with a vibrant private sector, and is convinced that the base of that pyramid is made up of ease of launching a business, diversity, and a sound education for all.  The benefits of Qatar’s transformation are also intended to benefit not just Qataris, but the entire region and the world.

“We have seen many initiatives in Qatar that positively link local, regional and international views and expertise, and create a platform for people to connect and share their ideas with the right audiences,” says Emad Al Khaja, CEO of Injaz Qatar, a nonprofit that seeks to give youths the tools and mindset needed to succeed in business.

“As a result, we have seen international initiatives establishing a local presence, and local initiatives solidifying their presence and exposure abroad,” he adds, concluding that the “strengthening of the SME sector and the entrepreneurial environment” are essential steps on the path to a knowledge-based economy.