Bader Al-Kharafi, recently recognized as the 2nd most powerful Arab leader under 40, discusses the need for youth empowerment through education, private-sector development and entrepreneurship.
When the M A Al-Kharafi & Sons Company was established in Kuwait in 1956, the world was a very different place. In fact, Kuwait – now known for its high standard of living – had only just begun the road to prosperity. Large-scale production and export of oil was a brand new phenomena. At this time, the country was best known for its strong tradition of entrepreneurship, leading its port to become known internationally as “The Marseille of the Arabian Gulf”. A spirit of commerce and trade was well ingrained into the hard-working business community. This included the Al-Kharafis themselves, who worked during this time of national transition to establish their fledgling family business. As they did so, Kuwait began to transform beyond all recognition into a prosperous and democratic state.
Mirroring the country’s development, the Al-Kharafi family enterprise has seen undreamed of success during the 60 years following its establishment. Today it is a massively diversified corporation operating at a scale completely unimaginable at its inception. In fact, the Kharafi Group consists of some 135 companies operating in 28 countries in a range of sectors including investments and development, construction, trade and manufacturing, as well as leisure and travel. The total value of these operations is estimated to exceed $8 billion.
However, there is more to the Kharafi Group than balance sheets and profits. Empowering the youth of Kuwait is a goal that Bader Nasser Al-Kharafi, the Director of the Group’s Executive Committee, is personally committed to. This is hardly surprising as the 38-year-old Mr. Al-Kharafi is himself a symbol of the increasingly powerful and successful generation that has emerged at the forefront of Kuwaiti business. In fact, he was recently ranked as the second most powerful Arab personality under the age of 40 by Arabian Business, a regional business publication.
As was the case with the rise of the Kharafi Group, Mr. Al-Kharafi sees entrepreneurship as one of the keys to empowering the nation’s large youth demographic. According to official statistics, 41% of Kuwaiti citizens are under the age of 25, a considerable number that will have to manifest the nation’s future independent of fluctuating oil prices. A revival of Kuwaiti entrepreneurial spirit, coupled with state investment is seen as an excellent means of empowering this emerging generation.
“People usually underestimate the impact of small projects and small businesses on the economy. According to recent global studies, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are the best job creators, as they contribute to as much as two thirds of a country’s employment. Kuwait is the ideal environment in which these types of businesses could thrive. With impressive access to capital coupled with programs and support provided on a governmental level, growth in the number of SMEs would go hand in hand with the development of Kuwait’s economy,” explains Mr. Al-Kharafi.
Governmental support for youth entrepreneurs is indeed significant. A special SME fund of $6.7 billion has been established for the financing of small projects and businesses proposed by Kuwaiti nationals. This is not just a job creation exercise but a strategic move towards sustainable economic development by establishing a flourishing private sector beyond petro-revenues.
Additionally, the Kuwaiti government together with the World Bank have also launched a five-year reform program to improve the quality of education – a crucial step in the transformation of Kuwait’s education system.
Undoubtedly this is even more critical to national development than other factors. Having recently attained his MBA from London Business School, Mr. Al-Kharafi explains, “The most important aspect we should focus on to secure the potential of future generations would have to be education. I believe it is the key in driving the development of Kuwait. Having a well-educated society would ensure our country’s sustainable economic development. Investing in human capital is what ultimately decides the quality of life our people will live; education is what breeds innovation, productivity, creativity and inventiveness.”
Are the up and coming generation of Kuwaitis suited to the hectic pace of private-sector entrepreneurship that characterized their society in the pre-oil era? Leading by example, Mr. Al-Kharafi not only runs the family corporation but also juggles a plethora of other responsibilities. He is a member of Coutts Bank Middle East Advisory board and the Deputy Chairman of the Board of Corporate Governance Committee at Gulf Bank. He is also Vice-Chairman of Zain Group, Kuwait’s successful telecommunications multinational that is seen by many as the country’s great business ambassador. Additionally, he finds the time to participate as a board member of various companies, both Kuwaiti and international. Furthermore, Mr. Al-Kharafi plays an active organizational role in various forums and events including Injaz Kuwait, which is dedicated to preparing Arab youth to be the business leaders of tomorrow.
In fact, one such event was held in November when Zain sponsored the 4th annual Youth Empowerment Symposium, an industry event featuring speakers and professional representatives dedicated to providing advice and support for young Kuwaitis. The focus for this particular event was strengthening the entrepreneurial skills of young Kuwaitis.
As Mr. Al-Kharafi told Globus Vision, “It is absolutely imperative that we enrich today’s youth with the skill sets and knowledge they need to sustain a future Kuwait that is not dependent on natural resource as it once was, but rather on the value of its human capital.”