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Empowering female entrepreneurs in the Middle East

two female entrepreneurs walk through a door

Many Middle Eastern economies are working to address that discrepancy by creating a supportive ecosystem for female entrepreneurs. Image: Matt Wardle Studio

Hala bint Mohammed Jaber Al-Ansari
Secretary-General, Supreme Council for Women, Bahrain
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Society and Equity

This article is part of: Annual Meeting of the New Champions

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  • Most STEM graduates in the Middle East are women and increasing female participation in the workforce could add $2.7 trillion to the wider economy.
  • Increasing the number of women entrepreneurs within the region could be a game changer for both job creation and the expansion of workforces.
  • With the right support, female entrepreneurship will not only participate in driving economic growth but also contribute to a more equitable society.

Most science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates in the Middle East are women and tapping into this valuable resource is a key focus for the region.

Increased female participation in the workforce could add $2.7 trillion to the region’s economy by 2025, so a growing trend of female entrepreneurship could be a game changer for job creation and the expansion of workforces.

Furthermore, women entrepreneurs are going to supercharge the economies of the Middle East, as the share of women in professional and technical jobs, led by female entrepreneurs, will more than double by 2030.

Supporting these pioneers is therefore becoming an economic and social imperative. This matter is of utmost importance to the Middle East, and several initiatives launched by the public and private sectors across the region are helping to unlock its full potential.

Creating an ecosystem for female entrepreneurs

Female entrepreneurs around the world face challenges with access to investment opportunities. Many Middle Eastern economies are working to address that discrepancy by creating a supportive ecosystem for female entrepreneurs.

Private sector initiatives are an important part of this matrix. She WINS Arabia – an initiative of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – is supporting almost 200 female-led start-ups in the region with financial solutions, advice and mentorship.

She’s Next, a global advocacy programme backed by Visa, is another initiative that is also dedicated to providing access to capital for female entrepreneurs.

Globally, it has invested more than $2.2 million in female small business owners in the US, Canada, India and Ireland, and has launched in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region for the first time.

The initiative is running in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and most recently in Bahrain, with the aim of providing grants worth $50,000 to one winner, alongside access to resources such as a workshop library and thriving global community of entrepreneurs.

Public sector initiatives have their part to play too. Saudi Arabia is collaborating with the University of Texas at Austin to provide a mentoring platform for female entrepreneurs, while the UAE’s Gender Balance Council has a specific remit to increase female representation on company boards, including startups.

The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has also launched a new start-up competition aimed at supporting female-owned tech startups in the tourism industry.

Bahrain has supported female-led start-ups through a variety of initiatives. The Kingdom’s National Plan for the Advancement of Bahraini Women has the mandate to enable women to “contribute to development, forming an equal partnership in building a sustainable competitive community”. It also has an initiative named “Riyadat Financing”, which is a $100 million fund aimed at women majority-owned start-ups and SMEs.

According to recent statistics, more than 332 women-owned businesses benefitted from the fund in areas such as the sale of pharmaceutical and medical commodities, travel agencies, construction, event management, day-care centres and nurseries.

Enhancing women’s economic participation

Business and trade continue to attract women to join the labour market as it opens doors for added creativity, flexibility and innovation within their direct line of speciality, and having export opportunities enhances women’s economic participation even further.

Exporting has also proven to create new markets, expand existing ones as well as breaks down borders, and research clearly shows that there is a direct correlation between exports and the exporter nation’s GDP.

Countries in the Middle East are opening doors for female participation in the marketplace. For example, Bahrain — while “geographically compact” — serves as a growing economy offering unique exporting opportunities, through its Export Bahrain initiative and collaboration with the Supreme Council for Women.

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The initiative aims to further enhance women’s access and potential to reach global markets through a wide range of programmes, facilities and support that facilitate Bahraini exports to international markets at a value of more than $132 million – 32% of Bahraini exporters are women entrepreneurs, to 28 countries, and 50% of these companies have exported their products or services to regional and international markets for the first time.

In addition, UAE’s Dubai Exports has partnered with International Trade Commision (ITC) and UPS to launch SheTrades MENA. SheTrades MENA hub will provide women with opportunities to scale up their businesses through increased trade and market intelligence, targeted assistance and connections with each other.

Success stories from women in the Middle East

Increasing support for female entrepreneurs is translating into success. In Bahrain, the winners of last year’s Young Female Entrepreneur Seal included the inventor of an platform that provides services for remote radiological analysis and diagnosis, the country's first developer of innovative plant-based products, and a pioneer in the provision of surgical and therapy services for the early treatment of breast cancer.

Elsewhere, Dubai-based payment app Zywa was co-founded by Nuha Hashem and is the first neobank designed for teenagers in the region. The platform allows teenagers to spend, receive and manage money without the need for cash, and has raised $3 million to expand across the Middle East.

Potion Kitchen
is a Lebanese clean beauty brand using sustainable Mediterranean ingredients, and Playbook is a Bahraini edtech platform that accelerates career growth for women at every level of leadership.

Affectiva is start-up co-founded by Egypt-born Rana El Kaliouby that has developed advanced AI technology that enables computers to recognise human emotions through physiological responses and facial cues. Affectiva has received numerous awards and acknowledgments, including being listed on the CB Insights AI 100, and Forbes AI 50.

Meanwhile, Verity – a family banking and financial literacy app co-founded by Dina Shoman – has raised more than $1 million to provide financial education for children and their parents.

The full potential of female entrepreneurs is ready to be unleashed. Enabling the Middle East’s highly-educated women could add trillions to the economy and ensure social stability.

Entrepreneurship provides women with financial independence and empowerment, inspiring the next generation of girls and young women to pursue their own paths.

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What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

From the attraction of governmental support to private sector initiatives, mentoring and education, the Middle East is investing in its female entrepreneurs and the innovative solutions they are creating.

With the right support, female entrepreneurship will not only participate in driving economic growth but also contribute to a more equitable society. It is an exciting time for women in the Middle East as they pave the way for a prosperous and empowering future.

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World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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