Advocating Agility: H.E. Sheikha Al-Zain Sabah Al-Naser Al-Sabah Won't Let Kuwait's Entrepreneurs Go It Alone
"You have to have skin in the game. The reason that we’re seeing a lot of government consultants coming to the region and then little-to-no change is because they don’t have skin in the game. They’re contracted by these governments, they consult, and then they go home. They aren’t part of the implementation process- and that self-interest to make sure it happens isn’t there. If you don’t have a vested interest in seeing this work through, all these recommendations come to nothing.”
This is Kuwait’s Under Secretary of the Ministry of State for Youth Affairs H.E. Sheikha Al-Zain, and she does have skin in the game. The game she’s talking about –building an entrepreneurial ecosystem- isn’t a spectator sport. You’re either all about kickstarting Kuwait’s economy –from a grassroots level- or you’re not on her team, and you never will be. You’ll even become persona non grata, and she won’t be deterred from calling you out for what she considers your inaction, no matter who you are. “We have the largest SME fund now in the world; the mandate came out about two years ago. They haven’t done anything yet with it, and that’s the problem. I can sit and draw up strategies and action plans and then mood board it all and make it look beautiful, but if I don’t action it, then what’s the point?"
There is always a question that hangs in the sidelines for our readers when we cover a figure of government who is also often of a royal bloodline. I’m sure that same question is on your mind now: “Did she interview Al-Zain because she’s a Sheikha, and they were after a glitzy, high-profile cover?” The answer is no. I aggressively pursued this interview with H.E. Sheikha Al-Zain Sabah Al-Naser Al-Sabah because she’s forthright and outspoken, genuinely experienced in entrepreneurship in both personal and professional capacities, and because she is currently (legitimately) working herself and her team at the Ministry into a frenzy trying to support and strengthen the small but determined Kuwaiti entrepreneurial ecosystem. She’s not big on personal publicity, and she doesn’t leverage her family name -quite the opposite, as you’ll see later- since being a royal is often a double-edged sword.
Frankly, she’s so busy advocating for the advancement and strengthening of youth potential that at the time of this interview at the Ministry in Kuwait City, she dashed into the room breathless and apologetic for her lateness. (For those of you who don’t know and I say this from experience- those born to extreme privilege are almost never apologetic, and they are also almost never breathless with overwork and/or overextension of resources.) So, when you read the rest of this feature interview that was six months in the making, you’re going to have to trust me when I say that being on the cover of Entrepreneur Middle East means that this person has the guts (with often little or no glory to speak of), and has captured my attention because of her actions (not just talk).
Al-Sabah is a charismatic and compelling speaker (possibly stemming from her professional background as a broadcast journalist working with the likes of Peter Jennings, and later as an entrepreneurial indie filmmaker and producer) but I’ve met lots of those, and speaking doesn’t mean that you are actually doing something. What she is doing is called an “entre-government,” and it’s a term she coined during a speaking engagement in Spain to describe what her Ministry does.
"The idea is that an entre-government brings in creatives, entrepreneurs, people from the private sector, who can leverage limited resources to invigorate and disrupt an immobile system. Government systems are built to stagnate," says Al-Sabah. Anyone who has dealt with the bureaucratic red tape of governments that count national resources as the base (and often the sole driver) of their respective economies has, with certainty, faced a myriad of unnecessary blockages, frustrations with archaic and irrelevant rules, and has likely stared a stubborn and myopic public servant in the face at least once.
After producing content and scripts for ABC during her time in the U.S., Al-Sabah came back to Kuwait and dealt with this governmental quagmire firsthand. "I went to the Ministry of Information to apply for a job in 1997. After years in Boston and New York, coming home was a shock. Staying in the Ministry for a year and a half taught me what needed to be fixed, what it was like to be stuck in the system, how frustrating it was waiting a week for a stamp on some document, and seeing all of the red tape. That on-the-job training was invaluable,” and it later helped her devise the Kuwaiti entre-government schema that’s now being actioned.
“This Ministry is the perfect example of the pilot of an entre-government. Do more with less! We have budget constraints, and Kuwait is finally, with the establishment of this Ministry, starting to understand that youth is the new oil. To propel the system forward, you need to inject energy. Nobody knows how to do it better and do it with less resources, than entrepreneurs and people that have worked in startups, SMEs, and fresh grads. The Ministry of State for Youth Affairs currently employs a team of 82, but they started off in one room as a meagre team of three. I literally had to sell this Ministry to people. This is your service to your country- if you have something to give, come give it here. I wanted to infuse new spirit by bringing in fresh graduates. Come serve your country then migrate back to private sector. I was pitching it to everyone- that was my hard sell."
"The Kuwaiti government is trying to get people to go to the private sector, since upwards of 80% are employed in the government. This cradle to grave mentality is really pervasive here." She sees the Ministry as a full-on startup since it was established from nothing, and Minister of Information and Minister of State for Youth Affairs H.E. Sheikh Salman Sabah Al-Salem Al-Homoud Al-Sabah charged Al-Zain with recruiting a team, setting out Ministerial directives and the path to turning those directives into tangible successes, and even finding a physical space for them to work out of. "We’ve been in operation for a year and nine months, and hamdulillah, we’ve managed to find a location, and as much as possible recruit the best team who were all willing to leave the private sector and come to the public sector to help Kuwait."
Al-Sabah is shouldering an immense responsibility to really deliver on her promises, since the Ministry of State for Youth Affairs is the youngest in the Kuwait government. The Under Secretary now has to continue to demonstrate that it is in fact needed, and more than needed, it’s actually going to be effective despite the fact that she has developed a highly unorthodox formula, and she’s pretty much doing everything differently than anyone in the existing government sectors is even familiar with. She had to fight for this all to materialize, and that’s no secret. “I think we’ve gained quite a lot of traction- young men and women have joined this Ministry from the private sector. The average age is 25 here and it’a startup in every way, shape, and form. The fact that we have people that wear our logo, our badges, to come to work makes me proud and happy because it means that they are sold on our concept. That gives me the visual that I want- where I see this mobilized army of people that are doing all they can to build this country."
Al-Sabah’s team “preaches” according to her, and I was able to verify that they are in fact supremely evangelical in their zeal for this Ministry to work- a lot of this passion, according to Al-Zain, was born from the anger and hopelessness stemming from the inertia of the intractable Kuwaiti establishment. A lack of prospects, a bevy of wasted young talent, and just seeing no place for bigger dreams and innovative thinking -as cliched as that might sound- served as a catalyst, lighting a fire under Al-Sabah and her millennials.
This same waste of talent and lack of innovative avenues and channels of modern industry hits the Middle East right where it hurts most: in the pocket-book. It actually robs the region of financial leaps forward in terms of opportunity cost, and it also makes dangerous and detrimental alternatives seem like viable ones. Al-Zain is determined to stem the flood, and she says this is exactly why Kuwait must be proactive in approach: "ISIS has built the ultimate brand. The reason they have penetrated so well with this brand is the disenfranchisement that youth across the [MENA] region feel. It’s so glamorous the way ISIS have marketed this idea."
One step in her fight against preventing more onboarding of recruits to what is now arguably considered the MENA region’s biggest problem? A two-tier initiative that begins with a nationwide youth survey and followed by the development of a comprehensive youth policy based on the results of the collected research. The youth survey has a six-month timeline of execution, and the development of the national youth policy is slotted to take an additional six months post data analysis. I tell Al-Sabah that it sounds like a very ambitious timeline for such a large scale undertaking, but she is emphatic and will not be deterred: "We don’t have the luxury of being anything but ambitious! A lot of people ask if I have a kamikaze streak in me. I do, because at this time we don’t have any other option. We can’t and won’t move forward with anything to do with youth, especially with all of these factors in play ISIS, drugs- without the accurate data and structure to do so."
Having worked in the private sector for over 16 years before she joined the Ministry, Al-Sabah is used to fast progress and results, and in that regard, she has seen some movement already. “We do have quick wins: we’ve supported more than 300 youth projects in different categories from tech, science and health, to arts and culture. We have so many projects that revolve around entrepreneurship and incubating and cultivating talent. We’re on the ground, and we’re using digital and outreach efforts nonstop- we will do anything that we need to do to make this happen for Kuwait.” And after being there and seeing her tenacious campaigning, hearing her pitch deck, Al-Zain Al-Sabah sold me on the hard sell: Kuwait’s entrepreneurs will no longer have to go it alone.
The National Youth Survey Of Kuwait
What we’re doing today is starting from a solid base line of information. It’s a whole ecosystem that we need to develop. What’s more important is now that I’ll have the data, what am I going to do with it? We’re going to develop a holistic national youth policy, and anyone that wants to work with youth will have to abide by this.” What Al-Sabah means by “holistic” is that all governmental and nongovernmental entities that intersect with youth in any way will be part of this process to try and meet the myriad spectrum of needs of Kuwait young people.
The goal? To give people with potential avenues to realize it to the fullest, to address and improve upon weaknesses, and to eventually foster an economic climate that champions vibrancy and combats economic inertia. According to Al-Sabah, Kuwaiti entrepreneurs need development of “infrastructure, mentorship, even healthcare. Access is limited. [The Ministry] bridges relationships; we have a department called Business Pioneers Rayidat Al-Aaaml, and their job is to create this ecosystem. We based our departments on a lifecycle approach –it’s very out of the box for government- we have the project sector and the development sector.”
She admits that they have bitten off more than they can chew, and says that “the other Ministries are not doing their jobs- from health to education to the Ministry of Islamic uldn’t have seen recruits going to Daesh.” Al- Sabah admits that pitching this concept of her entre-government was extremely difficult- the existing government entities and governmental structuring elements didn’t “understand it all. When I pitched it, it wasn’t even like, ‘What?” It was like, ‘No.’”
PERSISTANCE IN ALL THINGS PAYS DIVIDENDS IN RESULTS: GET TO KNOW AL-ZAIN AL-SABAH
“Perceptions before the war and after the war were different. Before the war, it was that you were part of the enclosed network- you were expected to finish high school, maybe college, then get married.” This, according to Al-Sabah, is what mindset she was dealing with when she broke the news to her family that she’d be pursuing film school after her successful period as a journalist. This led to her first entrepreneurial endeavor, co-founding Eagle Vision Media Group KSCC, and served at the company’s helm as Chairperson and Managing Director.
Al-Sabah could have been a socialite, even during her time as a refugee in London during the Iraqi-Kuwait war. “I was in 11th grade at the time, and I was supposed to start school. This whole question mark that everything could just stop in an instant is what prompted my need to do something with myself. I felt helpless and powerless seeing CNN’s coverage of Kuwait during that period, and their portrayal of the Kuwaiti people. It was all so inaccurate.” For context, as a refugee, like many others who fled the war in Kuwait, Al-Sabah wasn’t able to go to school and since her family’s accounts were frozen, she had to request the Embassy’s assistance in paying for her education. Al-Sabah made herself visible at the Embassy by volunteering while constantly haranguing them to put her in school. Her persistence paid off, and she finished high school in London, later attending Boston University’s School of Journalism.
During her career in New York, she met one of her personal goals: structuring the global narrative about the Middle East. “When Peter Jennings would send me a story about Palestine and Israel and I knew it didn’t make sense, I was in the position to tell him it didn’t make sense and actually write a script that did.” One of the most influential broadcasters in the history of TV, ABC News headlined by Jennings on World News Tonight was a program that shaped global opinions. After returning to Kuwait, she decided to pursue film professionally but wanted to get formal education in the discipline first. “I went through this whole arduous process to get a scholarship for my Master’s. Even my family was like, ‘Zain, film? What’s this?’ Journalism was considered prestigious, but filmmaking was seen as frivolous. I got the scholarship from KU. In Kuwait, one of the really good things here, was that they put us through a really intensive scrutiny process. It was quite objective, otherwise they wouldn’t have given it to me. I went to USC, and got my film degree.”
Film is a very difficult space to break into professionally, and Al-Sabah struggled just like other entrepreneurs to gather investors: “I didn’t have a safety net. There was more at stake for me- my family name was at stake both here and abroad. The fact that my family’s name came into play- if they knew my last name, they wouldn’t give me [an investment], because they assumed I had [the capital].” She didn’t, and successfully managed to follow through on her plans to be the storyteller with accurate narratives about the Middle East. She first opened a production company in Los Angeles with partners, and later in Kuwait. “We did some films that made the rounds at festivals,” with some being recognized as cultural contributions.
Next on her agenda was forming an incubator based on a free and open exchange concept for youth in cultural endeavors. It didn’t work. “When you’re coming in from outside, the wall was impenetrable” and together with the creatives, she retreated further in. While she describes this as a happy time, she now reflects on it as one more reason to fight for this overhaul of Kuwait’s establishment- so young people with talent and potential don’t retreat, and instead are an active driver of an economy sorely in need of a new enterprise injection.