Establishing A Culture Of Entrepreneurship In Oman: Riyada CEO Khalifa Said Al Abri
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Like every other nation in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Sultanate of Oman too has been adversely affected by the decline in oil prices over the past year- the country saw its revenues go down by more than 50% in 2015, and its budget for this year has projected a deficit of OMR3.3 billion (US$8.6 billion). But as dire as this situation may seem, it was hard for me to find any repercussions of this on the spirits of the Sultanate’s citizens I met during my visit to the country in January this year- the people I got to see were incredibly optimistic, and their enthusiasm to work hard to achieve their personal goals and thus contribute to their nation’s growth was, quite simply, impressive. But then again, I shouldn’t have been too surprised: the one thing I found as a link connecting all of them was that they were all, in some way or the other, related to the startup ecosystem of the Sultanate, and much like the characteristics embodied by entrepreneurially-minded folk around the world, these Omanis were committed to making a difference in their country as they know it- and it’s safe to say that they are relentless in their determination to change it for the better.
There has been a renewed focus on Oman’s ecosystem for entrepreneurs ever since the SME Development Symposium was held in the country at Saih Al Shamekhat in 2013, which was organized as per the directives of the Sultanate’s ruler, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said. One of the outcomes of that event –which discussed ways to accelerate entrepreneurship in Oman- was the establishment of Riyada, an organization whose mandate is to, quite simply, nurture and aid the development of the country’s SME sector. While it’s only been a few years since Riyada’s inception, CEO Khalifa Said Al Abri feels that the organization has indeed made some headway on its goals- having said that, Al Abri acknowledges that he and his team at Riyada have a lot more to do and accomplish in developing an ecosystem that is 100% friendly to SMEs in Oman. “Establishing a culture of entrepreneurship is not something that can be done within one or two years,” he explains. “It is a long process, and you have to work for a long time to achieve that. But there is already a change we can see in the ecosystem nowa lot of young Omanis today want to establish their own businesses. This was not the case two to four years ago.” And Al Abri has the numbers to prove his point: “In 2013, there were only 323 Omanis who had registered their own businesses with the system. In 2015, that number went up to 4,300.”
Al Abri notes that this increased interest in the SME sector is advantageous for Oman not just because of the contribution it can make to the country’s economy, but also for the important role it can play in bringing about job opportunities for Omani nationals. At a time when the International Labor Organization has pegged the unemployment rate in Oman at 7.17%, promoting entrepreneurship as a career option –as opposed to looking for a job with large companies or the government- makes sense for a nation that is eager to move away from its dependency on oil, and instead focus on other potential big business sectors like tourism, logistics, etc. H.M. Sultan Qaboos has also put his voice behind the SME sector- during a speech at Saih Al Shamekhat in 2013, he said, “The national economy of a country is, in fact, based on small and medium industries… These are the fundamentals, the foundations of all national economies.” To give credit where it’s due, it does look like the Omani government has been making a concerted effort to improve Oman’s business landscape as a whole. And this applies to (and bodes well for) both existing SMEs in the market, as well as new ones- while there is obviously a lot more that needs to be done, Riyada’s existence is in itself an indication of the work being done in this direction.
Besides Riyada, the Saih Al Shamekhat symposium also led to the creation of another organization catered specifically to Oman’s SME sector: the Al Raffd Fund. While Riyada is aimed at helping SMEs with training and advisory services on everything from starting up on an idea to finally marketing their respective endeavors, Al Raffd Fund has been set up to provide the requisite financial support for Omani nationals to start their businesses. The two bodies’ work can thus be said to be complementary to each other- entrepreneurs often go to Riyada first to build and develop their enterprise ideas, following which they submit a proposal to Al Raffd Fund to get financed. Between the two organizations, they are trying to get rid of -or at least relax- the obstacles in front of Omani entrepreneurs today- these range from finding ways to speed through procedural roadblocks, to dispelling societal norms that discourage entrepreneurship. From his perspective, Al Abri agrees that there are several hurdles to overcome if one chooses to go down the path of entrepreneurship in Omanbut then again, he notes, the rewards are worth the ride. “The opportunities are there,” he says. “There is a huge potential for entrepreneurs to find opportunities within the ecosystem. It is not easy work- but the benefits will be huge.”
From advising Omani entrepreneurs on how to deal with government authorities, to making sure the directives made at the 2013 Saih Al Shamekhat Symposium are being followed through, it’s clear that Riyada has a lot on its plate, with respect to its task of developing the SME sector in Oman. But Al Abri notes that the organization has also been tasked with promoting the culture of entrepreneurship in Oman- and this is basically how Riyada’s Entrepreneurship Awards came to be. “There are three reasons for these awards to exist,” Al Abri explains. “First is to create the culture of business in Oman- just to increase the awareness of Omanis that there are opportunities, there are ways to establish their own businesses within the ecosystem. The second reason is to highlight the success stories in the ecosystem- so that they can be like role models, heroes, for other young Omanis… The third reason is to encourage government authorities and other institutions in the ecosystem to establish programs or initiatives to help SMEs… So there are awards for government authorities, financial institutions, corporate giants, etc. that support and help SMEs- and we want to encourage more of these activities. We want more entities to be a part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and start establishing and organizing their own programs to help the SME sector.”
The first edition of the Entrepreneurship Awards was held in 2015, which saw 13 winners (out of a total of 581 applications) being awarded for their achievements in Oman’s SME sector. The second edition (for which Entrepreneur Middle East was a media partner) saw 481 applications, of which 21 saw their achievements awarded at a gala ceremony held at the Sultan Qaboos University in late January. While the awards are, by themselves, a rather worthwhile initiative to support Omani entrepreneurs, Riyada doesn’t stop just there. “Our idea is not to just give them some money, or give them some trophies, and that’s the end of the story,” Al Abri says. “Our aim is also to start the journey with them- as in, move from what they are now, and how we can help them to grow and promote their businesses in the future. So there is a support program after the winners are announced, and our plan is to continue working with them from now, until the end of the year. We think this is important, because winning a trophy or an award is not the end of the story- we think this is the starting point for them.” And the post-awards program is a pretty intensive one- Riyada’s personnel get to work with the winners on their businesses, identify gaps in their models and help solve those issues, and further assist them in their growth by showcasing them at events to potential partners.
Nadia Maqbool was one of the winners in last year’s installment of the Entrepreneurship Awards. Her company, 23 Degrees North, an architectural consultancy founded in 2011, won the title of the “Best Small Enterprise in the Service Sector,” and for Maqbool, the award was just the impetus she needed to turn her attention to all of what she needed to do to make her business a sustainable one. “Winning the award last year was a huge boost of confidence for us,” she says. “As entrepreneurs in a technical field -we are architects- we were focused in the market, as good designers, as innovative designers. Alhamdulillah, we have now achieved that reputation. But there is so much more to being an entrepreneur than that, and for me, the biggest win out of the award was shedding light on the other aspects [of running a SME]: you know, the marketing, the HR, the legalities, the planning, the vision, etc. We weren’t really focusing on these things, not because we didn’t prioritize them, but because we were focusing on the things that we knew, the things that we were able to invest our time in. Since winning last year, it’s taken us quite some time to just strategize how we’re going to really deal with developing those sides, and now, we’ve come up with a couple of solutions, that we’re hopefully going to be implementing soon.” And these changes probably couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for this SME- in January, Maqbool’s company celebrated the successful completion and delivery of its milestone project, the Lycée Française de Mascate (The French School of Muscat), and one hopes that this achievement will stand 23 Degrees North in good stead for the future.
Maqbool’s journey with her enterprise is almost certainly going to be an inspiration for the SME founders that won at this year’s edition of the Entrepreneurship Awards. While these entrepreneurs may hail from different sectors and backgrounds, they are all linked by their steadfast dedication to their enterprises, despite the challenges inherent in the Omani ecosystem. Khalid Al Habsi’s Taskeen Properties, for instance, won in the “Best Small Enterprise in the Service Sector” category this year, but he notes one of the biggest hurdles he sees in Oman is the societal indifference to entrepreneurship. “We don’t have a culture of entrepreneurship,” Al Habsi says, a notion that Mona Al Shukairi agrees with. Al Shukairi, whose company Al Joory Boukor won second place in the “Best Micro Business” category, faced a lot of opposition from her family and friends when she decided to quit her lucrative medical career to start up her local incense and perfume enterprise- Al Shukairi told me she kept her business a secret for as long as she could so as to avoid any potential confrontations with people she knew. But Al Habsi and Al Shukairi didn’t let the hurdles in front of them stop them eitherthey were relentless in their vision for their businesses, spurred on by a need to do something different, not just for themselves, but for their nation as well. Consider Dar alHerfya CEO Zuwaina Sultan Al-Rashdi, whose Omani handicraft business led her to be declared as the “Best Female Entrepreneur” at this year’s awards: her enthusiasm for her enterprise is almost infectious, and she has big plans for its future. “My vision for Dar alHerfya is global,” Al-Rashdi says. “I want to feature our Omani products around the world.”
Their big dreams notwithstanding, these Omani entrepreneurs are eager to see more backing for what they do from their ecosystem. While they are glad and proud about the recognition they have received from Riyada, they all agree that there needs to be more active support for entrepreneurs in Oman, especially in their early stages- that’s when they really need the push to keep at it with their enterprises. From Riyada’s standpoint, Al Abri acknowledges this demand, and reiterates his organization’s commitment to its mission of working for the SME sector in Oman. However, Al Abri also cautions against entrepreneurs stepping into this field without the requisite preparation needed for such endeavors. “One of the mistakes [Omani entrepreneurs] make is that they think they can establish a business today, and the next day, all the doors will open to them to start doing business,” he says. “But that’s not how it happens in the real world.” Al Abri adds that entrepreneurs also need to do their homework before starting up- a thorough understanding of the business and its markets is absolutely necessary, along with proper management of their accounts, human resources and other such vital cogs of running an enterprise. Of course, Riyada is there to help, Al Abri says, with everything from helping with the procedures and processes, to pushing government authorities to help SMEs start up and develop their businesses. And so while Oman may not have an ideal entrepreneurial ecosystem yet, Al Abri notes that work has begun in this regard, and the country as a whole –which includes everyone from the population to the government- is adamant on giving this sector the boost that it needs and deserves. Here’s hoping.