"Every great company starts with an idea, but they need nurturing and support to flourish. This is why we, at QDB, are highly keen on fostering creative ideas and enabling individuals to turn their ambitions into real projects.” The ambitions that Qatar Development Bank’s (QDB) CEO Abdulaziz bin Nasser Al-Khalifa carries (and reflects) for Qatar’s small businesses should be a reassuring sign for the country’s growing entrepreneurial population. With Qatar more serious than ever in its bid to shed the “oil and gas nation” tag, and given its fierce focus on creating a knowledge-based economy, the time is also ripe for Al-Khalifa and the large portfolio of organizations he’s associated with to turn their ambitions for Qatar into reality.
Besides helping grow small and medium enterprises in Qatar’s key industry sectors in his role as the CEO of QDB, Al-Khalifa is also a Member of the Supreme Council for Economic Affairs & Investment, a Board member at Silatech and Qatar Science Technology Park. Not just that, as the Chairman of Qatar Business Incubator Center (QBIC) and the Bedaya Center for Entrepreneurship and Career Development -two organizations at the forefront of growth of Qatar’s startup ecosystem- it is no surprise that supporting SMEs and new-age businesses is one of Al-Khalifa’s key priorities. “As a Qatari institution, we hold firmly that it is our responsibility to contribute to the ongoing efforts of diversifying our sources of national income and creating a knowledge-based economy,” Al-Khalifa says. “We always knew that, in order to chart the type of progressive economic and social path envisioned by our State, we need to become imaginative and proactive in our approach for our future generations. Thus, we realized that the best way to empower our future generations was to simplify the path to entry for new participants. Today, we support our local entrepreneurs, startups and SMEs through both financial and non-financial methods until they can achieve the capacity to sustain themselves.”
QDB provides a combination of smart financing and business support services to those starting a business in Qatar, in a bid to achieve its vision “to develop and empower Qatari entrepreneurs and innovators to contribute in the diversification of the Qatari economy.” As Al-Khalifa puts it, the national strategic development agenda -Qatar National Vision 2030- is a guiding force to all of QDB’s endeavors. QDB and Al-Khalifa are working every day to ensure that all of their strategies and objectives in this regard don’t merely look good on paper, with QDB extending a wide range of financial and non-financial support to entrepreneurs. QDB’s series of initiatives to nudge an aspiring entrepreneur in Qatar closer towards acting on his/her business ideas include the Al-Fikra National Business Competition, which is now in its fifth edition, and the recently launched community event Startup Weekend Doha, which QDB helped bring to Qatar along with Hamad bin Khalifa University (HBKU) and Qatar University. Recently, in response to the common complaints made by entrepreneurs on the cumbersome processes associated with starting a venture, QDB also set up a One Stop Shop center for SMEs and startups.
“By bringing together the most commonly-sought business resources under one roof, we aim to stimulate the private sector marketplace by facilitating the entry of new participants,” says Al-Khalifa. He adds that this move would make QDB more “approachable” for the growing SME community in Qatar. At the same time, for existing SMEs (especially those in manufacturing) to navigate economic and business challenges, QDB’s schemes such as the Jahiz I and Jahiz II -which offers built industrial facilities and financial incentives- and its Al Dhameen service for extending financial assistance, have proved valuable to accelerate business growth.
It’s not just industry sectors; Al-Khalifa’s desire to nurture Qatar’s entrepreneurship community also transcends the nation’s boundaries, which can be seen by QDB’s efforts to build partnerships “to expand the global outreach of Qatari businesses.” One way QDB does this is by its export program Tasdeer, which conducts workshops, trainings and provides advisory services for SMEs to export their product or services. “Through Tasdeer, we aim to strengthen the presence of Qatari companies on prestigious global platforms, linking Qatari specialists to international experts across the world’s production industries,” Al-Khalifa explains. Similarly, QDB also supports the growth of its local enterprises by sponsoring them to be a part of global exhibitions across sectors such as the GITEX Technology Week, Big 5, etc.
Al-Khalifa can’t stress enough on the crucial role that entrepreneurship plays in the future course of Qatar’s economic development. “Our national economic success increasingly depends on the ability and ingenuity of the Qatari people to deal with a new international order that is knowledge-based and extremely competitive,” notes Al- Khalifa. “So far, our entrepreneurs have exceeded expectations across all the domains in which they have been involved.” He adds that “development of SMEs in all sectors will continue to be of critical importance- be it the country’s traditional and Islamic finance sectors, entrepreneurship and the innovation economy, or SMEs in the media, tourism, sports, and construction sectors.”
A crown jewel in QDB’s efforts to create a robust business ecosystem in Qatar was establishment of QBIC in 2014- a business incubation center, which supports entrepreneurs in starting or growing their business. “Our establishment of QBIC -one of the largest mixed-use business incubator in the MENA region- has brought us much pride,” notes Al-Khalifa. Irrespective of whether startup founders approach QBIC with just an idea or with an existing business model, Al-Khalifa says that QBIC tirelessly commits itself to providing the incubatees with a wide range of solutions and resources to get their business going. “Through QBIC, it is our resolution to develop the next QAR100 million companies in Qatar by offering the very best in mentoring & coaching support, office space and smart financing solutions.”
While challenges faced by the small business ecosystem in Qatar such as limited finance availability, regulatory hurdles, lack of awareness and support systems, are not very different to hurdles faced by startups globally, it’s evident that QDB, through its various programs and support organizations, is keen to turn things around in Qatar. In this regard, Al-Khalifa outlines the “multi-faceted strategic roadmap” QDB has designed to develop the ecosystem. “This entrepreneurial journey includes five key components. At first, business people are encouraged to develop an idea with the aid of consultancy services. Secondly, they are then encouraged to start a business through the support of legal, incubation and acceleration services. Subsequently, their business is strengthened through assistance with bookkeeping, financing and audit support. Fourthly, the SMEs are supported throughout their business growth with marketing and promotion support. Finally, QDB empowers them to go global through the provision of matchmaking support with importers abroad,” he explains.
When asked for his thoughts on how startups in Qatar are currently doing, Al-Khalifa didn’t hold back in his commendations for the country’s ecosystem. “We are heartened by the achievements of our Qatari startups!” he says. “Our national economic success increasingly depends on the ability and ingenuity of the Qatari people to deal with a new international order that is knowledge-based and extremely competitive. So far, our entrepreneurs have exceeded expectations across all the domains in which they have been involved.” As for the way ahead, Al-Khalifa holds an optimistic view for Qatar. “Moving forward, our success will lie in our ability to embrace the fast pace of development in the world of technology, strengthen our connectivity with one another and the markets around us, and truly immerse ourselves in the digital age,” he explains.
In terms of advice for entrepreneurs in Qatar, the QDB CEO nods toward the elements of passion and persistence as being key to making a success out of their respective businesses. “Examples abound aplenty where entrepreneurs have risen from obscurity and have gone on to create corporate empires, provide jobs for thousands of talented people and impact the globe positively,” Al-Khalifa notes. “The most valuable advice I would like to offer the community of aspiring entrepreneurs, startups and SMEs is to dedicate themselves to their craft, and continue to persevere towards their dreams with the greatest assets any winner may possess: hard work and dedication. Throughout your entrepreneurial journey, keep in mind that the free market is constantly needs tending- so remember to study the market, appeal to your key demographics, keep abreast with the latest trends in technology and innovate constantly. The greatest mistake any entrepreneur, startup or SME –in Qatar or abroad– can make is to believe that they cannot achieve their dreams!”
QBIC - By the Numbers
QAR2.1 million investment made in startups
QAR13.8 million revenue generated by startups
1500 applications till date
61 incubated companies
218 LeanStartup program graduates
82% occupancy rate