Why The COVID-19 Crisis Could Give The MENA's Female Entrepreneurs An Edge

The world is surveying the rubble left behind by the pandemic, and is turning its attention towards how to rebuild.

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Around the globe, economies are beginning to reopen in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. The world is surveying the rubble left behind by the pandemic, and is turning its attention towards how to rebuild. Some industries have been hit harder than others– the road to recovery for global tourism, for example, will be a long one. Others have, perhaps against expectations, thrived. Just look to the largely cash-dependent MENA region, which has seen a near unprecedented surge in the uptake of e-commerce, digital banking, and fintech more broadly as consumers adapted fast to life in lockdown and quarantine.

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Now increasingly, this world of social distancing, remote working, and even digital socializing has come to be referred to as “the new normal.” In other words, even if the pandemic really is beginning to fade, life will never return exactly to how it was. Even when the shopping malls are all open again, across the MENA region, many are going to keep shopping online. Just as the aviation industry could now face years of continued hardship, those tech-focused, innovative, and flexible industries that were able to thrive during COVID-19 will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Now, as we look to this new normal that stretches ahead, we must look beyond different industries, and consider how different demographics have fared too, and what this means for their future.

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With one in three startups across the region founded by women, the Middle East is a surprising global leader when it comes to diversity in the startup space. This is owing in large part to fast evolving cultural norms and attitudes in a region where rates of female labor force participation have historically been lower than in other parts of the world. Now, in the digital era, an entire business can be launched from home– meaning that lockdown has been business as usual for the many women entrepreneurs who run their own startups. That is sure to have played an important role in ensuring that innovation across the region didn’t grind to a halt during the earliest stages of the pandemic.

Still, while great strides have been taken in recent decades, there is some way yet to go before gender parity is reached in MENA. The recently released Bahrain Fintech Gender Balance Report 2020, produced by Bahrain FinTech Bay in collaboration with the Bahrain’s Supreme Council for Women, makes for sobering reading. And yet that such a report –the first of its kind in the region– could be released in the MENA is an encouraging sign of changing times. Some of the report’s recommendations, which include mandated gender pay gap reporting, national targets for female representation on boards, and formalized, flexible working policies to support working care providers, are radical by global –let alone Middle Eastern– standards.

While a global tragedy, the pandemic has served as a catalyst for digital transformation across a range of sectors. In cash-reliant MENA, as I mentioned previously, this has been most acute in the banking, e-commerce, and financial services sectors more broadly. But “catalyst” is the key word here. Prepandemic, the region was already slowly but moving with certainty towards a more digital future. Online payments penetration across MENA had already reached 76%. COVID-19 just gave it that critical final push. Now the region’s women entrepreneurs have a chance to show the world what they are capable of, against a backdrop of increasingly progressive attitudes. Time will tell if COVID-19 proves to be a catalyst for social change too.

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Areije Al Shakar

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Areije Al Shakar has more than 16 years of experience in banking and entrepreneurship. In her current role at Bahrain Development Bank (BDB), she is a Senior Vice President heading the Development Services Division, and leads the fund management team of the Al Waha Venture Capital Fund of Funds as Director and Fund Manager. Her role and involvement at the bank includes coaching, mentorship, startup seed funding, and entrepreneur development. She has been involved in the development of several support services for entrepreneurs, namely in the establishment of BDB’s Rowad Program and the Seed Fuel-Rowad startup funding program, a part of the Global Accelerator Network.

She has worked in reputable organizations including Investcorp, Citibank, BNP Paribas, and Lehman Brothers on the treasury, investment management, and advisory side. She holds a Master’s of Science in Public Policy and Management from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, and a Bachelor of Commerce in Finance from the John Molson School of Business, Concordia University. She is also a Kauffman Fellow Class 24, and a certified business coach and mentor from the UK’s Chartered Management Institute.