Navigating Success Through The MENA's Entrepreneurial Networks The region's dynamic networking landscape has many benefits for entrepreneurs, who need to be patient and understand the nuances of the ecosystem.

By Jane Khedair

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

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This article was co-written with Swethal Kumar, CEO of Startupscale360 and the UAE organizer of the 2024 Entrepreneurship World Cup.

Playwright John Heywood once wrote that "Rome wasn't built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour."

This quotation neatly describes the dedication and continued growth of the various business and entrepreneurial ecosystems across the MENA. In the MENA, the "bricks" that have helped to create this dynamic environment have been constructed from business encounters, some planned, some incidental and casual, that take place every day across the region.

One might call this activity "growing an ecosystem," but there is another, more everyday name for these endeavors: "networking." In a significantly youth-driven, tech-oriented population that is often propelled by digital innovation, networking seems to be a better fit for a community that is practically engaged in devising and delivering solutions.

In 2024, LinkedIn has emerged as a leading platform for professional networking, boasting over 60 million users in the Middle East. The dynamics of networking in the MENA region play a pivotal role in supporting entrepreneurs by fostering connections, creating opportunities, and contributing to overall business success.

There are several ways in which the networking landscape in the MENA region benefits entrepreneurs. For one, the MENA places a strong emphasis on personal relationships and trust in business dealings. In our experience, we have found that some of the most productive and meaningful meetings in the MENA -more so than in many other locations where we have worked over the years- have taken place over a meal. The opportunity to break bread with someone brings with it a fresh and very authentic dimension to discussions– one premised on trust that leads to a long-term relationship, by removing the barriers that can otherwise often exist in a more formal environment. Networking also aligns with the cultural values of the region, where relationships often extend beyond the professional sphere. As such, entrepreneurs can leverage cultural norms to establish strong and enduring business connections.

Related: Networking Lessons--From Those Who Did It Right--At The 2022 Edition Of GITEX GLOBAL

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Meanwhile, the MENA's central, "crosswinds" geographic location, as well as the numerous incentive programs available to startups in the UAE, are two principal strengths. Cutting across both the East and West, it is very easy to access different markets from the region. Nearly 50% of the global population can be accessed within six hours of flying time from the UAE, which provides ample opportunity for startups to expand globally, while using the UAE as its landing platform. The region thus provides extensive access to networking events that benefit several industries as part of its strategy to boost the business landscape. For example, GITEX Global 2023 brought together more than 6,000 exhibitors from over 170 countries. Extreme Networks, for one, throughout all five days of GITEX Global 2023, observed a 74% increase in five-minute+ footfall and impressions, compared to 2022. At the same time, in 2021, the UAE launched 50 new economic initiatives to boost the country's competitiveness, and attract US$150 billion in foreign direct investment over the next nine years. Several free trade zones across the country attract foreign investors, by offering full ownership and zero taxes.

CATALYSTS FOR SUCCESS

Thanks to the early-adopter, tech-savvy mindset, a youthful population, government support, and centrally placed, well-connected location, the MENA's ambitious approach to networking has paid off handsomely. In addition to these factors, the region's commitment to innovation and technological advancements has been a driving force behind its success.

The rapid adoption of cutting-edge technologies as well as a culture that embraces digital innovation have further propelled the MENA into a prominent position on the global stage. A report by Gartner predicted the projection of MENA's IT spending to a total of $183.8 billion in 2024, up from $176.8 billion in 2023, as businesses increasingly digitize themselves- resulting in rapid diversification of the economy. Furthermore, the UAE intends to double its digital economy contribution to the national gross domestic product from 9.7% in 2022 to over 20% by 2031. And by 2035, artificial intelligence (AI) will contribute roughly to the financial services industry in the UAE.

Related: Six Tactics To Get Through Networking Events

Additionally, the pivotal role of global events like the Entrepreneurship World Cup (EWC) cannot be underestimated in amalgamating the principal stakeholders within the startup ecosystem. Networking is one of the key drivers underpinning the Entrepreneurship World Cup (EWC), which operates on a global level with the UAE chapter being led by Startupscale360 in conjunction with London Business School (LBS) as the exclusive Knowledge Partner. Aside from EWC being a pitch competition, it gives everyone who enters access to the knowledge, networks, and for some, the capital they need to start and scale a company. It is this unique combination of resources that annually fuels the participation of 175,000 entrepreneurs across 200 countries, supplementing the power of networking.

In the previous year, the EWC held in the UAE achieved remarkable success, and it was also honored with the prestigious accolade for the best global organizer at the Global Entrepreneurs Congress in Melbourne. This achievement was primarily attributable to the invaluable contributions of LBS alumni who served as judges, speakers, and committee members. Additionally, it is worth noting that some of the participants in the competition were also LBS alumni, who not only derived significant advantages from their fellow alumni, but also benefited from the support of other influential stakeholders within the UAE's startup ecosystem.

The rich cultural history of MENA underpins and informs its entrepreneurial spirit. And while traditional values of trust and reputation can be deemed to be as important as financial resources and skills, technological progress is also highly prized. These dynamics of networking in the MENA region create a conducive environment for entrepreneurs to connect, collaborate, and thrive. Understanding these dynamics is essential for entrepreneurs looking to navigate and leverage the region's unique opportunities as a continuous process that not only takes time, but also considerable patience- as you never know who you may meet, and when.

Related: How Networking Can Increase Your Business' Net Worth

Jane Khedair

Executive Director, Institute of Entrepreneurship and Private Capital, London Business School

Jane Khedair is the Executive Director of London Business School’s Institute of Entrepreneurship and Private Capital (IEPC). The IEPC, together with AstroLabs, is supporting the 2023 MENA Startup Competition. 

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