Qatar: Investment Coming From Within
It often seems that the David and Goliath business relationship between America and the Middle East is a one-way street. The recent acquisition of Israeli startups such as Waze and Intucell by Google and Cisco respectively suggest a wealth of entrepreneurial talent, but a lack of in-country venture capital to enable sustained growth.
However, one Middle Eastern nation bucking the trend is Qatar, which is developing its own support network at a rapid pace. ictQATAR, the country's technology advocate and facilitator, is working alongside some of the best young entrepreneurs in the country, with digital startups the main beneficiaries. Silatech, which works with banks and other financial institutions to find investment opportunities for young entrepreneurs, has recently signed an agreement with NGO Qatar Charity to launch 'Narwi' later this year. This new collaboration aims to match charitable donations made online by Arabs for Arabs – allowing donations to be specifically directed to Arab entrepreneurs and individual business concepts.
It is this framework that will allow home grown startups to flourish. Despite Qatar being named by Forbes as the richest nation per capita in the world, CEOs like Tarik M Yousef of Silatech have observed that, "the equity gap between the seed and early business stages, and the growth stage of small businesses with support from investment funds is a barrier to success... [we] need to promote innovative new approaches to charitable giving, promoting sustainable long-term development for the Arab world”. This suggests a serious shift in investment, with financial capital no longer flowing from outside of the Arab world, but from within it. Countries like Qatar have an increasing level of economic weight, capital and networks to build business enterprises internally, meaning external financial support is growing increasingly unnecessary.
Young entrepreneurs like Razan Suliman are already working on providing Qataris with startup businesses that cater to gaps they've spotted in the local market. As a graphic designer, Suliman found that stock image libraries such as Shutterstock and Getty simply weren't geared towards a Qatari audience, and decided to set up her own website, Bylens, to fulfil this need. The models, photographers and shoots are all sourced within Qatar, making sure the business stays focused on its target clientele. This is a particularly interesting example of startups challenging the monopolisation of the market by Goliath companies, and teaches a compelling lesson to all multinationals: if you’re not providing a localised, customised service that caters directly to each individual market you operate in, young and innovative entrepreneurs like Suliman will soon challenge both your authority and your market share.
Given Qatar's wealth and impressive educational system, if it continues along this supportive road it could soon become a Middle Easten tech hub to rival Tel Aviv. As a gateway to the Arabic world, entrepreneurs there are perfectly placed to create location-specific content and technology that could revolutionise both Qatar and the neighbouring countries - but if external investors want to get involved, it looks like they'll have to move fast.