The above-featured image is credit: MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
The Gulf states can catalyze trade within the Middle East and North Africa region and the region’s integration into the global trading system
The world has witnessed a tectonic shift in global economic geography and trade toward emerging Asia in the past two decades. However, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has remained one of the least dominant, accounting for just 7.4 percent of total trade in 2022. The region’s trade is characterized by a relatively high concentration of exports in a narrow range of products or trading partners, limited economic complexity, and low participation in global value chains.
Even so, commodity-dependent nations in the MENA region have made substantial gains over time, specifically in trade diversification, as shown by the Global Economic Diversification Index, which tracks the extent of economic diversiﬁcation from multiple dimensions, including economic activity, international trade, and government revenues.
The MENA region’s total trade in goods as a percent of GDP (an indicator of openness) was 65.5 percent in 2021, indicating a relatively open regional economy. Yet, as shown in Chart 1, intraregional trade is low, representing only 17.8 percent of total trade and 18.5 percent of total exports, despite a common language and culture as well as geographic proximity.The six oil-exporting Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations—Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates—account for the bulk of intraregional trade.
Their dominance of intraregional trade suggests that the Gulf nations could become a catalyst for regional trade integration, helping lower barriers to trade, improving trade infrastructure, and diversifying the region’s economies.Greater integration of non-GCC Middle East nations with the GCC will lead to more intraregional trade and greater global integration (via the GCC’s existing global linkages and participation in global value chains).With the growing global economic integration of the GCC nations and their concerted effort in supporting the region’s other nations (via increased trade and investment deals with Egypt and Iraq, for example), they can be a conduit for greater integration of the rest of the region into world trade.
Why have non-GCC countries lagged when it comes to intraregional trade? In part it is a failure of the MENA region’s multiple regional trade (and investment) agreements. The share of intragroup exports in the Arab region, excluding the GCC, has remained below 2 percent of their trade flows, partially a reflection of regional fragmentation, violence, and wars since the mid-1990s and following the Arab Spring in 2011. The region comprises a group of nations characterized by significant political differences, and this is reflected in trade patterns as well. For example, the orientation of the Maghreb nations of North Africa has been toward Europe, with the regional Euro-Med program and agreements supporting such linkages.
A contributing factor to the stagnation of intraregional trade is the lack of growth of trade in services. MENA services trade has ranged between 4 and 6 percent of global services trade in the past two decades. This pales in comparison with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, which account for more than two-thirds of global services trade. Within the MENA region, the GCC accounts for the bulk of services trade, with the largest shares in relatively low-value-added sectors like travel (and tourism) and transportation. The services trade is held back by restrictive policies that limit entry in sectors dominated by state-owned enterprises, such as telecommunications, or that impose high fees and license requirements, especially in professional and transportation services.
Such restrictive policies, along with structural deficiencies, encumber MENA nations’ trade both within the region and globally.
MENA nations apply more, and more restrictive, nontariff measures than in any other region. These almost doubled between 2000 and 2020. Lack of uniform standards and harmonization, pervasive red tape, and corruption compound the effects of these barriers. Business and investment barriers include cumbersome licensing processes, complex regulations, and opaque bidding and procurement procedures.
MENA as a region underperforms on trade facilitation measures to ease the movement of goods at the border and reduce overall trade costs, though there are wide disparities across the region. The quality of trade- and transportation-related infrastructure is significantly lower in the non-GCC MENA nations. Furthermore, delays at the port result in excessive “dwell times” (delays of more than 12 days) for imported goods in some MENA countries. Algeria and Tunisia delays average about 20 days versus less than five days in the United Arab Emirates (among the top three globally).
Knocking down barriers
Overcoming these impediments to wider trade for the region requires removing barriers to trade and investment, diversifying the region’s economies, and improving infrastructure.
A new generation of trade agreements, including more knowledge-intensive services, would not only support export diversification policies but would also help bridge gender gaps, improve women’s economic empowerment, and subsequently result in more inclusive economic growth and integration.
The pandemic has underscored the need for trade diversification (both of products and partners) and development of new supply chains. Although the GCC’s oil trade remains dominant, its members have embarked on various policies and structural reforms, such as increasing labor mobility and opening capital markets across borders, to diversify away from overdependence on fossil fuels and associated revenues. This has resulted in diversification of both the output mix (for example, increased focus on manufacturing) and the export product mix (for example, more services exports) alongside an evident shift in trade patterns toward Asia and away from the United States and Europe. More recently, the war in Ukraine further highlighted the plight of food-importing nations in the Middle East in the context of food security. (Ukraine and Russia accounted for a third of global wheat exports; Lebanon and Tunisia were importing close to 50 percent of their wheat from Ukraine.)
The Global Economic Diversification Index trade subindex shows that the commodity-dependent nations with the most improved scores over time have either reduced dependence on fuel exports, reduced export concentration, or witnessed a massive change in the composition of exports. An example of the latter is Saudi Arabia’s increased focus on medium- and high-tech exports, which rose as a share of overall manufacturing exports, to almost 60 percent right before COVID from less than 20 percent in 2000. The MENA region as a whole has already made some headway toward diversification, as shown in Chart 2.
The GCC nations have benefited from the recent rise in commodity prices, but the pandemic reinforced strategies, including the development of free zones and special economic zones, to diversify into new sectors. These policies range from attracting investment (including foreign direct investment) to higher-value-added, higher-tech manufacturing; investing in new sectors (renewable energy, fintech, artificial intelligence); and opening markets to new investors and investments (as is evident in the recent spate of initial public offerings in both the oil and non-oil sectors). These reforms help expand markets (within the MENA region and toward Africa, Europe, and South Asia), while up-and-coming sectors like renewable energy and agritech offer sustainable ways of expanding the extensive and intensive margins of trade and generating new job opportunities.
Engine for regional integration
Full achievement of the benefits of regional trade integration requires a reform of trade policies to break down barriers, including restrictive nontariff measures, complex regulation, corruption, and logistical roadblocks.
Integrating the MENA region’s trade infrastructure (ports, airports, logistics) with that of the GCC would lower costs and facilitate intraregional trade, leading to greater regional integration and generating gains from trade for all parties. The GCC can lead the economic integration and transformation of the region via investments in hard infrastructure and trade-related infrastructure and logistics, in addition to developing an integrated GCC power grid. A GCC renewable-energy-powered, integrated electricity grid could extend all the way to Europe, Pakistan, and India.
The GCC nations have an opportunity to benefit from global decoupling and fragmentation with their unfolding strategy of pursuing globalization as a regional group through new trade and investment agreements, foreign aid, and direct and portfolio investment. The ongoing disengagement from long-standing regional conflicts, in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Yemen, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Libya, and elsewhere, and the forging of new links (diplomatic opening such as the Abraham Accords) reduce the geopolitical risks of promoting regional trade and investment. The GCC can use this as an opportunity to shape the MENA region into an interlinked trade and investment hub. The GCC’s accelerated new free trade negotiations with key partners in the MENA region, including Egypt and Jordan, and in Asia, including China and South Korea, could become the cornerstone of this transformation. The United Arab Emirates have already signed comprehensive economic partnership agreements with India, Indonesia, and Türkiye covering services, investment, and regulatory aspects of trade.
There are two complementary ways to move forward. One is to implement the GCC Common Market, invest in digital trade, lower tariff and nontariff barriers, and reduce restrictions on trade in services, along with reforms to facilitate greater mobility of labor and enhance financial and capital market linkages. Second, the GCC should develop new deep trade agreements with the other MENA countries, going beyond international trade to encompass agreement on nontariff measures, direct investment, e-commerce and services, labor standards, taxation, competition, intellectual property rights, climate, the environment, and public procurement (including mega projects). The GCC nations, which have historically used foreign aid and humanitarian aid to support MENA nations, should opt for an “aid for trade” policy to support their partners in implementing trade-boosting reforms that lower business and investment barriers, improve logistics infrastructure, and facilitate the movement of goods.
NASSER SAIDI is the president of Nasser Saidi and Associates. He was formerly chief economist of the Dubai International Financial Centre Authority, Lebanon’s economy minister, and a vice governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon.
AATHIRA PRASAD is director of macroeconomics at Nasser Saidi and Associates.
Investments adhering to environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria are capturing increasing interest in the Middle East. A 2020 survey carried out by multinational bank HSBC revealed that 41% of regional investors wished to adopt an effective ESG investment policy. A May 2022 PWC report confirmed this trend, adding that Middle Eastern companies’ top three sustainability priorities are diversity and equality, climate change and safety.
The region has long lagged in ESG investments. For example, in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, an economic model highly reliant on non-renewable energy exports has limited interest in ESG practices, especially environmental ones. However, in recent years, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been leading the way in matters of sustainable development, devising national plans to overcome hydrocarbons dependence, increase the share of renewable resources in their energy mix and boost the private sector.
Alena Dique is the founder of ESG Insights Middle East, a regional ESG databank. She told Al-Monitor, “ESG investments in the Middle East have boomed since the pandemic, and this trend will probably remain popular until 2030. Social investing is largely pushed forward by investors who want long-lasting, sustainable contributions left behind as their legacy. At the same time, environmental investments present a huge opportunity for the Middle East, especially with the region hosting both COP27 and 28. However, there is still a long way to go regarding the governance aspect, even though the Middle East is no stranger to responsible investing, ethical practices or sharia-compliant strategies.”
In addition to the ethical aspects, many Middle Eastern investors consider sustainable assets attractive from an economic perspective. A recent GIB asset management report highlights that ESG-compliant investments generally have higher long-term profits. “This is difficult to evaluate as ESG is both qualitative and quantitative. We need to look at how investors choose to assess ESG risk and what areas they look to emphasize. ESG rating might not evaluate all companies the same way or give a true depiction of return on investment all the time. Still, there is no denying that sustainability evaluation exists and can impact the flow of investments,” Dique added.
The increasing interest in ESGs — both at the private and the government levels — has also introduced changes in Middle Eastern business practices. “In the region, ESG strategy has been embraced as a mechanism to drive companies to demonstrate their sustainability credentials alongside their global peers,” said Dique. “New trends, such as creating ESG positions or adopting green policies, show a growing interest in sustainability issues. Regional governments are hands-on with the transition of energy and natural resources, human capital and economic development and now have taken ESG on board too. Change is challenging, but transition takes time — and that can be monitored and measured.”
The Dubai Investment Fund, one of the largest independent investment funds worldwide in terms of assets under management, recently announced the creation of an ESG investment department aiming to track the local and global market and discover the most profitable sustainability assets. ESGs are also gaining momentum in other corners of the GCC, such as Kuwait. In recent months, the National Bank of Kuwait adopted a sustainable financing framework to support the national plan to tackle climate change and integrate ESG standards in all the bank’s operations.
Despite the growing enthusiasm, finance experts argue that ESG funds worldwide have a poor track record in financial performance. Corporate executives should naturally pay attention to employee, community and environmental concerns, but setting ESG targets on this basis may distort the decision-making process and force managers to focus on sustainability issues beyond their relevance for long-term shareholders’ interests.
Even from a regional perspective, some investors are still skeptical about the potential of ESGs. “The Gulf was rather late adopting ESG initiatives, which isn’t necessarily bad, as it is a rather ambiguous and subjective term. The current energy crisis demonstrates what can happen when an initially reasonable idea is taken too far. In this case, the overall shortfall in hydrocarbon capital expenditure can become counterproductive in the long run,” said Ali Al-Salim, Co-Founder at Arkan Partners, an independent investment consulting firm based in the Gulf.
Experts and entrepreneurs also criticize ESG investment because of the lack of clear measures to define what is sustainable and what is not. They claim that ESGs have an ambiguous — and problematic — definition leading to various regulatory approaches in different jurisdictions, which means that there is no standard legal framework to deal with them. “A dose of common sense and a holistic approach to ESG investing — thinking about unintended consequences — is critical for regional investors to consider,” Al-Salim concluded.
apofeed with “What Lies Beneath the Slow Economic Growth in the MENA?” attempts to elaborate on the current situation that is prevailing in certain MENA countries.
What Lies Beneath the Slow Economic Growth in the Middle East and North Africa?
A dynamic private sector is key for the economies of the region to grow out of their currently high debt levels; Unlocking sustainable growth in the region’s private sector requires reforms that facilitate innovation, the adoption of digital technologies and investments in human capital; Reforms to support these objectives must take account of sustainability and the global agenda to limit climate change
The European Investment Bank (EIB), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the World Bank have published a joint report, Unlocking Sustainable Private Sector Growth in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) (https://bit.ly/3H73CdA). The report analyses constraints on productivity growth and limited accumulation of factors or production in the MENA private sector.
The report is based on the MENA Enterprise Survey conducted between late 2018 and 2020 on over 5 800 formal businesses across Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, the West Bank and Gaza. Historically, economic growth in the Middle East and North Africa has been weak since the global financial crisis of 2007-2009 and the Arab Spring of the early 2010s. Since then, gross domestic product (GDP) per capita has grown by only 0.3% a year in the MENA region. That compares unfavourably with rates of 1.7% on average in middle-income countries and 2.4% in the developing economies of Europe and Central Asia.
Achieving higher and sustainable growth is particularly important in view of other economic challenges facing the region. Public debt has increased considerably over the last decade, accompanied by declining investment. More recently, the coronavirus pandemic has battered the region, further straining public finances. In addition, the Russian invasion of Ukraine affects the MENA economies through higher hydrocarbon prices, risks to food security and declining tourism.
Against this background, it is important that policymakers exploit the potential of the private sector to propel the region towards greater prosperity.
“The spillovers from the war in Ukraine add to structural vulnerabilities in the region. The prospects for global financial tightening, persistently high energy and food prices and concerns for food security come on top of concerns related to weak economic growth and rising debt levels,” said EIB Chief Economist Debora Revoltella (https://bit.ly/2UYJi4s). “When responding to the new shock, MENA countries need to tackle the main structural bottlenecks affecting the region. Reforms that lower regulatory barriers, tackle informal business practices, promote competition, and facilitate innovation and digitalisation are crucial for achieving sustainable economic growth and improving resilience to future shocks.”
The business environment in the MENA region as reported in the survey has been held back by various factors. Political connection and informality are undermining fair competition, bringing economic benefits to a limited number of companies. Management practices lag behind benchmark countries, with a decline in average scores in all MENA countries since 2013.
Customs and trade regulations appear to be more severe barriers for firms in the MENA region than in other countries. Firms need more time to clear customs to import or export than in other countries. The MENA economies depend on high levels of imports compared to low export activities.
Although firms trading in the international market are more willing to develop and innovate processes, only 20% invest in innovation, which can affect the long-term economic prospects for the region.
The region needs to make better use of its human capital. Predominantly, only a few foreign-owned companies invest in training their human capital, and they tend to be digitally connected exporting firms. Additionally, a significant share of companies are not engaging in financial activities with other economic players, opting to self-finance voluntarily.
Incentives for companies to decarbonise are weak, and MENA firms are less likely than their counterparts in Europe and Central Asia to adopt measures that reduce their environmental footprint.
Unlocking sustainable growth in the region’s private sector, the report calls for MENA economies to lower regulatory barriers for businesses, promote competition and reduce disincentives emerging from political influence and informal business practices.
The region is also in need of reforms to facilitate innovation, the adoption of digital technologies and investments in human capital, while being in line with the global agenda to limit climate change, enhance sustainability and protect the natural environment.
Improving management practices can be instrumental to that. “Good management practices can account for as much as 30% of differences in efficiency across countries,” said Roberta Gatti, Chief Economist for the Middle East and North Africa at the World Bank. “Management practices are lacklustre in firms in the region, particularly in those with some state ownership. Improving these practices can have substantial benefits, is not costly, but is not easy. It will require — among others — a change in mindsets.”
Companies should also be given incentives to exploit the benefits of participating in cross-border trade and global value chains more broadly, accompanied by better management practices.
At the same time, the state has a duty to ensure that this transition process is just, through measures that help workers to take advantage of opportunities to obtain new, higher-quality jobs linked to the green economy, while also protecting those at risk of losing their jobs. Such measures include labour market policies, skills training, social safety nets and action to support regional economic development.
EBRD Chief Economist Beata Javorcik said: “Climate change creates an opportunity the MENA region to build up its green credentials and use them as a source of competitive advantage. This will create the much-needed high-quality jobs linked to the green economy.”
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of European Investment Bank (EIB).
Energy investments in Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are forecast to grow in 2022 from $805 billion and continue in the next five years on the strength of higher oil and gas prices and planned unconventional gas and upstream investments.
Energy investments in MENA will continue to grow: Apicorp
For petrochemicals, the drive for further integration and rationalisation will continue with reconfigurable petrochemical plants shifting to high-margin products such as plastic packaging films and healthcare and hygiene products, The Arab Petroleum Investments Corporation (Apicorp), a multilateral development financial institution, said in its annual Top Picks 2022 outlook on the key trends that are expected to shape the Mena energy markets landscape this year.
“The strong pipeline of investments we are seeing in the downstream projects reflects the region’s push to direct more funds to this sector, especially in brownfield petrochemicals projects versus greenfield ones. This makes sense in light of the current market conditions which favor improving cost and operating efficiencies in existing projects rather than sheer expansion,” said Nicolas Thevenot, Managing Director of Corporate Banking at Apicorp.
As for the energy markets, the report forecasts that they will remain comparatively stable during 2022 due to higher oil production by Opec+ and non-Opec countries and increased gas production and LNG supply. Brent is expected to average between $65/bbl. and $75/bbl. As for gas, the JKM and TTF/NBP hub prices in Asia and Europe are expected to cool down considerably from their all-time highs of 2021, especially after the winter season.
Meanwhile, the uptick in regional energy investments, which registered a modest $13 billion increase in Apicorp’s latest five-year outlook, will continue over the mid-term on the strength of higher oil and gas prices throughout 2022.
Among the trends the report examines is the impact of oil and gas prices on energy investments in the region and the main factors weighing down on broader economic recovery.
“Despite the volatility in commodity prices which is expected to persist throughout 2022, the good news in the short-term is that oil and gas prices will likely remain elevated throughout the year, providing support for energy investments including renewable energy and ESG-related projects. Power sector investments in Mena are also expected to continue to thrive, with an accelerating shift towards renewables. Collectively, the region is expected to add nearly 20 GW of solar power over the next five years,” noted Dr Ahmed Ali Attiga, CEO of Apicorp.
The Mena region will take centre stage in the ongoing global energy transition as all eyes shift to Egypt, which will host COP27 in November — and UAE for COP28 in 2023. Yet while the transition continues to steadily gain momentum, the report notes that it may be marred by mixed policy signals from governments as they attempt to balance imperatives which are oftentimes very difficult to align: emissions reduction, energy affordability and energy security.
Thus, a sustainable and comprehensive policy is needed in order to avoid tilting the policy scale too far towards in favor of one of these factors, as this may lead to unintended consequences such as market distortions, heightened volatility, and energy shortfalls.
The already substantial pressure on policymakers is expected to be further exacerbated by continued volatility in commodity markets in 2022 due to the pandemic, uncertainty over macroeconomic policy, and supply chain disruptions. Despite the modest –-albeit uneven—recovery in 2021, it will take time for this improvement to migrate downstream and ease cost pressures this year.
The report’s analysis of energy investment trends suggests that the expected robust oil and gas prices in 2022 have triggered an opportunity to return to pre-pandemic activity.
The uncertainty around Covid recovery will continue to influence how market dynamics will ultimately play out. Given the global vaccine inequity and a constantly evolving virus, governments are still grappling with the dilemma of public health versus economic recovery.
In addition to global trade, supply chains and services, the current surge in cases globally will also adversely affect international travel and tourism. This will dent economic growth during 2022, which has already prompted a slight downward revision of the 2022 GDP growth forecasts in some regions and a likely asymmetric global recovery that is not necessarily sustainable for all countries.
Another uncertainty stems from the need for governments to introduce fiscal austerity measures to rein in spending and curb soaring inflation. Although markets ended 2021 with high returns (27% in the case of the S&P 500 index), high jobs growth and soaring commodity prices pushed inflation rates higher.
A fear of stagflation looms as public fiscal stimulus packages are withdrawn, asset purchasing programs are tapered and interest rates rise. While these measures will very likely cause economic recovery to slow down, the lagging unemployment rates are expected to remain relatively high amid a simmering inflationary cycle that may turn out not to be transitory after all. — TradeArabia News Service
The above-featured image is for illustration and is credit to Oil Price.
The increase in entrepreneurship and start-ups in the region has been happening over the past decade as revealed by Arabian Business in the latest trends shaping the region’s start-up ecosystem
Financial technologies and e-commerce businesses dominated the market in the Web 2.0 wave, while blockchain and cryptocurrencies are slowly growing in the region
In the post-pandemic economy, it feels like start-ups are launching almost daily in unprecedented numbers, but the Middle East entrepreneurial ecosystem has been steadily growing for almost a decade now, explained Walid Hanna, CEO and founder of MEVP, a venture capitalist firm.
Talking exclusively to Arabian Business, Hanna looked back at the evolution of start-ups in the region and the major trends that dominated each phase until today.
What can you tell us about the regional landscape for start-ups in the post-pandemic economy?
The increase in entrepreneurship and start-ups in the region has been happening over the past decade.
We [at MEVP] began our journey back in 2010 and, at that time, we used to see one or two start-ups a week, while now we receive three or four business plans a day, so the multiplier has been enormous in terms of the number of start-ups.
This has been the case post-Covid as well. When the whole ecosystem realised how important technology is during the pandemic, it gave a boost to our portfolio of companies and they grew faster and it also gave a boost to potential entrepreneurs who left their jobs to start their own businesses.
Why do you think fuelled this growth in the pre-coronavirus days?
It’s a natural progression that happened across the US, Europe and China over the past two decades and since there’s always a lag with the Middle East, it’s finally happening here now.
If you look at the penetration rates in internet usage or mobile phone usage, the Middle East has typically been lagging, the exception being countries like the UAE. But, now they’re all catching up.
What are some of the trends you’ve seen among regional start-ups, in fintech and tech in general?
Trends have been evolving over the past decade as well.
Originally there was the Web 1.0 wave, which was only content-based such as browsing the internet for cooking recipes, for example.[Start-ups] were making money, but it was based on reading, there were no interactions or transactions involved.
Then it evolved into Web 2.0, where we saw a lot of financial technologies, e-commerce sites and software-as-a-service for enterprises. We’ve invested in 60-plus companies across those verticals.
We’ve also seen a lot of mobility plays, such as Uber, and we’ve seen that model [replicated] across tuk-tuks, motorcycles, electric scooters and trucks which, in a way, is good for the environment.
Within fintech, we’ve seen a lot of sub-verticals, such as the Buy Now, Pay Later model, which is a big trend at the moment – there are around ten [such start-ups] in the region and we’ve invested in an Egypt-based one. But there are so many other trends within fintech, including micro-lending, SME-lending or treasury solutions; payment solutions in general.
The hype over non-fungible tokens and cryptocurrencies, the whole blockchain business model, has evolved tremendously over the past couple of years and is just starting to pick up in the Middle East. We’ve seen two NFT marketplaces and a couple of blockchain business models. It is still quite limited, although I expect it to grow much faster in the next three years.
How do you identify the companies you will invest in?
Just as they say “location, location, location” for real estate, it is “people, people, people” for start-ups.
If a start-up is at the earlier stages, the best thing you can look at is how investment-ready the business is and how qualified the founders are with relevant experience. We look at how dynamic, hardworking and motivated they are.
We look at the total addressable market and try to understand if it’s big enough and if they are really answering a pain point that is large enough to make serious money. This is because we are not interested in a small niche in a tiny country. For example, if a start-up is trying to solve a small issue in a country like Lebanon and the issue is not the same in Saudi Arabia and the GCC, then we are not interested.
We also look at the business model and the unit economics to see if it is viable, meaning we try to find out if the cost of producing, marketing and selling whatever product is worthwhile. If you look at the cost of acquiring a user and realise that the margin you are making out of this one product is inferior to that, then it is not worth it.
We also look at how robust and scalable the technology itself is and the stack they use. We invest in tech start-ups only.
Growth is key to our assessment of technology companies. We don’t do seed capital so when we invest in Series A, we can already witness a traction behind the start-up. If the traction is interesting, we get interested but if it is not already interesting, we don’t invest.
What are the challenges that remain for entrepreneurs in the region?
It depends on the country. In the GCC, there are no currency risks because they are pegged to the dollar, but if you look at currency in Egypt, they got really hit by the devaluation about three years ago.
There is also a political risk because of the region’s instability and relationship with its neighbouring countries.
Enablers are becoming better and better, but we still have some issues with the banks, for example. Opening up a bank account for start-ups is very challenging across the region. It takes ages and a lot of KYCs.
Five years ago, the logistics were very poor. Even the online payment systems were very poor so it was difficult for start-ups to thrive within that environment. This has been enhanced over the past couple of years but, for some reason, many customers here still want to pay cash-on-delivery and not use credit cards online. Penetration is increasing in terms of card usage but it is still lower than the global average.
Other than that, the ecosystem has evolved well and the enablers have followed. I would say the only challenge that remains is for fintech companies in terms of licence and regulations. Government regulations are making it easier by offering sandbox licences, but other than that, the regulatory framework is quite limited. The process is very slow but will happen one day I am sure.
Exits are happening, but still at a low rate where selling the start-up is difficult. There are more investors from outside the region looking at the region, which is positive, and the big regional conglomerates have also started to acquire start-ups so the trend is good but the numbers are still behind.
We have good start-ups and we want to sell them, but buyers are scarce. We should expand our horizon of buyers towards the global market, such as China or the US.
Earth has been used as a building material for at least the last 12,000 years. Ethnographic research into earth being used as an element of Aboriginal architecture in Australia suggests its use probably goes back much further.
Traditional construction methods were no match for the earthquake that rocked Morocco on Friday night, an engineering expert says, and the area will continue to see such devastation unless updated building techniques are adopted.
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