I love cupcakes. Also, I admit, there is something enticing about the possibility of a fortune built on cupcakes. However, unfortunately, we cannot all be Betty Crocker. With the ever-growing number of cupcakeries, fashion labels and various other startups, it is safe to say many young people in the UAE have been influenced by the idea of entrepreneurship. Not only is this growing entrepreneurship trend becoming a defining feature of societies in the region, governments have also recognised and encouraged this budding interest amongst the youth.
The Government of Dubai is being a good example and is, as usual, proving itself to be at the forefront of such public engagement with enterprising youth. The Mohammad Bin Rashid Establishment for Small and Medium Enterprises Development and the Mohammad Bin Rashid Awards for Young Business Leaders are becoming well-recognised platforms for enterprising youth. The recently-announced, colossal Mohammad Bin Rashid City, also includes, as one of its major components, ‘an integrated environment for the development of entrepreneurship and innovation’. Obviously, there must be something to these ‘cupcakes’.
Not long ago, high-school and university graduates in Arab Gulf states saw a public sector job as one of life’s crowning accomplishments. It was the norm and the expectation; the intricacies of public sector employment and its links to government legitimacy in the Arab Gulf region is an interesting relationship. In brief, these states were able to maintain the social contract of the typically oil-based economies by providing social security in return for political acquiescence. This ‘social security’ included, free health care, education, land, housing and most importantly — well-paid public sector jobs. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that approximately 80 per cent of Emiratis are public sector employees, according to the UAE Ministry of Labour.
Today, higher education is more attractive and the number of post-graduates is on a steady increase. The reason why this trend towards entrepreneurship is prevailing amongst young people may be rooted in developments in education. It may also be that young people are now searching for viable alternatives to public sector employment. Who would have thought the once-conservative societies of the Arab Gulf states would eventually breed a generation intent on making their name in cupcakes? It is important to note a caveat in this entrepreneurship trend though — not too many men are keen on cupcake entrepreneurship. By and large, men are still attracted to the public sector. Three out of four startups fail and not having the luxury of a financial safety net, many men are continuing to choose public sector jobs. They find public sector employment the only avenue to achieve job security, financial independence and the kind of stable income that they need in order to get married, start a family and build a house.
It is women, perhaps because they do not face the same financial burden as men, who are the most active players in this growing culture of entrepreneurship. The percentage of women pursuing university and post-graduate education in the UAE far outweighs men. Across the board, women are proving themselves to be the force to reckon with. Arab Gulf states are dedicated to empowering women as a matter of policy priority. Whether it is baking or policy-making, men will have to accept that in the coming decades, the driver’s seat will be occupied by more capable, more qualified, khaleeji women.
As individuals from various nationalities and educational backgrounds compete for jobs in the private sector, nationals often find they are handed the short end of the stick. The private sector is not built on the same governing principles that Emiratis are accustomed to, it is highly competitive and solely looks for high return with few overheads. This reality does not bode well for Emiratis who expect much but are unable to compete with others who are much cheaper to employ.
Emiratis are not unqualified employees or notoriously lazy, as the gossip goes. The expatriate employees are attractive because they are skilled, educated but also because they are relatively cheap to employers. There is a built-in bias against Emiratis in the thriving private sector. In such a precarious and unfriendly private sector, Emiratis find themselves lost, becoming either highly sought-after or finding themselves struggling for stable careers. Even with initiatives such as emiratisation, not 1 per cent of UAE nationals are employed in the private sector. No wonder Emirati youth are finding solace in entrepreneurship.
Cupcakeries, abaya fashion labels and a myriad of other handicraft and service-based enterprises continue to bud across the region. The best cupcakes I have had in Dubai (not meaning to be unpatriotic) are the product of a Brazilian woman who does her own baking and show-cases it at local events and farmers’ markets. Her baking tastes like what I can only describe as my childhood. Youth in the UAE and across the region are finding themselves faced by realties that did not exist a decade ago. Unanticipated challenges and daunting socio-economic realities mark this vulnerable segment of society. The rise of entrepreneurship is driven by increasingly educated youth who are finding few avenues to channel their newly-developed acumen. Job security and financial independence were alien concepts to many, but have now become definitive in modern societies and rapidly developing economies of the region.
Gaith Abdulla is a Dubai-based writer focusing on socio-political issues. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/gaith_ab