German engineering. Swedish design. American innovation. Italian style.
Arab unrest. Islamic extremism. War in the Middle East.
Connotations matter. And rightly or wrongly, the Middle East and North Africa has an image problem.
Unfortunately, it isn’t simply a matter of perception. Political instability has been a thorn in our region’s side for decades. Today, active conflict and socio-economic degradation persist across swathes of the Middle East, with the resultant humanitarian crisis spilling into the region and lapping at the shores of Europe and North America.
However, reasons for optimism are not as elusive as the headlines might otherwise suggest. Look no further than the region’s thriving entrepreneurial sector. According to a recent study published by HSBC, the Middle East boasts the highest proportion of entrepreneurs under the age of 35 in the world.
This growing start-up sector can become our greatest asset in creating a more balanced narrative for the Middle East. With every innovative creation exported to the world, entrepreneurs can shatter another piece of the facade of low expectations that has shrouded our region for generations.
That is the power of entrepreneurial diplomacy. After all, there is no more powerful way to shape perceptions and create affinities between diverse communities than through the exchange of branded goods and services that make a positive difference in people’s lives.
Consequently, entrepreneurial diplomacy also has the potential to counter global trends of rising xenophobia and isolationism by providing a powerful channel for young men and women to express themselves and connect through a shared passion for invention and creativity.
Notwithstanding the urgency of job creation, I’d like to think that this is a key reason why there is such a strong commitment in the UAE to the establishment of supportive hubs for start-ups and entrepreneurs. A recent example is the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre — known as Sheraa — that opened earlier this year at the American University of Sharjah, to support young innovators nurture their ideas to fruition.
These entrepreneurs, and millions more like them across the region, have a unique opportunity to demonstrate — in a way that billions of dollars of passive investments in foreign assets cannot — that the Middle East remains a wellspring of creativity and innovation.
Some of the oldest examples of the practice of diplomacy can be traced back to an exchange of clay tablets with messages between the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt and the Amurru rulers of Canaan (today the southern half of the Levant) during the 14th century BC.
The word itself derives its meaning from the Ancient Greek “diploma”, a letter of recommendation or authority that identified individuals as envoys of their state.
Today’s entrepreneurs are the new diplomats of the global economy. They derive their authority, their diplomas, from the originality of their ideas, the quality of their products, and the strength of their brands, and carry their country’s reputation with them wherever they go.
This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. Many countries have drawn international credibility and respect from the creativity and technical prowess of their most successful homegrown businesses.
When anyone, wherever they are located, spends time surfing on Google, streaming media via Apple, sipping coffee in Starbucks, riding with Uber or lodging through Airbnb, these are not merely acts of commercial consumption. They are also subtle but profoundly impactful cultural experiences that reinforce the status of the US as a leading source of ingenuity, innovation, and opportunity in the consumer’s psyche.
At home in the UAE, corporate trailblazers such as Emirates airline and Etihad Airways have undoubtedly imbued our nation’s reputation with connotations of excellence in hospitality, reliability and vision. However, companies from across our corporate spectrum — including SMEs, family businesses and publicly listed companies — can do more to ensure that effective entrepreneurial diplomacy becomes an integral part of their international business strategies.
And the recent proliferation of start-ups and entrepreneurs, particularly within our burgeoning digital economy, provides us with a historic opportunity to produce many more national champions.
Across an extensive global network of embassies, consulates and international offices, our country’s diplomats work tirelessly to advance our nation’s interests and enhance its standing in the hearts and minds of people around the world.
They should know they are not alone in that mission. The UAE’s private sector has a unique role to play in creating greater global understanding of our region, its character and its capabilities through the quality of our products and the power of our ideas.
We all have an immense opportunity, and a responsibility, to help carry the flag.
The writer is the Chief Executive of Crescent Enterprises and the Founder of the Pearl Initiative.