Silicon Desert: Can Kuwait move from oil to entrepreneurs?

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Media caption,

Kuwait is increasing efforts to reduce its reliance upon oil production

It is a Tuesday evening in a basement room in Kuwait City's Dasman Complex, a cluster of art supply shops and offices.

More than a dozen women - Kuwaitis and expats - are listening intently to 28-year-old finance graduate Arwa Al-Jaser.

Ms Al-Jaser used to work in a government job. But since September she has been a member of the team behind Mukankom, a website for renting workspace, offices and meeting rooms by the hour.

Beaming with pride, Ms Al-Jaser talks about how she is now a web programmer who feels passionate about what she does, often working long hours on little sleep.

And she's quick to encourage a member of the audience who says that she's considering a similar career change but is hesitant. "Just do it, just try," she says.

Ms Al-Jaser says that when she left her job, she had been unsure if she had made the right decision.

Image caption,
Arwa Al-Jaser (left) gives talks about her experience in business

"I needed someone to take me by the hand and show me the way, and I will definitely be that person [to others in a similar situation] in the future," she says.

"This is the first time that I really realise what it means to love what you do."

The audience that Ms Al-Jaser is speaking to has gathered for an event which part of the global non-profit Girls in Tech programme. The hope is that success stories like hers will inspire other women to make the leap into the world of tech start-ups.

Entrepreneurial ambition

This gathering is one of many taking place in Kuwait as the country seeks to create a new generation of entrepreneurs, as part of its ambition to diversify its oil-dependent economy and become a regional finance and trade hub.

Oil accounts for around 60% of Kuwait's economy and some 95% of its export revenues.

Image caption,
Hashim Bahbahani and Ahmad Marafi learned computer coding

But with global oil prices having remained stubbornly low over the past 12 months, the country's ruler, Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, the Emir of Kuwait, has called for economic reforms and a reduction in public expenditure.

Speaking last month, the emir said that state revenues were down 60% due to the slump.

A key element of the reform plan is the government's 2bn Kuwaiti dinar ($6.6bn; £4.3bn) National Fund for Small and Medium Enterprise Development.

Previous, albeit smaller, funds have sought to achieve similar goals but failed to make any significant impact, leaving many wondering if the national fund will be any different. But the large scale of the latest scheme at least reflects a strong resolution to try.

The plan is to focus on Kuwait's entrepreneurial ecosystem in its entirety, by creating "hubs" in various fields, where entrepreneurs can access services such as mentorship and financing.

However, the scheme is only open to the 1.3 million Kuwaiti nationals, and not the 2.9 million expats who live in the country.

Burgeoning tech scene

Ms Al-Jaser was lucky enough to benefit from a pilot course at the country's first coding bootcamp run by a Kuwaiti business called Coded.

Hashim Bahbahani and Ahmad Marafi founded Coded when their previous start-up venture, an e-commerce platform for small local businesses, failed.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The capital, Kuwait City, has a modern business sector

"I told Ahmad that one of the main reasons it failed was that we weren't coders ourselves," says Mr Bahbahani. "We really struggled to find talented coders."

So they decided to learn, and having expected a Google search to bring up numerous options, they were shocked to find that the only suitable coding bootcamp in the Arab-speaking Middle East was in Lebanon.

Coded's first course took place back in the summer.

Mr Bahbahani and Mr Marafi hope that their graduates will contribute towards creating the backbone of the country's tech start-up scene.

"Young people in Kuwait are naturally entrepreneurial," says Mr Bahbahani. "You'll find a lot of people here who are full-time employees, but who have a business on the side."

He concedes that in Kuwait they are drawing from quite a limited pool of Kuwaiti nationals in the small state.

But Bahbahani says he is convinced that Kuwaitis have great potential in tech and entrepreneurship, and that with the added presence of expats, the country has the makings of a vibrant entrepreneurial scene.

Unconventional route

Athbi al-Mutairi's route into entrepreneurship was rather more isolated.

The 36-year-old spent five years in the army having dropped out of high school. and when his plans to study in the UK fell through, he took up a position in IT support at a local newspaper.

Image source, Coded
Image caption,
Students attending a Coded event

During his five years there, Mr Al-Mutairi taught himself to code from the internet.

He went on to create KuwaitReader, an app which aggregates local Twitter content. The app was a success, and he went on to sell KuwaitReader along with versions for the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

His latest app, which launched in its current version in August, archives social media videos from the region's top online influencers, with their permission. The Mojaz app currently has 200,000 active users, who download an average of 1.5 million videos on the app daily.

"I never thought it would reach these numbers in this time frame. I'm very proud of it," says Mr Al-Mutairi.

While he's achieved success without much outside help, he does think he would have benefited from the kind of support now being developed for budding entrepreneurs.

Flawed approach?

For the national fund to achieve its ambition it will have to be well designed, according to Nabil AlNoor, an entrepreneur who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, and is now based in Silicon Valley as the president of his own venture capital firm Graphene Ventures.

He says first and foremost the correct governance has to be in place in Kuwait.

Image caption,
A business workshop in Kuwait organised by entrepreneurship support group Wamda

"When funds are released, they have to be released according to a very clear process that can be tracked even backwards later on, to see who was given the money and how serious they are," says Mr AlNoor.

He also wishes that the fund could be offered to the expats living in Kuwait.

"If I was in the government's shoes, I would say that it was limited to anyone who wanted to do business in Kuwait," he says.

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