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Fostering Homegrown Youth Entrepreneurship in the UAE

The Importance of Entrepreneurship

Growing attention has been given to entrepreneurship as a vehicle for innovation, growth, and development throughout the world. The UAE, too, is actively promoting entrepreneurship by pushing forth initiatives such as the “Entrepreneurial Nation” and encouraging an entrepreneurial culture, especially among youth. Such promotion has led to the rise of university-based entrepreneurship programs, accelerators, and incubators with aims to support and foster homegrown entrepreneurship. It has resulted in pitch competitions, hackathons, startup roadshows, and youth hubs, all of which has played a big role in adding to the hype around entrepreneurship and creating a culture around it.

Despite a growing interest to explore and engage in entrepreneurship, I found in my study of youth entrepreneur’s lived experiences that UAE national and long-term resident youth face many challenges in pursuing their entrepreneurial activities. A common source of frustration and obstacle expressed by young, local entrepreneurs interviewed is that they’re often overshadowed by global startups who have already shown traction or evidence of product viability elsewhere. If the UAE truly wants to encourage young people to engage in entrepreneurship and grow a local homegrown entrepreneurship ecosystem, then it is worth paying attention to the feedback from young entrepreneurs and explore policies, programs, and initiatives to support them. Most importantly, we need to provide youth with greater entrepreneurial access and opportunities.

Recommendations to Foster Homegrown Entrepreneurship

 The following recommendations are intended to help expand entrepreneurial opportunities for youth in the UAE. It is important to consider that these recommendations are not listed in ranked order and hold equal value regarding policy implications for how the UAE can better serve Emirati youth interested in pursuing these opportunities.

  • Provide entrepreneurial opportunities in targeted priority areas

Findings from my study suggest that programs that have a specific challenge or theme that addresses industry challenges or priority areas of the UAE are effective in facilitating early-stage entrepreneurs through the startup business development cycle towards at least a minimum viable product (MVP). For example, incubators and accelerators could potentially partner with government, semi-government, and/or private companies to identify these challenges. After organizing programmatic designs based on complex priorities, participating entrepreneur teams could then provide solutions toward such challenges and engage in pitching competitions showcasing their developed product solutions. An incentive for innovative solutions could be prized as an opportunity to pilot their product with the accelerator’s industry partner. This creates a ‘win-win’ situation for the young entrepreneurial venture and the client (i.e., the industry partner).

Studies coming out of Silicon Valley, and other entrepreneurial hubs in the United States, support this recommendation. For example, a study conducted by Mazzucato (2011) revealed how governments played a key role during the Cold War era in spurring and fostering entrepreneurship ecosystems that supported young start-up ventures for technology and innovation. One advantage of the entrepreneurship ecosystems throughout the UAE is that they are largely a top-down ecosystems, where the state serves as the primary driver and facilitator. This top-down structure can be leveraged to coordinate calls for entrepreneurial ideas and solutions to address specific needs and challenges of the UAE to support, grow, and accelerate local, homegrown entrepreneurship.

  •  Foster learning opportunities for young entrepreneurs with more mature start-ups

In my study, interviews revealed that opportunities for local youth entrepreneurs to network with and learn from more mature and successful start-ups are limited. One way to address this gap is to provide opportunities for youth to take on internship roles and work in global start-up sectors to test their products and scale in the UAE and Gulf markets. Through internships and/or experiential fellowship programs, aspiring Emirati youth entrepreneurs can gain real experience in the start-up culture, learn how startups operate and obtain entrepreneurial and business skills necessary for future employment, regardless of whether they decide to pursue entrepreneurship in the long term. These programs could also be beneficial for global start-ups located in the UAE, as Emirati youth can become cultural bridges and provide support as they become familiar with the UAE and Gulf contexts.

One way to encourage global start-ups to engage with local youth is to incentivize those currently accepted by government and/or semi-government accelerator programs. For example, global start-ups could be given additional funding and/or other benefits and resources to navigate the local UAE ecosystem (e.g., licensing fee waiver) for being an employer-mentor to Emirati youth intern/fellow. These activities would not only benefit the startups with additional support and resources, but they may also allow for knowledge transfer and help develop a nascent local entrepreneurship ecosystem, further contributing to the UAE’s national vision and goals of becoming an entrepreneurial nation.

  • Include long-term resident youth entrepreneurs in growing a local entrepreneurship ecosystem endeavor

Findings from my study reveal that long-term resident youth who consider the UAE as ‘home’ and are interested in entrepreneurial activities are often excluded from local opportunities and resources that could help support and accelerate their entrepreneurial endeavors. Studies of other entrepreneurship ecosystems, such as that in Israel (Senor and Singer 2009), showed how immigrants played a critical role in shaping and developing their local entrepreneurship ecosystem. Facilitating and expanding programmatic venues for long-term expatriate and encouraging collaborations with nationals with similar entrepreneurial interests could may be a viable way forward to expand and grow entrepreneurship from within the UAE.

Towards a More Expanded, Evolving Local Entrepreneurship Ecosystem

For healthy entrepreneurship ecosystems to emerge and develop in the UAE for the long haul, there is a need to support and grow local entrepreneurs who are rooted in the UAE while attracting more mature startups globally to fuel and grow UAE’s entrepreneurship ecosystems. Growing interest in startups and entrepreneurship provides fertile grounds to encourage youth to explore and pursue entrepreneurship as a potential pathway. Investing in talented national and expatriate youth and facilitating opportunities for youth to learn from and collaborate with more mature startups would provide a way for youth to gain experience and engage in entrepreneurship.


To learn more about efforts to foster homegrown entrepreneurship in the UAE, check out Seungah Lee’s policy paper that this blog is based on.