Why female entrepreneurs will succeed in the Middle East

Written by
Sophina Rajah

06 Dec 2017

06 Dec 2017 • by Sophina Rajah


Women bring a valuable perspective to senior corporate management and organisations with female directors are more profitable (in terms of return on assets) than those run exclusively by men. The more women companies have on their boards, the better they tend to do. 

Middle Eastern and North African economies have the lowest proportion of women in employment and a low level of female entrepreneurs. Legal, cultural and social barriers mean educational advances have not yet translated into greater economic opportunities for women.

While they own and manage a significant number of small and medium sized businesses women often find it difficult to secure the financing that fuels innovation and job creation.

Interest rates and collateral regulations may prevent them from taking bank loans, although social media and crowdfunding platforms are helping drive increased levels of entrepreneurship by connecting women with the marketplace and alternative financing options.

Women choose entrepreneurship for many reasons - ambition, autonomy, disenchantment with corporate politics, work–life balance or flexibility, or having encountered the glass ceiling in corporate life. The challenge is to assist the development of entrepreneurial networks to leverage broad support and guidance for new initiatives; support that is flexible and tailored to the needs of female entrepreneurs.

Support networks

Women who encounter negative stereotypes struggle to be seen and treated as equals. Cultural constraints, social and traditional norms, and personal and family reasons, hamper workplace progression, integration or opportunities for professional development and entrepreneurial ambition. 

The social benefits of encouraging women in the workforce should not to be underestimated. When they are poorly represented in business they are also poorly represented in politics, because money often equals influence. Where women have an independent source of income, it enables them to take risks and maximise personal development, making the population richer, more productive while reducing gender disparity.

Services targeting female entrepreneurs tend to be limited, especially in finding a business mentor. Whereas in America Women’s Business Centers operate in most states, offering training in finance, management, marketing, with access to financial and procurement assistance programs that support high impact women’s entrepreneurship. 

Such services foster opportunities to network with and learn from successful entrepreneurs within the region and international marketplace. We need an entrepreneurial environment that facilitates a cultural shift towards supporting female innovation and entrepreneurial aspirations.

The entrepreneurial ecosystem

Emirati women are open to new ideas and challenges but cultural attitudes present specific difficulties regarding employment rights and promotion, which may be compromised by family obligations. However, such problems are shared with women elsewhere who are not equally represented in the workforce in USA or Europe. 

Regional initiatives making an impact include UAE-based WOMENA angel investor network offering training leveraging extensive knowledge of the MENA investment space to prepare entrepreneurs and SME owners to identify, approach, pitch to and negotiate with investors and funding entities.

We should aim for an entrepreneurial ecosystem that: 

  • removes barriers to women working
  • creates opportunities to enable women to work in sectors, occupations, and roles where they aspire to build their own business
  • reshapes underlying social norms and attitudes defining the choices women make, and societal perception and supports for those choices

For women entrepreneurs it is important to facilitate access to capital, contacts, and skills to start and scale their businesses. Achieving such an environment requires cooperation across government agencies, business support services and other stakeholders to build support structures that allow full participation in the workplace. 

Opportunities to build and operate professional networks may be limited, help in making the best of business networks improves chances of entrepreneurial success. Mentors are particularly important for female entrepreneurs who may lack role models, particularly where they seek to scale up their enterprise.

Business excellence

The UAE has made significant progress in removing social barriers that impede full integration in the labour market. The Emirates Woman of the Year Award celebrates strong, empowering women at the forefront in their fields while highlighting the role played by women in achieving leadership vision and strategic priorities in sustainability and continued progress. 

Global consultancy McKinsey asserts that worldwide, enhancing women’s economic potential goes hand in hand with achieving greater gender equality in society. The 2015, McKinsey Global Institute report The power of parity: How advancing women’s equality shows the level of gender equality in society is a powerful indicator of the female contribution to the economy; interventions to address the gender gap need to extend beyond the workplace and have wider societal impact.

Women as agents of economic change deserve enlightened government policies committed to creating new opportunities for women entrepreneurs by creating an environment conducive to female-led businesses.