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The Middle East's Other Boom: Entrepreneurship


The Middle East's Other Boom: Entrepreneurship

Thais Alencar

The Daily Beast


Just as 1960s counterculture was responsible

for the '80s high-tech explosion, the

revolutionary wave sweeping the Middle

East will trigger a boom in entrepreneurship

—but this time the change will be measured

in months, not decades.

Like many people, I have been watching the events

unfolding in the Middle East with a jaw hovering

somewhere near the floor. And curiously enough, many

of the thoughts the revolutionary wave has inspired in

me involve 1960s counterculture and the birth of '80s

high tech in the United States.

Let me explain. A couple of decades back, I received a

bit of notoriety for one widely quoted comment,

"Money is the long hair of the '80s." I had intended to

show that at least some of the seeds of

entrepreneurship in the '80s—the flowering of personal

computers, gaming, digital media, and so much more—

had been sown in the counterculture of the '60s. I was

convinced that much of the '60s experience of living

according to social values, creating nontraditional

organizations, the power of networks, grassroots

organizing, and the general antiestablishment flavor of

what I called the "corporate new wave" had been

translated into the startups of the '80s. When the young

reject the establishment, develop confidence in

different ways of doing things, and, most important,

find cultural and communications bridges to link them

together, the stage is set for large scale social change.

What we have seen in the recent Middle East

"awakening" is the power of shared experience,

primarily among the young, and the use of new social

media tools to organize, coordinate, generate content,

and affirm a shared culture of protest. The jungle

drums of the '60s that brought people together came

from rock ‘n' roll. The cultural catalysts of 2011 in the

Middle East are popular songs of protest posted on


Time will tell, but I believe these events have set the

stage for an explosion of entrepreneurial energy in the

Middle East, especially in the Internet and related tech

sectors. I see the emergence of a new socially minded

entrepreneur in this part of the world—one willing to

challenge the status quo, speak out, eschew the

trappings of establishment career paths for something

new, and take risks. Little of this has been possible,

except with difficulty, in most of the Middle East until

now. When repressive forces—direct or subtle—guide

the young in the direction of conformity, compliance

and conservatism, entrepreneurship may be thwarted.

But it doesn't die; it only sleeps.

Now we see a massive outpouring of self-organized

social entrepreneurship and activism, using technology

as the medium of exchange. What will follow almost

inevitably, I believe, is a similar tidal wave of business

entrepreneurship and innovation as those radicalized

by recent events and exposed to the power of new

technologies quickly find ways to adopt them in every

niche of a newly fluid society. The freedom that is on

everyone's mind in that part of the world is the freedom

to be one's own person—and also the freedom to be

entrepreneurial in challenging conventional wisdom

and established ways of doing things.

More than 300 million people live in the region and

speak Arabic as their primary language; this is one of

the last underserved, language-defined markets.

What also will fuel this boom is the size of the

opportunity space. There is so much to be done in the

Middle East, particularly in the social and Internet

media fields. Right now, there are no dominant brands.

The region is still culturally isolated, with a miniscule

number of international books translated into Arabic

each year. However, more than 300 million people live

in the region and speak Arabic as their primary

language; this is one of the last underserved, languagedefined

markets. And to date, the kind of exchange

across national borders in the region that could

generate larger market dynamics has been limited by

the frictional forces of politics and aging infrastructure.

All of this is now poised to change, and dramatically. In

the U.S., it took more than a decade for the lessons to

percolate from the teach-ins to the startups. In the

Middle East, the time frame will likely be measured in

months, not years, owing to the ability of today's

technology to decrease the cost structure of innovation

and speed up its cycle time.

And the region already has the beginnings of an

entrepreneurial culture. Late last year, I spoke at the

Celebration of Entrepreneurship Conference in Dubai.

Hundreds of young entrepreneurs from the Middle East

gathered together to share experiences, attend

workshops, and network. The links, forged from mindset

and purpose, between this community and the one

taking the streets from Cairo to Tunis could not, in my

view, be clearer.