Emirati entrepreneurs driven more by purpose than profit

Emiratis launching start-ups here frequently earn their livelihoods not in their enterprises but within the public sector. This is because their motivation comes more from having personal and social goals than inflating their earnings.

The year 2015 was declared the Year of Innovation in the UAE. Above, participants at an SME congress in Abu Dhabi. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
Powered by automated translation

With 2015 having been declared the Year of Innovation in the UAE, the topic of entrepreneurship has reached new levels of interest and urgency in this country.

Much of the available information and research on entrepreneurship in this country is focused on its institutional aspects, such as factors within the entrepreneurial ecosystem that may be helping or hurting rates of entrepreneurship.

However, a sociological understanding of entrepreneurship is still lacking. Motivations of Emirati entrepreneurs themselves are not fully understood, and pertinent questions remain unanswered.

With this in mind, I set out to qualitatively study the motivations behind entrepreneurship in the UAE and to attempt to answer the question: why do Emiratis pursue entrepreneurship? For my senior capstone project at NYU Abu Dhabi – a year-long research project in social research and public policy – I aimed to discover why this growing trend towards entrepreneurship exists in the UAE, particularly when, according to a Khalifa Fund report, more than 90 per cent of employed Emiratis work in the public sector, occupying well-paying government jobs .

One defining aspect of entrepreneurship in the UAE that I discovered was that a majority of Emirati entrepreneurs pursue full-time jobs unrelated to the businesses they work to launch. Eleven of the 13 Emirati entrepreneurs I interviewed were also employed in government jobs while starting and running their own businesses. When talking about the reasons they choose to pursue both at the same time – a career in government and a side business – they cited salaries, networks, and managerial aspirations. Most importantly, since their public sector positions provide them with sufficient incomes, they identified motivations other than profit for entering the world of entrepreneurship, such as personal passions and social impact.

Worldwide research on entrepreneurial motivation has found variations in the reasons why people start businesses. Entrepreneurs in developing countries such as the Philippines and Bangladesh, for example, pursue entrepreneurship primarily with economic motivations because often it is their only viable source of income. However, in more developed countries in North America and Europe, entrepreneurs are found to be motivated by both economic and non-economic reasons, such as social status and independence.

Rather than economic motivation, my study found many Emirati entrepreneurs ascribe to more intrinsic and social reasons for entering the world of entrepreneurship. I found Emiratis who were starting cafes because of their love for coffee shops, and sports companies because of their passion for football. One female Emirati entrepreneur who has been passionate about sports her whole life started a sports company after seeing a lack of such facilities for women in the UAE. When talking about her motivations, she disregarded the desire for profit or money, and said her main motivation is to spread her passion for sports. Several other entrepreneurs I met also revealed a desire to find a creative avenue for their passions through starting their businesses.

Even if they are content with their jobs, entrepreneurs I spoke with said they gained leadership and managerial skills from running businesses and a sense of fulfilment from being directly engaged with their area of interest.

An Emirati entrepreneur involved in the printing industry talked about starting his business not to make money, but to practice his project management skills and because of his desire to start a well-structured company from scratch. Furthermore, dealing with the institutional red tape that comes with starting a business also provided entrepreneurs with the opportunity to challenge themselves in new ways, which many of them are looking for outside their day jobs.

Ultimately, I found that the most common motivation among Emirati entrepreneurs is to contribute to their community or to the country in a meaningful way. Among my interviewees were Emiratis who have started businesses to give women in the UAE a platform to engage in sports, to promote little-known places in their city, to raise cultural awareness and to help youth in the UAE find their passions. Owners of these firms said starting a business is the most effective option for making the impact that they hope to see in their communities.

One entrepreneur who is launching a tourism app said she started her business despite working full-time because she wanted to make a direct contribution to her country. She also observed that other Emirati entrepreneurs she knows do not start businesses for money but to serve their country and community.

The central findings of my research project, therefore, are that entrepreneurship in the UAE is more socially than commercially driven, and Emirati entrepreneurs are more motivated by personal and social reasons than by profit.

What is the significance of this finding? A better understanding of the motivations behind entrepreneurship can help policymakers and related initiatives promote entrepreneurship in the UAE in more effective ways.

Improvements and efficiencies can be made in the available services to potential entrepreneurs, with the knowledge that their enterprises may very likely be socially oriented.

Arfa Rehman is a 2015 graduate of NYU Abu Dhabi. She will be attending Oxford University in September as a Rhodes Scholar, where she plans to complete a master’s in Sociology.

Follow The National's Business section on Twitter