The importance of entrepreneurs to the country's economic future was a hot topic yesterday as federal officials turned their attention to small business. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, recognised leading young entrepreneurs at an award ceremony in Dubai, while Sultan al Mansouri, Minister of Economy, made a surprise visit to a forum on innovation and entrepreneurship in Abu Dhabi.
With the twin economic engines of property and financial services in decline, officials across the country are re-evaluating the support for and emphasis on small businesses, the historic backbone of the economy. That re-evaluation is taking many forms. Both Abu Dhabi and Dubai are developing laws on frameworks for the recognition and regulation of small companies. As well, a national approach to supporting entrepreneurs is expected to be finalised this year.
Long in the making, the system would create links between the governments' funding bodies such as Abu Dhabi's Khalifa Fund and Dubai's Mohammed bin Rashid Establishment for Small to Medium Enterprises. It would also provide more standardised support for Emirati entrepreneurs. "We've been doing this for the past seven years and we're working very closely on this draft, but it's just a draft now," said Abdul Baset al Janahi, the chief executive of the Mohammed bin Rashid Establishment.
Dr Ahmed al Mutawa, the executive director of the Khalifa Fund, said progress slowed after an important memorandum of understanding was signed in the middle of last year, but was optimistic that the proposals would move forward this year. "The goal is a common platform for dealing with SMEs, doing things like creating an Emirati entrepreneurship network, he said. "We signed an agreement, but we haven't progressed much. But I think 2010 will see some real developments on this co-operation."
With foreign residents making up 99 per cent of the private sector, Emirati entrepreneurs remain marginal in the broader economy, a situation that officials hope to change by extensive funding and support programmes. Last November, Mr al Janahi said foreign entrepreneurs could soon be given access to such services and yesterday he said there was "no update" on the possibility. Mr al Mutawa said the Khalifa Fund had no plan to expand its support to non-Emirati entrepreneurs.
Abu Dhabi is working on a package of policies aimed at making the local economy more innovative, with special attention on knowledge-based small businesses. In a speech at the Abu Dhabi Innovation Forum yesterday, Abdullah al Ahbabi, the assistant secretary-general of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council, said the policies would be aimed at "breaking down cultural barriers" to innovation and entrepreneurship and "creating a more confident, secure society that is sustainable and globally competitive".
One pillar of the package will be an "Innovation Index" that compares Abu Dhabi to other emerging and developed economies. In areas such as patent registration, university enrolment and investment in research and development or new technology, the emirate lags not just the developed world, but also emerging markets such as Thailand and Brazil. Dr Thomas Andersson, the president of the International Organisation for Knowledge Economy and Enterprise Development, which is working with the Government on building the index, said much remained to be done before Abu Dhabi's economy was competitive in knowledge-based industries.
"The good news is that you can make big changes in a very short period of time," he said. "We have already seen some big, very important changes in just the last few years." In Dubai, Mr al Janahi said the Emirati entrepreneurs receiving awards reflected a similar spirit to that of the emirate's ruler, himself known for an entrepreneurial approach to the business of government. "Lots of these winners have more pressure to be better and better, to be a role model for others," he said. "This is the most important thing. What His Highness has done as a government entrepreneur for this region is a role model for all of us. Be a go-getter, just do it."