MANAMA: “Women are celebrated in Bahrain,” said Nada Alawi in response to why the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member state seems to do so well in fostering female entrepreneurs.
The former oil and gas executive quit her high-paying job in Houston, Texas, to return to the Middle East and help her family set up an occupational safety and health center.
On the side, along with her sister, she launched Annada, an affordable luxury brand that transforms artworks into fashion items and lifestyle accessories, and distributes them in GCC states.
Among the artists whose works they have reinterpreted are calligrapher Abdel Elah Al-Arab and experimental artist Jamal Abdulrahim.
“Certainly our society puts certain family expectations on women, but my environment is free,” Alawi said.
“I have the freedom to choose and make my own decisions, and I’ve never felt hampered by my gender as an entrepreneur.”
Bahrain has the highest percentage of female business founders in the world, according to the 2019 Global Startup Ecosystem Report.
About 18 percent of the country’s enterprises are started by women, beating out more established ecosystems such as London (15 percent) and Silicon Valley (16 percent).
More impressive is the fact that Bahrain now boasts gender equality in business ownership, with 49 percent of all commercial registrations in the country made out to women in 2018, official data shows.
The country’s success comes from an inclusive focus, says Hala Ahmed Sulaiman, founder and managing director of Beyond Borders Consultancy — a strategic management and communications firm — and cofounder of Alrawi Media, an open platform of audiobook content in Arabic.
“Statistically, women in Bahrain have become more engaged in the business world due to the vast amount of enablers and opportunities provided by the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” she said. “There are several funds and training programs developed to empower or advance women in Bahrain.”
A former journalist, Sulaiman has gained an impressive roster of public- and private-sector clients since launching four years ago, when she took advantage of just such an encouragement program.
Beyond Borders operated out of Riyadat Mall, a first-of-its-kind incubator for women set up by the country’s Supreme Council for Women and the Bahrain Development Bank, and subsidized by the labor fund Tamkeen.
In 2016, the country set up the $100 million Bahraini Women Development Portfolio Fund to help aspiring entrepreneurs with financial support, training and advice to help launch their own commercial startups.
Driven by its limited hydrocarbon reserves, Bahrain was one of the first countries in the region to embark on an economic diversification program.
Over the years, it has worked to ensure that it offers the most cost-effective launchpad for startups in the GCC.
KPMG estimates the cost of starting a new business in Bahrain at 35 percent lower than in comparable jurisdictions, thanks to cheaper manpower costs and lower office rents.
“Bahrain is in many ways an ideal location for starting up a business because it offers an ideal platform from which we can access the high-value GCC markets,” Alawi said.
“It enjoys a number of other competitive advantages, including highly competitive operating costs and a skilled and bilingual national workforce.”
Examples of Bahraini businesswomen who have found great success in recent times include Narise Kamber of food and beverage ventures Jena Bakery and Saffron by Jena; artist Amina Al-Abbasi of Amina Gallery; and Sofia Al-Asfoor, founder and designer of the luxury handbag brand of the same name.
Then there is Green Bar, a Bahraini spa brand founded by Reem Al-Khalifa that in 2019 secured placement in Manama’s PureGray Spa at the Merchant House, the country’s first five-star boutique hotel, run by luxury hotelier Campbell Gray Hotels.
However, entrepreneurs believe much more can be done. “There is still a lot of work required in the areas of financial literacy, issues related to legal implications, investments, shareholders and partnership topics/issues that are needed to further educate and enable women in business,” Sulaiman said.
Alawi points to issues that are common to entrepreneurs everywhere. “There remain some disadvantages for entrepreneurs looking to access funds, and I’m not sure if it’s different for men,” she said.
Annada has been operating since 2011, but she feels there is limited access to capital in the region, possibly because venture funds see technology startups as more glamorous or offering greater potential for returns.
“They say there’s a lot of money in the region, but I sometimes feel it’s aimed for specific sectors,” said Alawi. “It’s almost like there’s a risk investing in something that’s non-tech. But it’s worth remembering that with any startup, seven out of 10 companies fail within the first three years.”
Alawi would like to see more accelerators for companies looking to expand. “There is a lot of support for startups, and that was one of the main reasons I was able to start a new company,” she added.
“But now I’m at the point where I want to scale, and I’m curious to see what there is.”