Through the fog of war, Syria’s entrepreneurs see opportunities

A file photo of Syrian entrepreneurs taken by Techstars during Startup Weekend in Damascus in 2014.
Updated 14 December 2017

Through the fog of war, Syria’s entrepreneurs see opportunities

DAMASCUS: Think of the Syrian economy and the first issues that come to mind are sanctions, hyperinflation, unemployment and poverty — but not entrepreneurship.
Surprisingly, however, although the war has taken a toll on business, entrepreneurs are thriving. And even more surprisingly, many of them are women.
A report this year suggests that 17.6 percent of entrepreneurs tried to work on new startup ideas in 2015, and the figure climbed to 31.2 percent in 2016. In addition, women now comprise 22.4 percent of entrepreneurs in Syria, compared with only 4.4 percent in 2009.
“This increase was triggered by the growing role that Syrian women have been playing in society as breadwinners and supporters of their families, while many of the men have been forced to either flee or join the armed conflict,” said Ahmad Sufyan Bayram, a Syrian researcher and social entrepreneur who compiled the report from interviews with 268 experts and Syrian entrepreneurs.
Syrian entrepreneurs face some of the world’s toughest business conditions. Syria performs poorly in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business surveys — its global ranking in 2017 was 174 out of 190.
“Unlike with entrepreneurs in other parts of the world, building a startup for Syrians isn’t all about making a fortune. In a country that has had enough bloodshed, entrepreneurs look at entrepreneurship as the only way to keep their dreams alive and restore their hopes of a better future,” Bayram told Arab News.
His report identified 10 challenges that most entrepreneurs encounter in starting a business — insecurity and political instability, scarcity of financial support, limited access to markets, collapsing infrastructure, sanctions and payment restrictions, increasing economic burdens, dwindling human skills, diminishing market size, unfriendly regulatory environment, and a dysfunctional entrepreneurship education.
Ghalia Turki, a Palestinian-Syrian entrepreneur, founded Magma Academy, a youth development startup in Damascus, in 2015. She decided to start her project in Syria because of the need to prepare young people for the world of work. “Education in Syria has noticeably regressed, and universities here no longer prepare students for the labor market,” she said.
She said her project was going well given the economic, social, and security situation in Syria. “We are preparing to take the startup to the next level in January 2018.”
When asked about the challenges facing her project, Ghalia said: “The volunteering culture in Syria is still premature, and this made a good number of Magma Academy’s students inattentive simply because we provided training courses at no charge.
“Also, people here volunteer just to add this experience to their CVs. They don’t believe it necessary to commit, nor for their work to be of high quality.”
Business incubators such as Afkar and ICT support Syrian entrepreneurs, but “the level of support provided by incubators inside the country is limited, mainly due to the fragile economy,” Bayram said.
The most significant challenge to entrepreneurs was their inability to believe in the potential of their country and their people, said Fadi Mujahid, Syrian entrepreneurship consultant and co-founder of Game Power 7, the first online gaming company in the MENA region.
“Many of them cannot picture the war ending and Syria prospering again, but only those who took a firm stand and believed their business can thrive in Syria will reap what they have sown.”
Whether a startup would thrive in Syria under the current circumstances depended on the project’s purpose, he said. “If the project met the needs of the country’s market, or if it operated in Syria but met the needs of other markets, it will succeed for sure. For example, a housekeeping robot is doomed to failure because there is no need for it inside Syria and it cannot serve clients abroad.”
Few Syrian entrepreneurs possess advanced technical skills, which is why some Syrian startups are technology-based but are mostly micro and small businesses, Bayram said. “Technology is an easier alternative to old-fashioned trends. Modern trends include food and travel services, as well as a variety of artistic hobbies-turned-startups.
“Some examples of thriving startups in Syria are Remmaz, a platform that teaches coding in Arabic; LiBeiroot, the Syrian alternative of Uber that operates between Damascus and Beirut; and Mujeeb, an artificial intelligence platform that builds customer support chatbots in Arabic. It is one of the few AI-powered startups in the region.”

Family backs Tlaib’s decision not to visit Israel

Updated 18 August 2019

Family backs Tlaib’s decision not to visit Israel

  • Israel said a humanitarian travel request by Tlaib would be considered as long as she promised not to promote a boycott against Israel

RAMALLAH: Relatives of a US congresswoman say they support her decision to decline Israel’s offer allowing her to visit them in the West Bank because the “right to travel should be provided to all without any conditions.”

Rashida Tlaib said she would not see her family, even after Israel lifted a ban on her entry, because the government had imposed restrictions on her trip.

“We totally understand her position and support her in her efforts. The right to travel should be provided to all without any conditions,” her uncle Bassam Tlaib told Arab News.

He was speaking from the family home in Beit Ur Al-Fuka, which is 3 km from the West Bank city of Ramallah, and was flanked by his elderly mother.

He said his niece had visited them many times in the past, but there had never been any conditions attached to her travel.

“She said we will meet when she can come without conditions,” Tlaib said. “One idea has been floated of flying the grandmother to the US or finding a way to have the two meetings in a third country. You know my mother is nearing 90 and it is not easy for her to travel but we are checking out all options.”

Tlaib, a Democrat, has criticized Israel’s policy toward Palestinians and had planned to make an official visit to the country.

Israel said a humanitarian travel request by Tlaib would be considered as long as she promised not to promote a boycott against Israel, local media reported.

But the congresswoman, who is Palestinian-American, lashed out on social media.

“I can’t allow the State of Israel to take away that light by humiliating me & use my love for my sity to bow down to their oppressive & racist policies,” she tweeted, using the word sity to refer to her grandmother. “Silencing me & treating me like a criminal is not what she wants for me. It would kill a piece of me. I have decided that visiting my grandmother under these oppressive conditions stands against everything I believe in — fighting against racism, oppression & injustice.”

The NGO hosting and organizing the trip, Miftah, has been criticized by supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Hanan Ashrawi, the NGO’s founder, said her staff had organized other congressional trips. “This was the third trip we have organized, and we try to do our work professionally and seriously,” Ashrawi told Arab News. “Our very mission is to promote global dialogue and democracy.”

Ashrawi said the attacks on Miftah were unwarranted.  “Miftah has been targeted with the expressed goal of trying to discredit us even though our record is clear. We believe that they are trying to keep organizing congressional delegations within the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) monopoly, while we are trying to provide visitors with an opportunity to learn about Palestinian life under occupation and to understand the Palestinian narrative by providing opportunities for delegations to see and engage with Palestinians of all walks of life.” 

Ashrawi said Miftah had been “vetted” by the US Congress’ ethics committee. “We might not be able to bring hundreds of congress people like AIPAC, but we can bring a few and have them see, hear and interact with Palestinians.”

US President Donald Trump had called on Israel not to allow Tlaib and fellow congresswoman Ilhan Omar into Israel as admitting the two “would show great weakness.”

He tweeted that the pair “hate Israel and all Jewish people, and there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace.”