To fight off unemployment, Iraqi youth plant start-up seeds

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Around 600-700 to Iraqi youth visited Mosul Space to attend a seminar or seek out resources as they start their own ventures. (AFP)
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Many self-starters begin their journey at an aptly named glass building in central Baghdad: The Station, above. (AFP)
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Youth make up around 60 percent of Iraq’s nearly 40 million people. (AFP)
Updated 17 February 2019

To fight off unemployment, Iraqi youth plant start-up seeds

  • Iraqi entrepreneurs are taking on staggering unemployment by establishing their own start-ups
  • Under current legislation, private sector employees are not offered the same labor protections or social benefits as those in the public sector

BAGHDAD: Stuck between an endless waitlist for a government job and a frail private sector, Iraqi entrepreneurs are taking on staggering unemployment by establishing their own start-ups.
The first murmurs of this creative spirit were felt in 2013, but the Daesh group’s sweep across a third of the country the following year put many projects on hold.
Now, with Daesh defeated, co-working spaces and incubators are flourishing in a country whose unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent but whose public sector is too bloated to hire.
Many self-starters begin their journey at an aptly named glass building in central Baghdad: The Station.
There, they sip on coffee, peruse floor-to-ceiling bookshelves for ideas and grab a seat at clusters of desks where other stylish Iraqis click away at their laptops.
“We’re trying to create a new generation with a different state of mind,” said executive director Haidar Hamzoz.
“We want to tell youth that they can start their own project, achieve their dreams and not just be happy in a government job they didn’t even want,” he said.
Youth make up around 60 percent of Iraq’s nearly 40 million people.
After graduating from university, many spend years waiting to be appointed to a job in the government, Iraq’s biggest employer.
Four out of five jobs created in Iraq in recent years are in the public sector, according to the World Bank.
And in its 2019 budget, the government proposed $52 billion in salaries, pensions, and social security for its workers — a 15 percent jump from 2018 and more than half the total budget.
But with graduates entering the workforce faster than jobs are created, many still wait indefinitely for work.
Among youth, 17 percent of men and a whopping 27 percent of women are unemployed, the World Bank says.
When Daesh declared Mosul its seat of power in Iraq back in 2014, resident Saleh Mahmud was forced to shutter the city’s incubator for would-be entrepreneurs.
With Mosul now cautiously rebuilding after the militants were ousted in 2017, Mahmud is back in business.
“Around 600-700 youth have already passed by Mosul Space” to attend a seminar or seek out resources as they start their own ventures, said the 23-year-old.
He was inspired after watching fellow Mosul University graduates hopelessly “try to hunt down a connection to get a job in the public sphere.”
“A university education isn’t something that gets you a fulfilling job,” he said.
Another start-up, Dakkakena, is capitalizing on Mosul’s rebuilding spirit, too.
The online shopping service delivers a lorry-full of home goods every day to at least a dozen families refurnishing after the war.
“On the web, we can sell things for cheaper than stores because we have fewer costs, like no showrooms,” said founder Yussef Al-Noaime, 27.
Noaime fled Daesh to the Netherlands, where he was introduced to e-commerce. When he returned home, the computer engineer partnered with another local to found their venture.
A similar service, Miswag, was set-up in the capital Baghdad in 2014 and last year reported hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits.
On an autumn day, some 70 young Iraqi innovators converged for a three-day workshop in Baghdad on founding start-ups.
They flitted among round tables planning projects, their Arabic conversations sprinkled with English terms.
“What we’re doing is showing youth what entrepreneurship is — not necessarily so they succeed, but so they at least try,” said organizer Ibrahim Al-Zarari.
He said attendees should understand two things: first, that the public sector is saturated. And second, that oil isn’t the only resource on which Iraq — OPEC’s second-largest producer — should capitalize.
More than 65 percent of Iraq’s GDP and nearly 90 percent of state revenues hail from the oil sector. Many youths turn to it for work, but it only employs one percent of the workforce.
Widespread corruption and bureaucracy also weaken Iraq’s appeal for private investors. The World Bank ranks it 168th out of 190 for states with a good business environment.
Under current legislation, private sector employees are not offered the same labor protections or social benefits as those in the public sector.
And Iraq’s stuttering banking industry appears too cautious to dive in, said Tamara Raad, 26, who researches start-ups.
“The banks have a role to play. They must make loans without interest and help young entrepreneurs,” she said.
Banks or no banks, Mahmud in Mosul is already planning how he’ll grow his business in 2019.
“We will open a new, larger space for new gatherings,” he said excitedly, to bring together returning designers, developers and other inventors.


Saudi mall operator Arabian Centres bucks retail malaise as profits surge

Updated 21 August 2019

Saudi mall operator Arabian Centres bucks retail malaise as profits surge

  • Mall operator defies online shopping pressure by lowering discounts to tenants, boosting occupancy and rental revenues

LONDON: Arabian Centres, the Saudi mall operator which went public in May, said first-quarter consolidated net profit almost trebled to SR227 million ($60.53 million) as occupancy edged higher across its shopping centers. Revenues increased by about 2.5 percent over the year to SR572.5 million.

The results helped to propel the group’s shares 3 percent higher on Tuesday.

The group said that it boosted performance by offering lower discounts to its tenants which helped to drive rental revenues. Like-for-like occupancy across all malls increased  to 93.2 percent from 92.4 percent in the year earlier period. Finance costs fell by about 65 percent from a year earlier to SR73.9 million.

FASTFACT

 

27 - Arabian Centres plans to expand its mall portfolio to 27 within four years.

Retailers across the Middle East are coming under increased pressure as more consumers shop online, while at the same time, tourists are spending less in dollar-pegged economies because their purchasing power has been cut by the strength of the greenback. Still, in Saudi Arabia, the under-served retail market is expected to receive a boost from rising investment in the entertainment sector, especially new cinemas.

“Faced with the rising challenge of online shopping, the brick-and-mortar retail segment has sought to diversify its offering to secure its customer base, providing an increased range of leisure and entertainment facilities,” said Oxford Business Group, in a report analyzing emerging trends in the Saudi retail sector.

“The reintroduction of cinemas to the Kingdom in April last year ... is expected to increase retail footfall,” it said.

Arabian Centres, majority-owned by Fawaz Alhokair Group, listed its shares on the Tadawul stock exchange in May — the first to do so in the Kingdom under Rule 144a, allowing the sale of securities, mainly to qualified institutional buyers in the US.

The group aims to expand to 27 malls within four years.