Bahraini women blaze a trail in business ownership

Sofia Al-Asfoor, founder and designer of the luxury handbag label that bears her name. (Supplied)
Short Url
Updated 15 February 2020

Bahraini women blaze a trail in business ownership

  • Gulf Arab state has highest percentage of female business founders in the world, says a 2019 report
  • One business woman launched an affordable luxury brand that transforms artworks into fashion items

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.




Bahraini spa brand Green Bar. (Supplied)

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.”

• This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.

 


S&P 500 inches closer to record high

Updated 12 August 2020

S&P 500 inches closer to record high

  • US stock market index returns to levels last seen before the onset of coronavirus crisis

NEW YORK: The S&P 500 on Tuesday closed in on its February record high, returning to levels last seen before the onset of the coronavirus crisis that caused one of Wall Street’s most dramatic crashes in history.

The benchmark index was about half a percent below its peak hit on Feb. 19, when investors started dumping shares in anticipation of what proved to be the biggest slump in the US economy since the Great Depression.

Ultra-low interest rates, trillions of dollars in stimulus and, more recently, a better-than-feared second quarter earnings season have allowed all three of Wall Street’s main indexes to recover.

The tech-heavy Nasdaq has led the charge, boosted by “stay-at-home winners” Amazon.com Inc., Netflix Inc. and Apple Inc. The index was down about 0.4 percent.

The blue chip Dow surged 1.2 percent, coming within 5 percent of its February peak.

“You’ve got to admit that this is a market that wants to go up, despite tensions between US-China, despite news of the coronavirus not being particularly encouraging,” said Andrea Cicione, a strategist at TS Lombard.

“We’re facing an emergency from the health, economy and employment point of view — the outlook is a lot less rosy. There’s a disconnect between valuation and the actual outlook even though lower rates to some degree justify high valuation.”

Aiding sentiment, President Vladimir Putin claimed Russia had become the first country in the world to grant regulatory approval to a COVID-19 vaccine. But the approval’s speed has concerned some experts as the vaccine still must complete final trials.

Investors are now hoping Republicans and Democrats will resolve their differences and agree on another relief program to support about 30 million unemployed Americans, as the battle with the virus outbreak was far from over with US cases surpassing 5 million last week.

Also in focus are Sino-US tensions ahead of high-stakes trade talks in the coming weekend.

“Certainly the rhetoric from Washington has been negative with regards to China ... there’s plenty of things to worry about, but markets are really focused more on the very easy fiscal and monetary policies at this point,” said Paul Nolte, portfolio manager at Kingsview Asset Management in Chicago.

Financials, energy and industrial sectors, that have lagged the benchmark index this year, provided the biggest boost to the S&P 500 on Tuesday.

The S&P 500 was set to rise for the eighth straight session, its longest streak of gains since April 2019.

The S&P 500 was up 15.39 points, or 0.46 percent, at 3,375.86, about 18 points shy of its high of 3,393.52. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 341.41 points, or 1.23 percent, at 28,132.85, and the Nasdaq Composite was down 48.37 points, or 0.44 percent, at 10,919.99.

Royal Caribbean Group jumped 4.6 percent after it hinted at new safety measures aimed at getting sailing going again after months of cancellations. Peers Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. and Carnival Corp. also rose.

US mall owner Simon Property Group Inc. gained 4.1 percent despite posting a disappointing second quarter profit, as its CEO expressed some hope over a recovery in retail as lockdown measures in some regions eased.

Advancing issues outnumbered decliners 3.44-to-1 on the NYSE and 1.44-to-1 on the Nasdaq.

The S&P index recorded 35 new 52-week highs and no new low, while the Nasdaq recorded 50 new highs and four new lows.