Bahraini women blaze a trail in business ownership

Bahraini women blaze a trail in business ownership
Sofia Al-Asfoor, founder and designer of the luxury handbag label that bears her name. (Supplied)
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Updated 15 February 2020

Bahraini women blaze a trail in business ownership

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.

 


China economy grows in 2020 as rebound from coronavirus gains

China economy grows in 2020 as rebound from coronavirus gains
Updated 18 January 2021

China economy grows in 2020 as rebound from coronavirus gains

China economy grows in 2020 as rebound from coronavirus gains
  • Growth in the three months ending in December rose to 6.5 percent over a year earlier
  • China’s quick recovery brought it closer to matching the US in economic output

BEIJING: China eked out 2.3 percent economic growth in 2020, likely becoming the only major economy to expand as shops and factories reopened relatively early from a shutdown to fight the coronavirus while the United States, Japan and Europe struggled with rising infections.
Growth in the three months ending in December rose to 6.5 percent over a year earlier as consumers returned to shopping malls, restaurants and cinemas, official data showed Monday. That was up from the previous quarter’s 4.9 percent and stronger than many forecasters expected.
In early 2020, activity contracted by 6.8 percent in the first quarter as the ruling Communist Party took the then-unprecedented step of shutting down most of its economy to fight the virus. The following quarter, China became the first major country to grow again with a 3.2 percent expansion after the party declared victory over the virus in March and allowed factories, shops and offices to reopen.
Restaurants are filling up while cinemas and retailers struggle to lure customers back. Crowds are thin at shopping malls, where guards check visitors for signs of the disease’s tell-tale fever.
Domestic tourism is reviving, though authorities have urged the public to stay home during the Lunar New Year holiday in February, normally the busiest travel season, in response to a spate of new infections in some Chinese cities.
Exports have been boosted by demand for Chinese-made masks and other medical goods.
The growing momentum “reflected improving private consumption expenditure as well as buoyant net exports,” said Rajiv Biswas of IHS Markit in a report. He said China is likely to be the only major economy to grow in 2020 while developed countries and most major emerging markets were in recession.
The economy “recovered steadily” and “living standards were ensured forcefully,” the National Bureau of Statistics said in a statement. It said the ruling party’s development goals were “accomplished better than expectation” but gave no details.
2020 was China’s weakest growth in decades and below 1990’s 3.9 percent following the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement, which led to China’s international isolation.
Despite growth for the year, “it is too early to conclude that this is a full recovery,” said Iris Pang of ING in a report. “External demand has not yet fully recovered. This is a big hurdle.”
Exporters and high-tech manufacturers face uncertainty about how President-elect Joseph Biden will handle conflicts with Beijing over trade, technology and security. His predecessor, Donald Trump, hurt exporters by hiking tariffs on Chinese goods and manufacturers including telecom equipment giant Huawei by imposing curbs on access to US components and technology.
“We expect the newly elected US government will continue most of the current policies on China, at least for the first quarter,” Pang said.
The International Monetary Fund and private sector forecasters expect economic growth to rise further this year to above 8 percent.
China’s quick recovery brought it closer to matching the United States in economic output.
Total activity in 2020 was 102 trillion yuan ($15.6 trillion), according to the government. That is about 75 percent the size of the $20.8 trillion forecast by the IMF for the US economy, which is expected to shrink by 4.3 percent from 2019. The IMF estimates China will be about 90 percent of the size of the US economy by 2025, though with more than four times as many people average income will be lower.
Exports rose 3.6 percent last year despite the tariff war with Washington. Exporters took market share from foreign competitors that still faced anti-virus restrictions.
Retail spending contracted by 3.9 percent over 2019 but gained 4.6 percent in December over a year earlier as demand revived. Consumer spending recovered to above the previous year’s levels in the quarter ending in September.
Online sales of consumer goods rose 14.8 percent as millions of families who were ordered to stay home shifted to buying groceries and clothing on the Internet.
Factory output rose 2.8 percent over 2019. Activity accelerated toward the end of the year. Production rose 7.3 percent in December.
Despite travel controls imposed for some areas after new cases flared this month most of the country is unaffected.
Still, the government’s appeal to the public to avoid traditional Lunar New Year gatherings and travel might dent spending on tourism, gifts and restaurants.
Other activity might increase, however, if farms, factories and traders keep operating over the holiday, said Chaoping Zhu of JP Morgan Asset Management in a report.
“Unusually high growth rates in this quarter are likely to be seen,” said Zhu.