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

  • 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.

 


HSBC reports lighter-than-expected third-quarter profit fall

Updated 27 October 2020

HSBC reports lighter-than-expected third-quarter profit fall

  • HSBC has a further headache – geopolitical tensions via its status as a major business conduit between China and the West

HONG KONG: HSBC said Tuesday its third-quarter post-tax profits fell 46 percent on-year as the Asia-focused banking giant continued to take a hammering from the coronavirus pandemic and spiraling China-US tensions.
However, the profit falls were not as bad as some analysts had predicted and HSBC said it expected credit losses to be at the lower end of a previously announced $8 billion to $13 billion range.
The global economic slowdown caused by the virus has hit financial giants hard and there is limited optimism on the horizon as Europe and the United States head into the winter with infections soaring once more.
HSBC has a further headache — geopolitical tensions via its status as a major business conduit between China and the West.
As a result, the lender is in the midst of a worldwide overhaul, aiming to slash some 35,000 jobs by 2022, primarily in its less profitable European and American divisions.
“We are accelerating the transformation of the Group, moving our focus from interest-rate sensitive business lines toward fee-generating businesses, and further reducing our operating costs,” chief executive Noel Quinn said in a statement accompanying the results.
Reported post-tax profit for the third quarter came in at $2 billion with revenue down 11 percent at $11.9 billion, the statement said.
Adjusted pre-tax profit slid 21 percent to $4.3 billion in the period, beating a $2.8 billion estimate by Bloomberg analysts.
Quinn described the latest figures as “promising results against a backdrop of the continuing impacts of Covid-19 on the global economy” as well as low interest rates.
In the first six months of 2020, HSBC’s post-tax profits were down 69 percent, meaning the third-quarter results were something of an improvement as some major economies relaxed some of their coronavirus restrictions.
The bank said its board would consider whether to pay “a conservative dividend” for 2020 based on final end of year results and how the global economy looks in early 2021.
Earlier this year, UK regulators called on British banks to scrap dividends for the year to preserve capital during the pandemic crisis.
HSBC makes 90 percent of its profit in Asia, with China and Hong Kong being the major drivers of growth.
As a result, it has found itself more vulnerable than most to the crossfire caused by the increasingly bellicose relationship between Beijing and Washington.
The bank has tried to stay in Beijing’s good graces.
It vocally backed a tough national security law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in June to end a year of unrest and pro-democracy protests.
The move sparked criticism in Washington and London but analysts saw it as an attempt to protect its access to China, which has a track record of punishing businesses that do not toe Beijing’s line.
“Geopolitical risk, particularly relating to trade and other tensions between the US and China, remains heightened,” HSBC said in Tuesday’s profit statement.
The US has sanctioned nearly a dozen key Hong Kong and Chinese officials over the national security law, telling international banks to stop doing business with them.
China’s national security law, however, forbids businesses in Hong Kong from adhering to foreign sanctions regimes, leaving many in an unclear regulatory tight spot.
“Investor and business sentiment in some sectors in Hong Kong remains dampened and ongoing tensions could result in an increasingly fragmented trade and regulatory environment,” HSBC said in its statement.
The bank also highlighted the uncertainty over Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union as another potential headwind.
Talks for a post-Brexit trade deal have made little headway with a 31 December deadline fast approaching.
“There is a risk of additional ECL (expected credit losses) charges, particularly in the UK in 4Q20, if the UK and the EU fail to reach a trade agreement,” the bank said.