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.

 


Oil slumps more than 4% on coronavirus fears

Updated 28 February 2020

Oil slumps more than 4% on coronavirus fears

  • Traders fret about impact of spreading virus on crude demand, particularly from China

LONDON: World oil prices tumbled by more than 4 percent on Thursday, as traders fretted about the impact of spreading coronavirus on crude demand, particularly from key consumer China.

Brent oil for April delivery tanked almost 4.2 percent to $51.20 per barrel, while New York’s WTI crude for the same month dived nearly 5 percent to $46.31.

“Concerns that the virus will prompt a global slowdown, weaker consumer confidence and reduced travel has raised concerns about lower demand, weighing on prices,” said CMC Markets analyst Michael Hewson.

Investors are growing increasingly fearful about the economic impact of the new coronavirus or COVID-19 outbreak. 

The virus continues to spread meanwhile, with Brazil reporting Latin America’s first case, and Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Georgia, Norway and Pakistan following suit.

Around 2,800 people have died in China and more than 80,000 have been infected. There have been more than 50 deaths and 3,600 cases in dozens of other countries, raising fears of a pandemic.

The spread of the virus to large economies including South Korea, Japan and Italy has raised concerns that growth in fuel demand will be limited. 

Consultants Facts Global Energy forecast oil demand would grow by 60,000 barrels per day in 2020, a level it called “practically zero,” due to the outbreak.

US President Donald Trump sought to assure Americans on Wednesday evening that the risk from coronavirus remained “very low,” but global equities resumed their plunge, wiping out more than $3 trillion in value this week alone.

“The negative price impact would intensify if the coronavirus were declared pandemic by the World Health Organization, something that looks imminent,” said PVM Oil Associates analyst Tamas Varga.

“The mood is gloomy and the end of the tunnel is not in sight – there is no light ahead just darkness. Not even a refreshingly positive weekly US oil report was able to lend price support.”

Gasoline stockpiles dropped by 2.7 million barrels in the week to Feb. 21 to 256.4 million, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) said on Wednesday, amid a decline in refinery throughput. Distillate inventories fell by 2.1 million barrels to 138.5 million.

US crude oil stockpiles increased by 452,000 barrels to 443.3 million barrels, the EIA said, which was less than the 2-million-barrel rise analysts had expected.

The crude market is watching for possible deeper output cuts by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies including Russia, a group known as OPEC+.

“Oil is in freefall as the magnitude of global quarantine efforts will provide severe demand destruction for the next couple of quarters,” said Edward Moya, senior market analyst at OANDA. 

“Expectations are growing for OPEC+ to deliver deeper production cuts next week.”

OPEC+ plans to meet in Vienna on March 5-6.