This report is based on the presentations and discussions during the UAE Security Forum 2019, “Reshaping the Future of the Horn of Africa,” held on December 12, 2019 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Entrepreneurship among Gulf citizens has increased in recent years, and as Gulf governments seek to diversify their economies, there have been a number of initiatives to promote entrepreneurship among the region’s youth. However, few studies have looked into the socioeconomic conditions associated with entrepreneurship in the Gulf. Hadil Al-Moosa, an academic from Oman, began working in media and then on labor laws and trade unions in Oman. Her work on labor sparked an interest in entrepreneurship among Omani women, which became the subject of her doctoral dissertation. AGSIW spoke with Hadil about media in Oman, labor laws, women’s entrepreneurship, and the role of government support for entrepreneurs.
AGSIW: While you are currently an academic and a researcher, you started your career in media. What was your experience in the media field?
Hadil: I was passionate about the media since childhood. I was involved in school broadcasting programs and journalism. Therefore, I decided to study radio and television production in the Department of Media at Sultan Qaboos University in 1998. At that time, the media was not a favored area of work for women. I was the only woman among 30 students in this specialization. Women usually chose the journalism specialization in the Media Department. While I was a student, I worked part time as a reporter for Radio Oman. After graduation I found that working in media was different from my expectations.
Women working in broadcasting has been seen as socially undesirable, so there were few female Omani broadcasters at the time. This scarcity has made it easier for any woman to work and become a distinct figure in media as long as she has a good voice, is daring enough to appear in front of the camera, and is willing to travel a lot and work late nights. In other words, Omani women do not need to study media to become broadcasters. At the time, whatever success I achieved in my studies or work, my father used to say to me, “The one eyed is a king among the blinds.” What he meant was the scarcity factor has enabled me to succeed more than my skills, knowledge, and work quality. This has created a challenge for me to work harder to strengthen my abilities and experience in my field.
I then worked at the Information Department of the Ministry of Manpower and broadcasted a television program on labor issues. I hosted several ministers who talked about issues related to youth employment, training, and Omanization. Later I wrote articles on these topics in the press.
AGSIW: Why did you move into academia?
Hadil: My work experience made me very interested in labor laws, so I decided to pursue graduate studies and get a master’s degree in human resources in Scotland in 2006. I studied labor laws, industrial relations, and trade unions, which had recently been instituted in Oman. After returning to my country, I began to wonder if I wanted to go back into media, which I was still passionate about. But I decided to gain more experience in the field of labor and international relations. I worked with the Arab Labor Organization and the International Labor Organization, which enabled me to understand the role of governments and international organizations in implementing international labor agreements. More importantly, I grew an interest in research, so I decided to develop my research skills by entering academia.
The academic work allowed me to work with Omani youth and get exposed to their interests and ideas. This was important to me as the Omani society is a young one. According to statistics published by the National Center for Statistics and Information in 2017, there are 1.2 million Omanis between the ages of 18 and 29, making up more than 45 percent of the total population. I worked at the Higher College of Technology in Muscat. Just as at any public college, only Omanis can enroll though students are from different Omani provinces and represent the whole social spectrum of Oman.
AGSIW: Your PhD dissertation was about the work of Omani women in entrepreneurship. Why did you choose this topic?
Hadil: One of the major problems of Omani youth is unemployment. Several years ago, and in an attempt to solve this problem, the government decided to support enterprises. His Majesty Sultan Qaboos used to conduct tours in the sultanate every two years and organized seminars to discuss common concerns. Most of these seminars were on the issues of work and labor. The first of these seminars was in 2003, and as a result of it the sultan ordered the establishment of the Ministry of Manpower. In the following tour, he issued a decree regulating the workforce. And in his last tour, which was in 2013, the Public Authority for Small and Medium-Size Enterprise Development, known as Riyada, was established aiming to promote entrepreneurship specifically among young people. At this stage I became interested in the impact of work on shaping the individual’s identity and daily life.
The concept of entrepreneurship is a Western one and is linked to Western figures, such as Steve Jobs, for example. Thus, I was interested in studying the Omani society’s understanding of entrepreneurship as a concept – especially since several of those involved in this type of business do not speak English – and also how Omanis can apply this Western concept to solve unemployment. I chose Omani women as a case study for practical reasons; it was easier for me as a woman to communicate with them and gather information and research data.
AGSIW: What was the conclusion of your dissertation?
Hadil: I have studied entrepreneurship in Oman from two angles. The first is as a new Western idea in Omani society, both in terms of conceptualization and practice. The other angle is studying the pioneering work of women. My research sample was of Omani women registered with Riyada as entrepreneurs. In the West, entrepreneurial work is closely associated with concepts such as risk and innovation, so I closely studied the everyday lives of these women to understand how they understood and practiced the concept of entrepreneurship and if their practices of it were different from the Western way. My research findings were that despite the governmental financial support, becoming entrepreneurs is not the first career choice for most women in Oman. More importantly, most women who pursue entrepreneurial work are not job seekers but mostly retired women or women who have had a previous job (in the public sector in Oman, women are eligible for retirement in their 40s). Hence, the women becoming entrepreneurs are generally stable financially and not unemployed.
This is a problem because government bodies like Riyada mostly target unemployed youth. Most women in my sample are practicing entrepreneurship as a hobby and so it is not their only source of income. Among this sample, there were not any women who chose entrepreneurship because they could not find a job. All of them were either otherwise employed or retired and financially stable.
AGSIW: How do you evaluate social acceptance in the Gulf for women’s entrepreneurship?
Hadil: Gulf societies do not see a problem in women’s entrepreneurship, but they see a problem in women’s work. For example, a woman may face social opposition when she works as a journalist or as a doctor for instance but would not face similar opposition if she decided to establish a business venture. Entrepreneurship as a khaleeji social concept is considered as a trade and not as an innovation as it is in the West. One of the examples used to socially justify this type of work is the example of Khadija bint Khuwaylid, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad, who was famous as a trader. This cultural, social, and historical connection makes women’s entrepreneurship socially acceptable.
Also, one of the reasons for this social acceptance is that women entrepreneurs are self-employed, which gives them more flexibility in designing their work conditions – they determine their hours of work, who works with them, the extent of gender mixing, and their work responsibilities in accordance to their social and daily-life conditions.
AGSIW: Is the concept and practice of entrepreneurship in the rest of the Gulf countries different than it is in Oman? Are there similar studies on the status of entrepreneurship in the Gulf?
Hadil: There are a good number of studies on the status of entrepreneurship in the UAE. There are also studies on Saudi Arabia and I think one or two about its situation in Kuwait and Bahrain as well. But we must bear in mind the procedural differences in these states. For example, in Saudi Arabia, women are required to get permission from a male guardian for commerce activities. This also creates a defect in the number of females registered as entrepreneurs because some of them would register under the names of their male guardians. Also, the lack of sufficient statistics on this subject in the Gulf region makes it difficult to study.
With regard to the factors in common in the Gulf states in the field of entrepreneurship, government financial support is a common factor between them and women are benefiting from this support. Of course, for the West, this type of support negates the concept of risk taking in entrepreneurship. Thus, I believe there is a flaw in the Gulf studies on this subject as they don’t discuss the Gulf concept of entrepreneurship.
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