How would you assess the importance of the newly established SME Authority for the future of SMEs?
We believe the country needed an organization like the SME Authority. The head of this organization was our partner for the last event that we had here in Jeddah with entrepreneurial leaders. This organization will play an important role in the future, as more than 90% of our members are SMEs. These companies can play a key role in the future economy if we define the right regulations and environment to help them grow. This government authority will add tremendous value to increase the capacity and capability of SMEs.
What are the main challenges faced by SMEs and how do you support entrepreneurship?
There are many challenges. The first is the regulations; it is important to have clearer rules. The rules and conditions have to be right and easy to understand for entrepreneurs. In terms of personality and know-how, it is not only about deciding to open a business; there are also basics to it. We work with two types of people: those who already have their own establishment and are a member of the chamber, and those who would like to enter the business sector. We try to help the people who are already on board and we assist them to increase their knowledge and understanding of the future, where to go, and how to comply with the conditions and rules of the government. The public sector, especially the Ministry of Trade and Labor, works rapidly. The private sector, especially the SME segment, is slow and faces many challenges. From time to time we have new regulations and business owners are not aware of how to deal with them as they do not have the know-how or capacity. This is why they face problems from time to time and many firms end up closing down.
Do you have specific goals or expectations for 2016?
We have a plan for four years until 2018 that was approved by the board of the Chamber of Commerce. All our initiatives are related to our members, of which we have more than 80,000. We have witnessed the number of members increasing. People say there is a recession; however, the growing number of businesses astonishes me. This should be studied carefully to understand. There may be some activities and services that we used to import but with a change in mentality we can start to do more ourselves because there is a need to establish businesses locally to attain cheaper prices. There are golden opportunities but we need to work out how to find them. In 2015 we held 1,260 events, and in 2014 it was 850. There is a reaction from our committee and there are activities and events. At the Chamber of Commerce we have initiatives and one of the most important is an online program to help SMEs diagnose their firm online; there are 120 questions and members then receive a complete diagnosis of their firm in terms of human resources, operations, marketing, finance, and law. This was launched last September and is called “Validity Check." This program was first used by the Australian Chamber of Commerce in 2013. We signed a contract agreement with it and implemented it in Saudi Arabia, making us the first chamber in the Arab world to implement it. It will be helpful for those SMEs that want to work with us. The businesses run the report and then fix the required areas free of charge. The other program we opened is a customer service center. This is the first for the chamber as we would like to be customer focused. There are many initiatives coming related to our members. If we increase and empower those firms they will get bigger and contribute further to the economy and society whilst continuing to increase profits.