SPACE TO GROW

Kuwait 2017 | ECONOMY | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to HE Dr. Mohammad M. Al-Zuhair, Executive Chairman of the Kuwait National Fund for Small and Medium Enterprise Development, on empowering young Kuwaitis, IT and entrepreneurialism, and the growth of fintech.

HE Dr. Mohammad M. Al-Zuhair
BIOGRAPHY
HE Dr. Mohammad M. Al-Zuhair is the Executive Chairman of the Kuwait National Fund for Small and Medium Enterprise Development. He has assumed a large role of other public positions, including Member of the Supreme Council for Privatization and Advisor to the Director of the Government Performance Monitoring Agency. He has also worked in an academic capacity, including as Professor of Finance & International Business at the College of Business Administration at Kuwait University. He holds a PhD in finance and international business and an MBA in finance and investments from the George Washington University.

What is your vision to empower young Kuwaitis?

Over the last two years the ecosystem has changed dramatically and in a positive way. We have catalyzed a lot of the players and stakeholders in the market, and we do not see a need for a government entity to be in that space anymore. If this trend continues, in three to five years many of the gaps in the market we saw two years ago will be filled completely. Governments should regulate and monitor and should also catalyze what the private sector is not ready for or is not willing to enter yet because of the risks. That has been one of the biggest achievements we have had in the last two years. SMEs are starting to become an engine of the economy like in developed countries where SMEs make up about 60-70% of GDP. That took a long time of course, and it will take us a while too, but probably faster than the typical developed country. An important target for Kuwait is to create Kuwaiti jobs. There is no problem in creating jobs; we have a problem creating Kuwaiti jobs. It will take a culture change to get people to own and build small businesses, with all the work and risks it entails. Business owners will also have to be willing to hire Kuwaitis, despite not necessarily having high salaries, especially compared to the public sector, which pays high salaries and is a safe channel of employment for Kuwaitis. We have to make the right incentives to bring about this SME evolution and make it a viable alternative for Kuwaitis compared to pursuing public service positions. There is an increasing number of youths who are opting for starting or working in SMEs. This is not just a Kuwaiti or GCC or even an Arab thing, rather it is a global trend. We are getting invited to global conferences on entrepreneurship development, collaborative entrepreneurship debt, startups, and so on. It is a global movement and everyone is worrying about the same thing: job creation and developing certain components of economies. The unique challenge in the Gulf is how to create jobs for our own citizens, but the appetite for startups and SMEs is certainly there.

IT is a booming sector for entrepreneurs. How can you continue to bring benefits to the sector?

IT or IT-enabled businesses and ideas are booming globally, addressing two things: globalization, and linkages of countries. The world is shrinking, and that means we need to worry about being sustainable and competitive at both the local and global level. What we produce or can produce here will come from elsewhere, maybe even in our own language. So we need to figure out how to become competitive in that field and people in that space already think globally anyway. While trying to be more efficient, you need to direct your operations better and that is where the fund could come in as a catalyst. If we talk about Kuwait being a financial center, anyone who wants to make an IT incubator/accelerator will probably think of e-commerce as the biggest money maker, but nobody will think of fintech products. We may need it to provide, produce, and develop services and products that would serve that sector. That is where we would catalyze that, doing it where nobody else might want to do it. So we would direct the country where it should be going and get the entities to serve that. Today not all entities have a view of that and follow it, because it takes time.

How do you see the interplay between banks and fintech businesses developing in Kuwait? Will they work together more closely?

I do not think the private sector will go into creating fintech companies in Kuwait, which is where we would come into the picture. We could partner with banks ourselves to see what their needs are for a year or two, and try to do this in our own hubs and do it in-house in our own IT and ICT hubs. Eventually, once we catalyze that and do it, the market will figure it out, other brains will come and see how they can feed it, and then we can exit and let it roll on its own. Central banks by definition are conservative, so when there are regulations to be issued, the big issue for them is always security. The cabinet just approved the creation of a cyber security center and they mandated CITRA to do it.