One aspect that industrial countries have in common with the Middle East and Africa region is the key role played by small and medium-sized enterprises in their domestic economies. In the oil-rich Gulf countries as well as in sub-Saharan Africa, SMEs are leaders in job creation, innovation and economic growth. At the same time they are highly fragile and have to fight many local obstacles while being competitive in a globalised market. A lack of finance, the struggle for new projects, high costs due to corruption and unnecessary bureaucracy are just a few daily problems SMEs have to face.  

As the regional business hub with global recognition, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is putting the spotlight on SMEs and their needs. Events such as the Annual Investment Meeting and the African Global Business Forum enhance the communication among SMEs and encourage discussion about the investment opportunities and the challenges for entrepreneurs. Institutions such as the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development and Dubai SME have been established by UAE governments to tackle the funding problems.

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However, most of the programmes introduced by the authorities are exclusively for the local citizens. At the same time, the 85% of the UAE population made up by expatriates facs existential problems with rapidly rising labour, lease and living costs while struggling to raise financing for their businesses. In fact, major international banks in the UAE have reportedly turned their backs on some SMEs, closing their accounts with only three months’ notice. 

However, Dubai does have the best free zones and business infrastructure in the region, which also benefits SMEs. It is crucial for every government to clearly assess if the support measures, events and institutions put in place in this context are effectively in accordance to their domestic economic structure and the needs of their SMEs.

Mazdak Rafaty is managing partner of Ludwar International Consultancy and SME advisor to the joint Emirati-German Chamber of Commerce. Email: m.rafaty@lic-consulting.com