Innovation-driven entrepreneurship: A catalyst for transforming traditional markets in the UAE

Up to 90 per cent of private companies in the country are family businesses, employing more than 70 per cent of the sector's workforce and contributing about 40 per cent to the Emirate's GDP, according to data from the UAE Ministry of Economy


By Haleema Humaid Al Owais

Published: Mon 8 Jan 2024, 1:59 PM

The UAE, known for its robust economy and dynamic business environment, has long thrived on the contributions of family businesses. However, in an era marked by rapid technological advancements, the traditional business landscape faces a pivotal moment. The call for innovation-driven entrepreneurship is gaining momentum as a catalyst for shaping the future economies of traditional markets like the UAE. It is proposed to transform 200 family business projects into major companies by 2030 with a market value exceeding Dh150 billion ($40.84 billion).

This article explores the challenges and opportunities associated with transforming successful traditional business ideas into larger, technologically advanced projects, emphasizing the role of family businesses in this transformative journey. According to data from the UAE Ministry of Economy, up to 90 per cent of private companies in the country are family businesses, employing more than 70 per cent of the sector's workforce and contributing about 40 per cent to the Emirate's GDP.

The current landscape: UAE GDP and family businesses


The UAE has witnessed significant economic growth over the years, with a substantial portion attributed to family businesses. These businesses have been integral to the development of the nation's economy, contributing significantly to the gross domestic product (GDP). The new UAE initiative aims to double family businesses’ contribution to GDP to $320 billion by 2032. As the economic landscape evolves, there is a pressing need to engage the owners of traditional and family businesses in preparing for future economies.

As the UAE continues to navigate a rapidly evolving economic landscape, there is a growing recognition of the imperative to actively involve the owners of traditional and family businesses in strategic planning for the future. This involves equipping them with the necessary tools and insights to embrace technological advancements, capitalise on emerging market trends, and foster innovation within their operations. The government, in collaboration with business associations and educational institutions, is taking proactive measures to facilitate the transition of family businesses into a new era of economic sustainability.

Embracing emerging technologies

To ensure the sustained growth of family businesses, there is an imperative to venture beyond traditional sectors and embrace emerging technologies. Key industries such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, agricultural technology, space sciences, and renewable energy beckon as lucrative opportunities for expansion. However, the transition from conventional to knowledge-driven industries poses a significant challenge – the hesitancy to take initiative.

Haleema Humaid Al Owais

In the rapidly evolving landscape of global business, the ability to adapt to emerging technologies is becoming increasingly crucial for the sustained growth of family businesses. Traditionally rooted in conventional sectors, family businesses in the UAE are now faced with a transformative imperative – the need to venture beyond the familiar and embrace emerging technologies. This shift is not merely a strategic choice; it is a prerequisite for remaining competitive in a world where innovation is the driving force of economic progress.

The landscape of emerging technologies presents a myriad of opportunities for family businesses willing to step outside their comfort zones. Artificial intelligence (AI), biotechnology, agricultural technology, space sciences, and renewable energy stand out as key industries that promise not only financial rewards but also the chance to contribute meaningfully to societal and environmental advancements.

Challenges: The hesitancy to take initiative

While the opportunities in emerging technologies are abundant, the hesitancy to take initiative poses a significant challenge for family businesses. This reluctance often stems from a fear of the unknown, the perceived complexity of these technologies, and the risk of potential failures. In a landscape where the familiar is comfortable, the leap into the unknown requires a mindset shift and a willingness to embrace calculated risks.

Strategies for overcoming hesitancy

Education and awareness: Providing stakeholders within family businesses with comprehensive education on emerging technologies is crucial. Understanding the potential benefits, risks, and long-term implications of technology adoption can alleviate uncertainties.

Pilot programmes and small-scale investments: Rather than making large, high-risk investments from the outset, family businesses can consider starting with pilot programs and small-scale investments. This approach allows for testing the waters, gaining practical experience, and gradually building confidence.

Strategic partnerships: Collaborating with established players or startups in the relevant technology sectors can mitigate risks and provide family businesses with valuable insights. Strategic partnerships also facilitate knowledge transfer and shared resources.

Incentives and support programmes: Governments and industry associations can play a pivotal role in encouraging family businesses to embrace emerging technologies. Offering incentives such as tax breaks, grants, or support programs can ease the financial burden and incentivise innovation.

Success stories and role models: Showcasing success stories of family businesses that have successfully transitioned into emerging technology sectors can inspire and motivate others. Identifying role models within the industry can provide guidance and demonstrate the feasibility of such ventures.

Therefore, embracing emerging technologies is not just a business strategy; it is a commitment to the future. Family businesses in the UAE could position themselves as pioneers in industries that are shaping the world. The challenges of hesitancy can be overcome through a combination of education, strategic planning, and a willingness to adapt. As these businesses embark on the journey into the unknown, they not only secure their own growth but contribute to the economic, social, and environmental advancements of the nation and the world. The future belongs to those who dare to innovate.

Empowering the next generation; Women in business

As family businesses prepare for the future, it is essential to recognise that the next generation of family members will be the torchbearers. Specifically, daughters are poised to become shareholders and decision-makers. To maximise the potential of these future leaders, there is a need to bring women to the forefront of business education and align their interests with the strategic goals of the company. Empowering women in family businesses not only ensures diversity but also brings a fresh perspective and innovative thinking to the table.

Empowering the next generation of women in family businesses is not just a matter of inclusivity; it is a strategic imperative. Recognizing the unique skills and perspectives that women bring to the table, family businesses can foster a culture that values diversity and promotes equal opportunities. Providing mentorship programs, leadership training, and networking opportunities specifically tailored for women can contribute to their professional development. By actively involving women in key decision-making processes, family businesses can harness their innovative thinking and strategic acumen, ensuring a robust and sustainable future. As these empowered women rise to leadership roles, they not only contribute to the success of the family business but also serve as inspiring role models for the generations that follow, perpetuating a cycle of progress and inclusivity.

Innovation-driven entrepreneurship vs small businesses

Innovation-driven entrepreneurs (IDEs) distinguish themselves from small and medium enterprises (SMEs) through their focus on super regional or global markets. IDEs aim for high growth and financial returns, often engaging in industries beyond the local market. While the revenue response in IDEs may not be as swift as in SMEs, the tradable jobs created, and the diverse ownership base contribute significantly to economic development. SMEs, on the other hand, play a crucial role in employment and innovation, with governments offering incentives to support their sustainability.

Navigating the business landscape

The entrepreneurial landscape can be broadly classified into two categories – Traditional Business Entrepreneurs (TBE) and Innovation-Driven Entrepreneurs (IDE). The primary distinction between these categories lies in the level of uncertainty associated with the business being launched. TBEs operate in existing markets with well-estimated probability distributions for outcomes, while IDEs venture into uncharted territories with unknown markets, technologies, and business models.

In conclusion, the transformation of traditional markets in the UAE requires a paradigm shift towards innovation-driven entrepreneurship. Family businesses, as stalwarts of the economy, must overcome the challenge of initiative and embrace emerging technologies to secure their future. The engagement of the next generation, particularly women, is crucial in ensuring a seamless transition into a knowledge-driven economy. By understanding the differences between IDEs and SMEs/TBEs, stakeholders can make informed decisions to navigate the evolving entrepreneurial landscape. The UAE stands at the crossroads of tradition and innovation, and the choices made today will shape the trajectory of its future economies.

Haleema Humaid Al Owais is Vice-Chairperson, Sharjah Consultive Council; Board Member, Sharjah Chamber of Commerce and Industry and InvestBank and CEO of Sultan Bin Ali Al Owais Real Estate.

Haleema Humaid Al Owais

Published: Mon 8 Jan 2024, 1:59 PM

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