How to be an entrepreneur in the GCC

What does it take to run your own business in the Middle East? We asked some of the Gulf’s top entrepreneurs for their secrets to success.

Peter Iantorno November 2, 2015

Being an entrepreneur is not easy. While the rewards for success are high, the pressures and penalties for failure – especially in the fiercely competitive GCC – are extremely severe too.

But while nobody is under any illusions that setting up a business is simple, there are a few talented entrepreneurs who have proved that success in the region is certainly possible.

So, how do they do it? We got in touch with some of the top businesspeople in the UAE and asked them for some pearls of wisdom:


Idriss Al Rifai, CEO and founder of UAE-based delivery company Fetchr

What are the main qualities needed to be a successful entrepreneur?

Being an entrepreneur is a very difficult endeavor. You will go through rainy days and moments when things go wrong. You have to keep the inner faith to keep moving forward while bringing the same amount of energy every day in what is more a marathon than a sprint.

Your ability to keep moving forward despite ordeals is the most critical quality you can have as an entrepreneur.

What are the main things that can go wrong when you have your own business?

Anything can – and will – go wrong when you start a business. It can go from clients not paying you on time, to investors making life harder than it should be.

It can also be a key employee that feels demotivated in the midst of high growth. The main difficulty is to make every department function with each other, as you need to have all of them on the same page to grow the company.

What are the main benefits of having your own business?

Working only with the people you love! I love being able to build my ‘A Team’ of people around me. It is a great feeling and colleagues become your friends.

Can you tell us about an especially challenging situation you faced and how you overcame it?

The toughest situation I have ever had to overcome in this company is to turn down a term sheet that I thought was unfair while I had no other option on the table and was on the brink of bankruptcy.

It was a very tough feeling as we already had more than 40 families on the payroll and you are gambling on your own belief that you can make something better happen in the next two weeks.

Can someone be taught how to be an entrepreneur, or do you have to born with that business instinct?

Soft and hard skills can be taught, but one of the few things that are innate is your drive. You can’t teach that! It is either in you or not, and nothing but your own determination can make you driven and focused. It can’t be taught.

What should an entrepreneur never do?

I think an entrepreneur should never forget to remain humble. Entrepreneurs tend to be overconfident in their ability to ‘make it work’, to go through difficulties and stay alive.

As the saying goes, “If you are lucky enough to do well, it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down”, and that is exactly what you should do in order to help other aspiring entrepreneurs. Never forget to carve out time for others, no matter what difficulties you’ve faced.

What is your advice to someone looking to start up a business in the GCC?

Be ready for a long run and to fight a 20-round boxing match!


Saygin Yalcin, CEO and founder of online car trading platform SellAnyCar.com

What are the main qualities needed to be a successful entrepreneur?

Over the past decades of my life, I have met thousands of different people, hundreds of different characters, tens of different cultures and nationalities, but only two different mindsets; one mindset that leads to success, the other one that doesn’t.                   

It really boils down to a value-driven mindset of confidence and execution.

What are the main things that can go wrong when you have your own business?

Obviously, there are many. However, the most common I have encountered are lack of preparation and research prior to starting a business.

What are the main benefits of having your own business?

Every entrepreneur has his/her own benefits. For me, it is self-realisation and independence.

Can you tell us about an especially challenging situation you faced and how you overcame it?

Technically, challenging situations happen on a daily basis. At one point in time you become immune to bad news and start looking for solutions, rather than consequences of worst-case scenarios. A can-do approach is key to overcoming any challenge… and hey – if you tried your best and it still didn’t work, then so be it.

Can someone be taught how to be an entrepreneur?

Yes. Actually, I am an Advisory Board Member and Academic Lecturer at the Canadian University of Dubai, teaching Entrepreneurship and Ecommerce to young bright minds, trying to awaken their entrepreneurial spirit. It is important to learn how to bridge an idea into reality. There are concrete steps.

I love to identify talent in people and extensively empower these individuals. Forty per cent of my time every day I spend on identifying these personalities and helping them become more successful.

What should an entrepreneur never do?

Overstep the line of ethics.

What is your advice to someone looking to start up a business in the GCC?

Preparation is the key. Before you start, answer the following six questions: Does your idea solve a problem? Is the idea profitably scalable? How strong is the monetisation? Are you passionate about it? Are there any regulatory showstoppers? Is it the right timing? 


Mira Al Naimi and Rama Dabbous Mamlouk, Co-Founders and Creative Directors of Circle Café and Sushi Counter

What are the main qualities needed to be a successful entrepreneur?

After 15 years of working together we realised that communication is the key of a successful partnership. Fortunately, our outlook and opinions are very similar, so that makes dealing with issues quite smooth, however when we disagree, we think it’s best to talk it out – occasionally loudly! We feel that letting things out, debating and listening to one another is a healthy way of keeping our business relationship.

We evaluate our disagreements and how they will impact our business. We then implement the proposed solutions and make sure they are in line with the concept and meet our core values and corporate objectives. Communication really is key.

What are the main things that can wrong when you have your own business?

As entrepreneurs, we are always aiming to expand the business and acting on intuition and gut feeling to seek out the best opportunities for growth. However, as with any quickly growing business, there are a few drawbacks. 

The main issue is that as we grow the business and the restaurants, our attention is further divided between all the branches. This makes it difficult for us to ensure each branch is performing at its best, and as envisioned. The key to avoid this happening is to rely on support from business partners, families and, most of all, good employees, to make sure standards stay high as the business grows.

What are the main benefits of having your own business?

The ability to be as creative as we want. We bring new ideas to the plate all the time – be it recipes, decoration or new concepts – and being the engine behind the whole concept ensures our vision is palpable and visible in all aspects of the business.

Can you tell us about an especially challenging situation you faced and how you overcame it?

Any new business goes through different cycles to reach maturity, and we took time too. The beginning was very difficult as both of us were complete newbies in the F&B field, but with time, determination and by learning from the many mistakes we had made, we gained the experience to turn our concepts into a profitable business.

Can someone be taught how to be an entrepreneur?

If it doesn’t come from within, it doesn’t come at all! People can definitely get guidance when they are looking to start a business, however, you can only be an entrepreneur if you really want to be.

If you are looking for a 9-6 job, then you are definitely not an entrepreneur. You need to be around, no matter what time of the day and willing to take on as much as you have to on your plate; it’s all a learning curve! Just get your priorities straight and it all falls into place over time.

Is there anything that an entrepreneur should never do?

Have no vision!  You need to know what you want from the beginning. You cannot put all your eggs in different baskets. You start with identifying a goal and that is where the journey begins. You should also never give up on your business; growth takes time, patience and determination

What is your advice to someone looking to start up a business in the GCC?

Hire the right people. In the beginning business owners usually compromise on this, but we believe doing so would be an oversight. If you have the right team, you can rely on them to understand your vision, to inspire you and to help you succeed.

Being an entrepreneur is a very fulfilling path, but you should be prepared for multiple challenges and lots of ups and downs. And of course, don’t give up easily!