Why the employment process in the Arab world is broken, and 4 ways to fix it

This piece was originally published on the Huffington Post.

Let me state the obvious: the employment process is broken.

It is especially broken in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), where the region continues to lead the world in the percentage of youth not on the path to a stable career.

Regional leaders and public figures often point to entrepreneurship as having the potential to drastically impact MENA’s job creation plans. The belief is that as entrepreneurs work to satisfy the needs and wants of different consumers regionally and globally they will also create jobs as a result. However, more and more entrepreneurs in the region are tackling the employment challenge head on — making the creation of jobs the key metric of their business model.

Fadi Sawaqedy first thought of the idea behind Amman-based Shabab Jobs back in 2010 when he won second place at regional digital summit ArabNet for his idea.

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Sawaqedy noticed that there was a clear lack of focus within the job-matching space on the substantial number of underprivileged and uneducated Arab youth, who usually “didn’t even have a resume.” Lack of investor funding meant that the website wouldn’t go live until earlier this year, but the response from both employers and job seekers has been very positive and the revenues have been coming in.

With a similar focus on youth, Dubai-based Gradberry launched in 2011 out of a realization by co-founder Iba Masood that most of the jobs advertised through popular channels focused on candidates with work experience, leaving fresh graduates to fend for themselves.

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Positive feedback on the platform that focuses on job seekers with zero to two years experience, has encouraged Masood and co-founder Ahmed Syed to launch a new section of the website, Gradberry Academy, that focuses on delivering needed skills to young job seekers online.

Of course it’s not only the youth that are having a difficulty finding jobs. Our entire notion of employment will need to change if we are to overcome the unemployment challenges that face the region. Suad Abu Srour launched StayLinked in Ramallah, Palestine earlier this year with several of her co-founders.

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StayLinked works to bring the concept of “microwork”to Palestine in the hopes of “leveraging Palestinian talent to serve the region and the world.”

Srour got the inspiration for StayLinked when she graduated with a degree in computer information systems and realized that most of her female peers, in spite of representing almost 50 percent of the graduating class, were usually forced to stay at home due to mobility issues and other difficulties. With funding from an angel investor, StayLinked has been in able to come in to play a brokerage role between employers and freelance workers, while adding a layer of coordination and, most importantly quality assurance. Palestinian workers at StayLinked have already served clients from Bahrain to the United States.

These are of course not the only startups directly tackling the unemployment challenge; several popular regional startups such as Nabbesh and Glowork are also tackling the crux of the matter from different angles. Speaking to several of these startups it became clear that there at least four important steps to supporting startups working in this space.

First, legislators will need to show they are serious about solving the unemployment challenge by reforming regulation surrounding freelance work and creating specific visas for internships that provide regional job seekers with vital work experience. In cases where the regulation is already available it will need to be simplified and communicated clearly to the public to avoid any confusion.

Second, a cultural and educational shift that normalizes internships and promotes apprenticeships in several fields will need to closely follow any shift in legislation. Even when the law permits it, several of our SMEs, and even larger companies, still do not know how to create internships that are beneficial for all parties involved. Public educational campaigns, and tax breaks for hiring interns are potential starting points.

Third, like all startups in MENA (and sometimes globally), startups in the unemployment space suffer from a lack of funding and investment in proven business models, especially after receiving angel investor funding and before qualifying for venture capital. International organizations like the IFC and the World Bank have begun to pay attention to this space but it is only a start.

Finally, the lack of transparent and clear data surrounding education and employment in the region is a serious hindrance for startups in this space as they try to pivot.Regional governments need to be more transparent about the data they collect (assuming they are collecting the needed data) so that entrepreneurs can play a more effective role in helping them overcome challenges they face.

How a Dubai venture hopes to gamify education and government

This post was originally published here.


Gamification, as defined by PwC’s Technology Forecast, is the use of a wide range of game design techniques in non-game environments to motivate user behavior. When I last wrote about the ways that gamification can help startups make work fun,  it seemed that  few entrepreneurs were exploring the  implementation of game mechanics outside the realm of actual game development.

Serial entrepreneur Ahmed El Rayes is one of the few entrepreneurs looking to change that, by bringing the “power of games” to the Middle East.

After starting his first venture at the age of 17, El Rayes launched several other food and beverage companies in Kuwait before moving to Dubai to launch Gamified Labs, a gamification venture that focuses on gamification consultancy, interactive media, and education technology,  spinning out ideas built on the tenets of “engagement, involvement, feedback, and rewards.” In less than a year, the young startup has grown to a team of 12, aided in part by the ecosystem of talent created by Ubisoft’s Abu Dhabi offices (allowing El Rayes to hire “people that are already gamers!” as he says).

One of the team’s most interesting and upcoming projects is coming out of the education technology (or EdTech) arm of the startup. The “Educators Club” is the first online platform that aims to connect teachers and schools across the region. Teachers using the platform can upload a personal video résumé, undergo personality assessments, and provide “360 feedback” to one another to facilitate learning across the region.

The Educators Club also includes a “community” component that helps teachers collaborate online; the platform is designed to maximize engagement and feedback. To generate revenue, the platform charges schools a subscription fee for access to a database of teachers , ranked by their activity on the platform (such as answering the questions of other teachers on forums)  which may come in handy as recent political turmoil may exacerbate the shortage of teachers in the region.

Helping to reform education isn’t all that Gamified Labs has in mind, however. Perhaps the most interesting twist the company will put on achievement will be in the public sector. When pressed on the issue of “gamifying government,” Al Rayes is quick to illustrate its advantages in handling traffic control and supporting e-government.

In fact, Al Rayes goes as far as recommending gamification as an answer to the Arab spring. In his words, governments should “[i]ncrease involvement, increase engagement, increase feedback and create loyal citizens who feel that their voices are valued especially when they get rewarded for their participation! Gamification could act as an aid to prevent unnecessary violent springs.”

This might be a very optimistic view, but that’s not to say Gamified Labs hasn’t already received requests to work with different governments in the GCC. Only time will tell what the future of gamification holds for the Middle East.