AmCham MENA Council


AmCham MENA Regional Council Annual Forum
“"SMEs: Unlocking Economic Potential in the Middle East”
March 15 – 16, 2017 Manama, Bahrain

On March 15th, AmCham Bahrain in close collaboration with AmCham Egypt, the permanent Secretariat of the MENA Council of Regional AmChams hosted the Council’s Annual Forum; entitled “SMEs: Unlocking the Economic Potential in the MENA Region” in the Kingdom of Bahrain with more than 250 high-level delegates in attendance at the two-day event. The Forum aimed at highlighting the role of SMEs in promoting the region’s economic development as well as the potential for expanding trade and investment relations between markets of the MENA region and the United States.

The Forum was attended by senior representatives from the U.S. and MENA governments, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, multilateral financing institutions, private sectors leaders and members of the regional AmChams of Abu Dhabi-UAE, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine and Tunisia. Other regional U.S. Business Councils were represented as well as a broad range of international and regional business associations.

The Forum’s opening ceremony, included welcoming remarks by the Honorable William Roebuck, U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain and a keynote address by the United States top ranking diplomat for the MENA region, Ambassador Stuart E. Jones, Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary, State Department’s Bureau for Near Eastern Affairs and Mr. Khush Choksy, Senior Vice President, Middle East and Turkey Affairs, US Chamber of Commerce. The Honorable William V. Roebuck, U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain highlighted the import role played by the different AmChams in this region, describing them as “the life-blood of commercial engagement with the United States”. Ambassador Jones then announced that, “the new administration is extremely positive and excited about opportunities of increased trade and investment between the United States and the MENA region” and also praised efforts undertaken by the different AmChams in the region to boost economic growth and create employment opportunities for the region’s youth. He particularly praised AmCham Egypt’s training programs, and described them as ‘a model for other AmChams to follow’.

The Forum’s first panel featured Mr. Ahmed El Alfi, Co-founder of Flat6Labs (Egypt); Mr. Sherif Tawfik, Regional Manager, Bahrain and Oman for Microsoft; Ms. Sanaa Bagersh, CEO at BrandMoxie (UAE); Ms. Hanaa El Hilaly, Managing Director and Board Member at Amwal Financial Investments (Egypt); Dr. Wissam Rabadi, Chief of Party at USAID Competitiveness Program (Jordan) and Ms. Hadyah Fathalla, Executive Director at C5 Accelerate (Bahrain). The session was moderated by Dr. Dina Sherif, Director of Center of Entrepreneurship at the American University of Cairo and Founder of Ahead of the Curve. The panel started off with a fire-side talk with Mr. Alfi, where he shared the idea behind founding Flat6Labs. Mr. Alfi claims to have been inspired by working with youth and young individuals under the age of thirty-five. When “offered the right guidance and access to funding”, Mr. Alfi says, these young individuals have the potential of changing the region.

Ms. Hanaa El Hilaly added that unlocking the region’s potential will all depend on its ability to support local SMEs, adding that governments across the region have a pivotal role to play as SMEs are an engine of growth. Mr. Wissam Rabadi mentioned a $10 million grant that was given by USAID to Endeavor Jordan to help expose those entrepreneurs and co-invest with angels in the region. Ms. Sanaa Bagersh and Ms. Hadyah Fathalla added that SMEs in the region need the right support at early stages in order to support our economies.

Panel II entitled; “SME Financing Opportunities and Export Support Programs” featured as speakers; Dr. Nasser Qaedi, Executive Director for at Planning at Tamkeen Bahrain, Ms. Leila Mokaddem, Country Manager of The African Development Bank Group in Egypt, Ms. Reem El Saady, National Program Manager, Small and Business Support, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) Egypt, Dr. Khater Abi Habib, Chairman of Kafalat II, Lebanon, Mr. Rahswan Hammady, Head of Business Banking, Commercial International Bank (CIB) Egypt, and Engineer Mohamed Bataineh, Chairman and CEO of AmCham Jordan, as well as Ms. Rose Alissi (CEO). The panel was moderated by Dr. Wissam Rabadi, Chief of Party, USAID Competitive Programs

Mr. Rabadi commenced the panel by discussing the hardship of export activities due to logistical difficulties as well as the lack of needed capital. Ms. Mokkadem discussed The African Development Bank Group’s role in supporting the region’s SMEs, stating that the bank launched; “Boost Africa” Initiative, which provides equity funds as well as technical assistance for first-time managers. Ms. El Saady states that 75% of SME’s apply for bank loans, but that 92% of these loans are rejected due the fact that banks have “a low-risk appetite”. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Egypt addressed this by starting the “Small Business Initiative” for SME finance and development. The initiative aims to build the export capacity of local SMEs as well as offering them access to loans.

Dr. Habib addressed the issue of how banks are adjusting their loan portfolios to support SMEs, to create a model that would fit the businesses as well as the banks. Mr. Bataineh of AmCham Jordan stated that the number one trading partner to Jordan is the United States, “however, the free trade agreement has not been fully utilized yet,” he said. AmCham Jordan is working on establishing a free trade agreement unit to diversify items exported to the United States. SMEs created a strong pool of material that can be exported to the United States. Ms. Alissi highlighted the role of the Tijarah Coalition, which encompasses chambers of commerce of industry in Jordan, the Ministry of Industry as well as all business associations and the U.S. Embassy. Collectively, the coalition works on public advocacy and assisting the enterprises.

Mr. Rashwan Hammady from CIB- Egypt praised the current reforms undertaken by the government, as they “made it easier to bypass bureaucracy”. He said that the banking sector is drastically evolving to address SME needs.

Addressing Panel III were Mr. Mohamed Shalaby, Plant Director at Mondelez, Kraft (Bahrain); Mr. Hamid Alzayani, Managing Director at Midal Cables (Bahrain); Mr. Walaa Maher, Supply Chain Director Middle East Africa at Olayan Kimberly-Clark (Bahrain); and Mr. Waleed Rushediet, Managing Partner, RWC Consulting (USA). Mr. Yusuf Ali Khan, MENA Head of Trade at Citi (UAE) was moderating this panel. Mr. Khan started off the panel on a positive note stating that the Bahraini Government aspires to see 35% of SMEs as contributors to the Kingdom’s GDP by the year 2018.

Mr. Rushediet stated that focusing solely on inbound integration of SMEs in the region is considered a serious drawback. Mr. Maher agreed, adding that economies grow with more exports than imports. He added that multinationals should support SMEs by taking in their employees for mentoring and coaching to reach mutual development for both parties.

Mr. Hamid Alzayani spoke about his personal experience with Midal Cables and advised that the only answer to turning an SME into a large company is thinking outside the box. Wrapping up this discussion was Mr. Shalaby, who highlighted that the core necessary resource behind the success of SMEs in the MENA region is not just financing, but rather the availability of local competent calibers and manpower.

The Conference Luncheon’s keynote address was delivered by H.E. Zayed R. Alzayani, Bahrain’s Minister of Industry, Commerce & Tourism and was followed by an interactive Q &A session moderated by Dr. John Duke Anthony, Founding President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations.

The afternoon wrapped up with a B2B networking session in which participating delegates were provided with the opportunity to directly engage with potential partners. Sectors in focus were financial services, industry, technology, retail, hospitality, F&B and real estate, among others.

An MENA Council Board meeting took place following the Luncheon on the first day with members of the Board and leadership of AmCham Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. Members discussed the Council’s plans for the coming few months and voted on the next Council Chair; where AmCham Jordan will become the next Chair of the MENA Council as of January 2018.

The second day featured several workshops focusing on the promotion of bilateral trade with the United States. The first workshop entitled; “How to do Business with the U.S. Government” was conducted by Mr. Michael Sedge, Founder & President, Michael Bruno Group. The second workshop; “A Guide to U.S. and International Trade Fairs and Breaking into the U.S. Market,” was conducted by Mr. Dao M. Le, Regional Senior Commercial Officer for the Gulf at U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi, and Dr. Ali Saeed Al Ameri, Chief Executive Officer of Al Shoumoukh Group of Companies.

Following the workshops a very special panel was hosted on; “Unlocking the Power of Women-Led SMEs“ featuring; Her Royal Highness Princess Basmah Bint Saud of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Ms. Afnan Rashid AlZayani, President, Al Zayani Commercial Services and Dr. Khalid Al Abdulla, CEO Eskan Bank. The session was moderated by Dr. Dina Sherif, Director, Center for Entrepreneurship, the American University in Cairo. In this discussion Princess Bint Saud was proud to announce that Saudi Arabia has been steadily including women in all aspects of the business like. She said, “20% of women are currently serving the parliament in Saudi Arabia and business women represent over 60% of the working force in Saudi Arabia”. Ms. Al Zayani outlined some of the efforts of the Bahraini Government in support of women and the role of women networks in promoting entrepreneurship and women-led SMEs. Finally, Dr. Al Abdulla gave a brief overview on Eskan Bank’s program catering for SMEs.

Finally an SME Pitch Session was conducted by the accelerator, CH9 in cooperation with Microsoft, and aimed to provide SMEs with valuable insights and guidance from a high-level jury panel to help them more effectively scale up for international trade and investment. The SME Pitch Session saw 10 promising MENA companies presenting their business case to groups of potential partners, investors and clients.

The AmCham MENA Council Forum was supported by the following Strategic Partners:

Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI), the Ministry of Industry, Commerce & Tourism, Bahrain Economic Development (EDB) and Tamkeen. Other supporters include the US Chamber of Commerce and the MENA Council Secretariat at AmCham Egypt.