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PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS ARE IMPORTANT OPPORTUNITIES for realigning the country’s interests, but all too often the opportunities are missed. The locus of attention becomes the horse race rather than critical policy differences among contenders. This cycle is certainly no exception.  

That’s a shame because the next administration will face daunting choices that are bound to affect both the direction and pace of technology and its impact on the country’s future. With that in mind, here are questions we ought to pose to candidates vying for president.

First, how should a new administration handle the trade-off between privacy and security — how should policy shape the boundaries between self and state? How should the administration address the need for upgrading the nation’s digital infrastructure? How can government apply technology to streamline processes, cut bureaucratic waste and deliver better services to citizens? And finally how should we coordinate technology policies with our global partners?

Stepping back, it’s time to ask the questions that all responsible governments must answer, namely how can technology-led innovation be fostered? What role should the federal government play in building technological capacity? How can we encourage greater participation in an economy that’s increasingly shaped by technology?

From where I sit, these are issues that citizens need to press the contenders to confront. Let’s press them on the questions and demand both specificity and plausibility in their responses.  But first, as citizens, let’s be better informed.   

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Port-at-Jebel-Ali“Dubai is where the Iranian private sector breathes and prospers.”¹ –Vali Nasr, 2009

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The UAE has a well-earned reputation as a world-class center for commerce, finance, logistics and more. By modernizing its infrastructure and reforming regulations to draw foreign investors, the Gulf nation is better equipped to withstand slumping oil prices than its neighbors. Now, as sanctions against Iran are lifted by the nuclear deal, the UAE can also burnish its credentials as an entrepôt — akin to what Hong Kong once was in relation to China.

Iran is likely to become the biggest market in the Middle East, with nearly 80 million people, a majority of whom are under 30 and well-educated. The country’s pent-up demand should drive sales for foreign exporters at a time when so many of the world’s emerging markets are losing steam.

US firms still can’t do business in Iran due to prevailing sanctions² but European and Asian companies are eager to get a head start. Europe’s Airbus Group was announced its sale of 114 jets worth over $10 billion and other major European firms, from Daimler to Siemens, are closing big-ticket deals.

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MENA PAN ARABHeadlines focus on conflict and tension in the Arab world, but the rapid growth of broadband is important news that’s been under the radar. The mobile revolution is transforming the way people live and do business in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and that development merits attention.

The growth of broadband at about 38% annually is fueling markets, particularly the pan-Arab digital market. This sprawling market, stretching from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Oman, has a GDP of $2.85 trillion and population of 375 million, many of whom are young, Internet-savvy and connected.

Arabic is more than just the dominant language in the MENA. It helps define the cultural identity of an otherwise diverse set of countries. Despite that diversity, the overwhelming majority of the population prefers Arabic content which is in short supply, especially in some segments. Though Arabic speakers account for 5% of Internet users worldwide, only about 1% of websites are in Arabic.

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A founder with a great idea and the will to see it through can move mountains. But even the most capable founders often need a helping hand to overcome barriers to building a business. 

THE MOST SATISFYING PART OF MY JOB IS MENTORING the next generation of entrepreneurs as they build tomorrow’s great companies. Working with these energetic men and women renews my optimism about our future and that’s reason enough for serving as a mentor.

As a longtime proponent of mentoring, I believe that seasoned veterans of my generation are duty-bound to guide up-and-coming leaders. I’m grateful for my mentors, past and present, who’ve been instrumental in helping me navigate the mercurial cycles that span a career in business. In turn, it’s my responsibility to lend a hand to young founders grappling with the formative challenges of business building.

Mentoring doesn’t always guarantee successful outcomes for our mentees, but with the right approach, they’re likelier to succeed and, in any case, we can help them to put their triumphs and setbacks in a helpful perspective.

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This is one of those “what I’ve learned” essays. It’s not meant to sound preachy. Helping emerging entrepreneurs in their early/growth stages informs the way I advise corporate clients at every stage of development. This is about the “gestalt” of what I tell clients rather than the methodology or process.

From designing, building and marketing products to recruiting talent, it’s critical for any company, large or small, to stay lean, creative and adaptive. The fact is that rapid-fire change is no longer the exception but the norm in today’s digital economy. Companies that can’t respond to the mercurial business environment are falling behind. Every company, young or mature, should strive to being “entrepreneurial” — that is lean, highly adaptive and capable of rapid iteration.

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BEFORE THE INK DRIED on the nuclear accord last month, governments and multinationals had already queued up to strike commercial deals with Iran. Within days of the P5+1 pact, German vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel arrived in Teheran on a junket with German business executives intent on forging ties. French, Italian and Japanese delegations announced that they were coming, too. Assuming Congress doesn’t scuttle the JCPA, Iran’s list of suitors will only grow.

Iran’s commercial appeal is obvious. The country has 80 million mostly young, typically well-educated consumers with pent-up demand in an economy worth USD $400 billion. It has the fourth-largest crude reserves and the second-largest natural gas reserves, and it will likely spend USD $140 billion to upgrade its oil and gas equipment over the next few years. And tens of billions will probably be spent to modernize “essential infrastructure” — ports roads, airports and rail.

Britain, China, India, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are expected to get the lion’s share of post-sanctions trade, while energy services companies lead the private sector players vying for near-term, big-ticket projects.

One key beneficiary is likely to be Dubai, the region’s finance and energy hub with world-class transportation and shipping facilities. Since the sanctions were imposed, Dubai has become Iran’s biggest trade partner after China, serving as Iran’s offshore gateway for both legal and black market trade.

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“2500 years of civilization assures us Iran will change. Thirty-six years of the Islamic Republic cautions us it won’t be soon, or easy.” — Karim Sadjadpour

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THE IRAN NUCLEAR ACCORD (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, summarized) is a Herculean feat for the P5+1 nations, led by the U.S., after 20 months of negotiations. The deal released today could usher in an era of cooperation with a nation considered by many observers to be the chief state sponsor of terrorism and instability in the Middle East. Conversely, this deal could escalate violence among sectarian forces compounding the region’s misery. The proponents are obviously betting that the former scenario is more likely.

As for the terms*, Iran agrees to cut its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98% and, for at least 15 years, to reduce by about two-thirds its number of centrifuges. It would also stop enriching uranium above 3.67% while not building new enrichment or heavy-water facilities. In exchange, Iran stands to gain tens of billions of dollars**/*** in relief from US, EU and UN sanctions thereby bolstering its flagging economy. Verifying Teheran’s compliance with its commitments is the most controversial aspect of the deal.

What’s not explicit is that for the covenant to work as intended, Teheran must not only roll back its nuclear capabilities, it must also pursue a more constructive relationship with the West. From a Western perspective, success depends as much on Teheran’s intentions, now and in the future, as it does on compliance mechanisms. That’s a difficult proposition to digest, not only for the West and Israel, but for Sunni states, following decades of mistrust. In any case, the balance of power in the region is likely to shift in ways that are difficult to anticipate.

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Aqaba panorama blogAqaba, Jordan

Another narrative

At a time when the dominant narrative about the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) reflects conflict and instability, it’s important to view the region from a more balanced perspective. Consider an alternative narrative — one  that hinges on the region’s technology entrepreneurs. Their story is about building products for one of the world’s most promising markets.

The numbers tell that story best. The population exceeds 350 million in an area stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf. Eighty percent is under 30 and connected to the Internet — as the world discovered during the “Arab Spring.” There are 150 million Internet users, with 30 million more expected in the next two years. While quarter of the population has broadband, smartphone penetration is 40% and in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it’s approaching 75%.

Arab diital media is one of the more exciting and dynamic sectors of the region. Despite economic and cultural diversity across 22 countries, consumers share an appetite for Arabic language content — digital news, entertainment, social media and gaming. As a measure of the market’s under-penetration, Arabic accounts for 5% of the world’s Internet users, but Arabic content on the Internet amounts to only 1.5% of the total. Only one in 20 Fortune 500 websites is in Arabic, and only a quarter of the top 100 global businesses offers Arabic content.

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Dubai satelliteSatellite view of Dubai’s iconic shoreline

Which Markets Are A Good Fit?

Many of the questions that my colleagues and I often get from enterprise clients about to expand internationally concern how to evaluate which prospective market(s) to choose. Clients’ primary concerns are typically about market economics — demand and size/growth rates followed by regulatory issues. But, other issues ought to be factored into their calculations as well.

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Southbound

Is this a good time to tap new markets in the Global South?

Broadly speaking, the answer is yes. Despite slower growth in many economies including China’s, consumer markets across the Global South are, by and large, flourishing due to a confluence of advanced technology, urbanization and regulatory reforms in many countries.

"Innovative entrepreneurs in the Global SouthGreater demand for goods and services propagates diverse, stable markets that aren’t solely dependent on commodities. In turn, cross-border trade and investment are gaining momentum creating a virtuous circle of development.

These developments are creating new challenges, too. The mounting wave of new consumers is impacting the environment, straining resources and creating pressing social needs.

Emerging communities need access to healthcare, food security and education. Upgrading infrastructure — roads and bridges, ports and power plants — is critical to keep pace with growth.

To accomplish these things, entrepreneurs in the Global South need access to capital, talent and expertise from outside their geographic borders.

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