The right environment: New programmes and strategies are creating a platform for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and start-ups


Key to Qatar’s drive towards diversification in its economy is developing a thriving private industrial sector. The most recent national development strategy has thus sought to encourage businesses, with a particular focus on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). This support is also likely to continue in the National Development Strategy 2017-22. These are, however, challenging times for some businesses, with the decline in oil and gas prices of recent years affecting Qatar’s main economic driver and government expenditure.

Many businesses rely on contracts from major construction and development projects, and while some large-scale examples of both are still under way, presently there is little new business. As such, SMEs may seek new markets or diversify their product ranges.

Head Start

A key institution for SME support is the Qatar Development Bank (QDB). Established in 1997 the QDB promotes private sector projects, and has developed a range of financing schemes and programmes. Principle among these is the Al Dhameen programme, which addresses a key challenge faced by many SMEs: difficulty in obtaining financing via mainstream banking channels. Under Al Dhameen, QDB partners with Qatar’s financial institutions to facilitate funding. The bank underwrites up to 85% of facilities costs for new businesses, while the programme guarantees 75% of core capital for existing companies, with a limit of QR15m (. (sflix.video) 1m) on both guarantees.

In January 2017 QDB announced a new scheme, Ithmar, to provide SMEs with financing of up to QR900,000 ($247,000) under a risk-sharing arrangement. The bank has become a partner, rather than solely a financier. In return, an SME has to mobilise 10% of the financing required itself. Ithmar will only be open to start-ups in their early stages, and QDB has set a target of funding 25 projects by the end of 2017. QBD also provides SME Toolkit Qatar, an online resource for SMEs and start-ups that provides template business plans, as well as legal updates and guides to doing company accounts.

Helping Hand

The bank also offers hep from Isteshara and Jadwa, both consultancy services, to give new businesses advice at different stages of their development. Furthermore, under the Tadqeeq programme QDB contributes up to 50% of the incurred costs for SMEs to receive administrative and auditing services, and under the Oqood programme firms can receive a similar cost-sharing deal for legal fees. SMEs that are considering listing can also benefit from the Qatar Exchange Venture Market programme, under which the QDB covers up to 70% of listing costs. QDB also works with the Qatar Foundation to run initiatives which encourage entrepreneurship, particularly among Qatari youth. These include the Bedaya Centre, which offers training and support for new start-ups, and the Qatar Business Incubation Centre (QBIC), which runs practical LeanStartup and LeanScaleup programmes. By July 2017 the QBIC had incubated some 59 companies.

Meanwhile, Enterprise Qatar (EQ) jointly operated by QDB, partners enterprises with educational institutions, and provides training, new technologies and innovation, while fulfilling the needs of industry through academia.

Central Hub

While many of these programmes have already proven effective, SMEs continue to face challenges. The financial and business support on offer is aimed at Qataris only, but despite efforts to ease financing, local press reported in November 2016 that of the country’s approximately 11,000 SMEs around 50% still lacked active bank borrowing relationships.

The business environment itself remains a challenge, as one effect of an industrial sector dominated by large, state-linked corporations is crowding out new or smaller players. Furthermore, SMEs tend to be concentrated in the trading and contracting segments, limiting scope and diversity, and increasing risk.

Nonetheless, with diversification still the number one priority for the government’s economic development plans, the country’s SMEs will likely remain at the forefront of much of its planning for many years to come.