It’s Business and It’s Personal

“It’s just business – don’t take it personally.”


That is the advice entrepreneurs often hear when experiencing a setback. Sometimes the words come from colleagues. Sometimes it becomes a mantra entrepreneurs repeat to themselves. Overcoming problems and disappointment is a big part of doing business, but for entrepreneurs it can be an especially painful process.


Entrepreneurs are not only working to achieve a business goal, they are striving to bring life to a personal vision. If the business fails, the vision dies. That should be enough anguish for entrepreneurs to cope with. But for entrepreneurs with roots in the Middle East, the emotional investment can be even greater, and the challenges far more daunting.


A country and a legacy

Khaled Al Sabawi is a successful Canadian entrepreneur. He is a leader in the global geothermal energy industry. While his passport was issued by Canada, his heritage and a great share of his personal identity come from Palestine. Khaled’s parents are Palestinian refugees who settled in Canada when he was 3 years old.


“Palestinians of my generation – sons and daughters of refugees – were raised with the Palestinian narrative,” Khaled says. “We were raised with the fact that our families and our cultural identity have suffered significantly. We were brought up with stories of dispossession, victimhood and grave injustice. Being raised with such vivid concepts, one cannot help but grow up with the urge to rectify them.”


Khaled explains that this legacy has motivated him and many Palestinians of his generation to set their goals high and work hard to achieve success. His family taught him to be grateful to have been raised in a pluralistic society where he has opportunities. This is in contrast to the stories he heard about Palestinians suffering in refugee camps or under Israeli military occupation in their homeland. The opportunities available to him in Canada combined with the legacy of his Palestinian heritage, Khaled’s outlook and aims, were shaped by a strong desire to help improve the social conditions for the Palestinians.


Returning to Palestine

“As the sons and daughters of refugees that were fortunate enough to have been raised with the advantages available in countries like Canada, if we don’t go back to contribute to Palestine, who will?” Khaled asks. “It was from that imperative that I thought about going back to Palestine to try to contribute, to make the situation better for the people there.”


For an experienced businessman and entrepreneur, establishing a renewable source of energy seemed like an excellent fit. Energy prices are extremely high in the Palestinian territories and the Palestinians are far too dependent on Israel in general. If the major tenet of entrepreneurism is to find a problem and solve it, it seems that Khaled’s geothermal energy approach should have found a welcoming market.


But the Palestine Khaled found when he arrived, was not the same one he grew on.


“I was raised on the concept of Palestine as a utopia, as an ideal, a dream that my parents longed to go back to. Palestine was looked at in a very romantic sense,” he offers to explain his mindset as he started to work toward bringing renewable energy to Palestine.


“Upon arriving in Palestine, I expected that there would be some kind of connection to that concept that I was raised on. I was surprised that the reality on the ground was very much detached from this ideal,” Khaled continues. He sums up his initial experience succinctly: “The Palestine I was raised on doesn’t exist.”


Are youth the future?

A very large percentage of the Palestinian population is comprised of youth. “Fifty-five percent of the population Palestinians is below the age of 24. Some youth I met – I was extremely surprised to learn – knew very little about their own conflict. They knew little about their own history. They had not been exposed to an objective version of Palestinian history.” They have been taught the more “standard Palestinian narrative that looked at Palestinians only as victims where Palestinians leaders bore very little to no responsibility for their actions or behavior,” he explains.


However, contrasting this group Khaled also found a large group of young Palestinians who are “very dynamic, very excited for change, very liberal, very fed up with the status quo, fed up with the Hamas-Fatah divide and wanting to challenge the status-quo.” Khaled contributes the vibrancy he found among this youth to their exposure to more information through the Internet and social media.


Not only did Khaled personal notions about the people, the place and the culture seem disconnected from reality, the entrepreneur was surprised by the reception local governing authorities gave his proposal for establishing renewable power in Palestine: Israeli officials praised the project, while Palestinian leaders put up roadblocks.


“Although the Israel’s Ministry of Interior denied me entry 3 times, their Ministry of National Infrastructure praised our geothermal installments in the West Bank. The Palestinians Authority, which had no interest in helping facilitate my entry into West Bank, looked at our geothermal installments with disdain and petty jealously. Essentially, it was quite messed up,” he explaines.


“It was just very disappointing. Rather than encourage us, the Palestinian Authority leaders were more interested in their own self-interest to see how each individual in that could benefit rather than how the collective community could benefit,” Khaled continues.


In many ways, Palestine is a microcosm of the Middle East, where the various sectors of commerce are controlled by a handful of elites and powerful individuals. Khaled’s independent entrepreneurial approach of establishing businesses that would solve problems separate from the established power structure ran into the inevitable opposition.

Making it happen

But despite the problems he encountered, Khaled was able to make significant progress, designing and installing the first geothermal systems in the Middle East in Palestine and going on to install the largest geothermal system in the region: a 1.6 mega-watt system at the American University of Madaba in Jordan. Since then, the enterprise has done more projects and has started to work in other Middle Eastern nations.


The learning curve has, at times, been difficult to navigate and Khaled has been forced to reframe his perspective and understanding of his ancestral homeland and its people. His perspectives, which are based on the reality on the ground, have allowed to launch yet another entrepreneurial projects in Palestine called “TABO”, a real estate venture designed to expand property rights in the West Bank as a means of allowing Palestinians the ability to own affordable land while protecting Palestinians from illegal settlement expansion.


It was a personal commitment that brought Khaled to Palestine in the first place. Separating one’s personal investment from a business project can be very challenging in the Middle East. And while Khaled’s Palestinian heritage has always made a huge personal impression on his life, continued business success in the Middle East will no doubt empower him to leave a remarkable personal legacy in Palestine.


Finally, not only is Khaled’s influence being felt in Palestine and other Middle Eastern nations, the work he is doing, and the attitude he exudes, is inspirational for Middle Eastern entrepreneurs, wherever they are based. The “heavy lifting” Khaled has done to prove the value of entrepreneurism in the Middle East will make it easier for all of us who journey back to our homeland eager to find acceptance for our projects and dreams.


About Hamzeh Al Fuqha:


Hamzeh Al Fuqha is a serial entrepreneur, inventor and angel investor. He founded Next Presentations and co-founded SmartAd. Hamzeh is a frequent speaker at industry seminars and guest lecturer at the American University of Sharjah on entrepreneurship and leadership. He has received several awards and won numerous national public speaking and debating competitions. Hamzeh has trained various public figures and high-level managers on executive communication skills and speech delivery techniques.


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