Birzeit University sits at the top of a hill in the central West Bank, in an area famed for its olive groves, located 10 minutes’ drive north of Ramallah, the de facto capital of Palestine.
Against the backdrop of bombings and blockades, the university acts as a refuge, where the latest generation of MBA students are putting their futures’ first, determined to prosper in the face of adversity.
“We have opportunities here,” says Ramallah-born MBA student Fouad Za’rour. “We are restricted, we are limited, but I really believe we can grow.”
Optimism is an ingrained Palestinian quality, it flows throughout the fabric of a society hardened by years of oppression and conflict. Yet for an MBA student in Palestine, the challenges are vast.
“For careers, it’s very difficult,” says Anton Sabella, a professor in the department of business administration at Birzeit and an MBA graduate from Lewis University in the US.
“The private sector is burdened with the restrictions carried out by the Israeli military force,” he continues. “It cannot cope with the increasing numbers of university graduates.”
When you ask a Birzeit MBA student about the greatest challenge to business in Palestine, the answer is invariably the Israeli occupation. The university itself was closed down by the Israeli authorities in the late 1980s. Israeli checkpoints, restrictions and roadblocks make transporting people, products and services costly, and sometimes impossible.
As a result, businesses suffer. According to Palestinian figures, 37% of private sector employees within the partially-recognized state receive less than the minimum monthly wage of 1,450 Israeli shekels, around $366 per month. The World Bank records the unemployment rate at over 25%, with youth unemployment as high as 40%.
Return on investment is not a concept that exists in Palestine. “It’s all based on optimism,” explains Fouad. “You can’t have the real, immediate added value of being an MBA student.”
An MBA degree at Birzeit costs $10,000. Yet Palestinian government employees can expect a wage rise of only $50 on their salary after an MBA. Private sector employees don’t fare any better. According to a private source, the Arab Bank offers only a 6% increase on salary after an MBA, while the Bank of Palestine offers no salary increase whatsoever, according to a private source.
“The salary promotion is nothing,” says Fouad. “But when I take my MBA, I really believe that I will personally improve myself.”
More than elsewhere, MBA students in Palestine are victims to fate. For over a decade, Thanaa Shalabi worked in senior positions for HSBC in Ramallah. Now, the British banking giant is pulling out.
“We’ve had auditors, managers and our CEO try to come in, and been refused entry at the borders,” she explains. “Strategically, this is not where they want to be.”
Although Thanaa will be unemployed when she graduates in June, she remains optimistic. She plans to join a growing tide of female entrepreneurship within Palestine and start her own business selling women’s clothes and accessories.
Outsiders may have preconceived notions about the role of women in a Muslim country. Yet women are increasingly active in business in Palestine.
“If you came here, you’d be surprised,” says Thanaa. “I’ve never felt that it was a hindrance being a woman.”
At Birzeit University (pictured above) there are more female students than males; around a 60% to 40% split. In the service sector, female graduates are often embraced more readily than men. While wider problems with employment persist, the majority of MBA students at Birzeit do work alongside their studies. In Fouad’s class of 20, 18 have jobs; most in banking, insurance, telecommunications and non-profits.
Fouad currently works for a construction-focused subsidiary of the Palestine Investment Fund. He too, has one eye on the future. After his MBA, he hopes to transition from finance and develop his family’s mattress manufacturing business within Palestine.
While there is a drainage of young talent leaving Palestine to work abroad, the majority of MBA students at Birzeit University are keen to stay.
“Living in Palestine is a whole unique experience,” says Thanaa. “When the going gets tough, a lot of people wish they had an out. But in the end, we’re all sticking to it.”
Fouad agrees: “We’re adapting to the situation,” he says. “No one I’ve met has thought about going abroad.”