In 2004 Joseph Oubelkas travelled monthly to Morocco for one of his clients in order to perform quality checks at citrus fruit packing stations. On 23 December 2004, the day before his return flight, the Moroccan customs authorities entered one of these stations – and found a quantity of hashish. Joseph arrived some hours later and asked what was happening. The fact that he worked for a Dutch company was enough for him to become a suspect. He was arrested, and eventually sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. As undeserved as it was, he was imprisoned in Morocco for at least four and a half years – despite the obvious miscarriage of justice and the intervention of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who knew that there was absolutely no incriminating evidence. Eventually his request to be detained in The Netherlands was conceded and, after arriving in The Netherlands, he was immediately released. Without a business, work or contacts he wanted only one thing – to record his bizarre story – of a fate that could, indeed, await anyone. After a year and a half his book, ‘400 letters from my mother’, was complete and published. It then took just one newspaper article to initiate a storm of media attention. People were inspired by his story and he increasingly received invitations to give lectures. Meanwhile, Joseph’s second book ‘Good Health, Love and Freedom’ has been published

1. How long have you been in The Netherlands?

I was born in Raamsdonksveer in 1980.

2. How did you become an entrepreneur and why?
I was an entrepreneur in spirit from an early age. After secondary school I studied computer science in Breda and, four years later, was one of the youngest IT engineers in The Netherlands. In addition to a technical bent, it appeared that I also had commercial and communication skills, in itself a unique combination. A couple of years later I started my own IT business, 2Forces, and was asked by a client whether I wanted to handle a project for them in Morocco. They were looking for someone who spoke good French and could supervise logistics. I subsequently travelled back and forth to Morocco every month – and what happened to me there is well known. When I returned to The Netherlands I wrote my story. It was published, and I now earn my living by writing and giving lectures. I once again have a business, Oubelkas Communications.

3. Did you encounter problems when you wanted to become an entrepreneur?
As I often say, you either are or aren’t an entrepreneur. Every entrepreneur experiences problems, but perseverance is the key. Upon my return I had to make a living in The Netherlands. I had no money and some doubts: should I indeed write a book? Or should I not simply look for a job? Nevertheless, I persevered, following my gut feeling.  It was not easy, but then neither was surviving unjust imprisonment. And if I survived that, then this was certainly also possible.

4. What are the differences between doing business in The Netherlands and in Morocco?
Commitments are sacrosanct here: 10 o’clock is precisely 10 o’clock and a promise is a promise! The Moroccan perspective on time is different. The Dutch are not so sensitive to hierarchy. Moroccans are though, there is a pecking order and the boss is really ‘the boss’. You have to respect this. And it’s absolutely not open to discussion, as found out by the thousand who tried, and failed, before you. There, if you are the son of an important director of companies you’re already someone. Here you become someone when you personally achieve something. The Netherlands is a country of opportunities, provided others ‘grant’ you success.

5. What is typically Dutch when it comes to doing business and being an entrepreneur?
That is, indeed, this thing of being ‘granted’ the opportunity to do well. You have to win the Dutch over. Once you have their confidence a lot of doors open. But first they are sceptical. If you have something to say the reactions are often of the order, ‘yes, if you say so’ or, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ or, ‘where there’s smoke there’s fire’… Unless they read it in the newspaper of course, then they suddenly believe everything! The Dutch are pretty easy to fathom. You can quickly read their body language to see whether they really mean something or not. With Moroccans and, for example, Americans this is a bit more difficult. And the Dutch have an inclination to react somewhat pessimistically.  A ‘yes’ is frequently followed by a ‘but’.  Yet, though they love certainty, the Dutch are pioneers. Just look at their designers and architects.

6. What have you taken from both the Moroccan and Dutch cultures?
In Morocco one lives more for the day, in The Netherlands we love to plan everything, in detail. After all I’ve been through, I don’t look too far ahead. I live in the now and am happy. And as far as Dutch culture is concerned: one must stick to the rules.

7. Would you ever go back to Morocco?
Despite everything that happened to me I would love to go back again, but then I want to be sure that I do not risk being re-arrested!

8. What are the secrets of your success?
Don’t let your surroundings determine your happiness: determine your own happiness! Because if
you create your own happiness you create your own success!
And: If you wake up happy, every day, then you have already achieved success.

9. What is your favourite fruit, and why?
Banana, because it is sweet and easy to enjoy.

10. What is your favourite Dutch product and/or location?
Peanut butter, but then the real thing, Calvé! And I like Maastricht – it’s nice and international, just like Amsterdam, but quainter.

TIPS from Joseph

1. Make sure you have a good product – the Dutch are demanding
2. No-one really needs you – so make sure that you present and sell yourself well
3. Be open, honest and trustworthy
4. Never hurt anyone
5. Enjoy your work, it’s contagious
6. And, very Dutch: stick to the rules ….

“You have to win the Dutch over. Once you have their confidence a lot of doors open