Finally, Etisalat has expanded beyond national boundaries, recognizing that its continued growth relies on scale. In 1999, the operator took a stake in Tanzania’s Zantel; in 2004, Saudi Arabia awarded Etisalat a license to operate a mobile network, competing against incumbent Saudi Telecom. In short order, Etisalat spread across Africa and Asia, entering 14 markets in five years.
In fact, globalization is a common trend among GCC telecom operators. Saudi Telecom, after encountering competition in its home market, began its own expansion in 2007 and now operates in Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Kuwait, Turkey, South Africa, and Bahrain. “Every operation is facing globalization, because there are no longer borders between telecoms,” says Saud bin Majed Al-Daweesh, president of Saudi Telecom’s STC Group.
Expansion of this sort demands that the leaders of these companies stay globally competitive; they must be alert to the next trends and technologies that will transform their businesses. “Every day, a new technology comes to the market that may appear as a danger to our business. We have to understand how to adapt and benefit from it,” says Omran. “I remember when people used to worry that the Internet and e-mail would destroy the fax. Today they worry about voice over IP. I think it is an opportunity and that we will rise to the challenge.”
Other leaders in the industry focus on communications technology’s ability to help countries enrich the lives of their citizens. Hessa Al-Jaber helped form ictQatar, the country’s Supreme Council of Information and Communication Technology, and currently serves as its secretary general. The council devotes its efforts to areas that one might expect of a government’s communications arm, such as market development and telecom regulation. A significant portion of its resources, however, are allotted to bringing the country and individual Qataris into the digital age, with measures such as e-education and e-health. An initiative called e-Inclusion ensures that no one is left out of this evolution — it particularly targets women, retirees, and people with special needs. The creation of such an entity indicates that leaders like Al-Jaber are deeply committed to establishing a viable base on which their societies can grow.
Osman Sultan, the CEO of the UAE telecom operator Du, is emblematic of telecom leaders in his belief that his company and his industry should be reforming their culture as well as growing their business. He says, “I strongly feel I am part of the community that is the Arab world. It’s not in its best shape today, but we have a responsibility to contribute to its development. You have a lot of people with leadership potential. I’m privileged to work in a domain that can have a significant impact on this process by developing the digital instruments that will allow this part of the world to express its potential.”
The GCC’s current crop of leaders scour the globe for business and management ideas and apply many of them at home. This broadminded approach stems in part from the fact that most of these individuals have spent time abroad working, studying, or both. Beginning in the 1980s, GCC governments began funding international education for selected citizens, with the intent that students would repay this investment by lending their skills to the development of their home countries’ industries. The return of these sons and daughters spurred creative tension as they seeded new practices throughout nascent industries, setting off healthy debates about what international business models would mean for the GCC and how they could best be adapted.
Fahad Almubarak, now chairman and managing director of Morgan Stanley Saudi Arabia, played a role in restructuring the country’s securities business in 1999. Having received not only his undergraduate degree but also three master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in the United States, he had had the opportunity for broad exposure to the way other financial systems were structured. At the time, Saudi Arabia’s stock exchange was nothing more than a department within the central bank; it did not handle IPOs, and only 10 banks were licensed for operation.