Top 25 Telecoms Leaders

CommsMEA presents the 2011 edition of the MEA region's Top 25 telecom leaders
Dr Nasser Marafih emerged as the leader in the Top 25 telecom leaders.
Dr Nasser Marafih emerged as the leader in the Top 25 telecom leaders.


While the region’s telecom sector has faced its share of challenges, including ongoing economic turmoil around the world and political instability in some parts of the MEA region, many of the region’s telcos have managed to thrive.

Sure, for some operators, growth may have been sluggish compared with the years preceding the onset of the financial crisis, but under the leadership of some talented CEOs, the majority of the region’s operators have flourished by adapting their growth strategies, innovating, investing in new technology and launching new services for their customers.

The CEOs in the CommsMEA Telecom Leaders are not necessarily those that command the biggest market shares. The list also includes those that have shown the greatest level of innovation in tackling the challenges they face and ensuring their companies survive and thrive. So while financials are important, we have also taken into account factors including originality of ideas, rate of growth, and the challenges faced in different markets.

01. Dr. Nasser Marafih, CEO, Qtel Group

As CEO of Qtel Group since 2002, Dr. Nasser Marafih has led the company from the position of being a domestic carrier to an international telecom player, with a presence in 17 countries in the MENA region, the Indian subcontinent, and South East Asia.

Despite continuing tough competition from its rival Vodafone Qatar in its home market, Qtel Group posted strong results for the second quarter of 2011 with a net profit increase by 17.9% to $184 million. This made the company the star performer out of the Gulf region’s operators. The results were driven partly by the demand for broadband and growth from its Wataniya portfolio. The group’s customer base reached 77.5 million, an increase of 16.2% compared to the same period last year.

Qtel, which increased its stake in Tunisiana to 75% in January 2011 through its subsidiary, Wataniya Telecom, has plans to increase the stake further in the telecom operator. Apart from his CEO role, Dr. Marafih is a member of the Board of Directors for Nawras, Qtel’s subsidiary in Oman, and a non-executive director in board of Starhub Ltd. of Singapore. Since December 2010, Dr. Marafih has been on the board of directors of the GSM Association. Dr Marafih joined Qtel in 1992.

02. Ahmad Julfar, Group CEO, Etisalat

Ahmad Abdulkarim Julfar was appointed group CEO of Etisalat in August, but has been playing a key role in the company’s strategy for far longer, as he previously served as group COO since 2006. Julfar’s rise to the newly created position of group CEO is part of a new expansion phase that will see Etisalat strengthen its position globally, the telco said.

Apart from his current duties, Julfar serves on the board of two of Etisalat’s international subsidiaries: Mobily of Saudi Arabia, where he is the chairman of the risk management committee; and Excelcomindo of Indonesia, where he is a member of the compensation and remuneration committee.

In his first statement following the appointment, Julfar said: “Etisalat has a huge potential for growth at a global level and this is one of our key objectives. Meanwhile, in our home market of the UAE, we will continue the pursuit of ensuring that our subscribers have access to the most advanced technology available in the world, and to do it we have adopted a segmented approach to make sure that particular needs of different demographic and business sectors were considered.

“All these and many more initiatives within the UAE ensure that the corporation remains the market leader. I am really honoured to lead this phase of the Group, working with local teams and partners to build on the remarkable success and achievements throughout the 18 countries in which we operate,” he added.

Julfar joined Etisalat in 1986 and has played several roles before he was appointed as COO in 2006. He had previously served as the general manager for Dubai operations, in addition to various other managerial positions. In 2004, Julfar became one of the first graduates of the Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Establishment for Young Business Leaders. Julfar holds two degrees in Civil Engineering and Computer Science from the Gonzaga University in Washington, USA.

03. Saud bin Majed Al-Daweesh, CEO, STC Group

As CEO of Saudi Arabian incumbent STC Group, Eng. Saud bin Majed Al-Daweesh has led the telecom operator to success by implementing business strategies that have helped achieve growth targets in all the operator’s operations. Having already held the role of president at STC Group, Al-Daweesh was no stranger to the demands of life at the head of big business when he was appointed CEO for STC Group following a new organisational restructuring in June 2009.

The Saudi incumbent has seen its net profit for the second quarter of 2011 reach $601.6 million, up 9% as compared to the same period last year. The telco stated the increase in net income was due to the strong growth within the domestic fixed- and mobile-broadband and content revenues. Also, it stated that international operations contributed 34% of the group’s revenues. Currently, STC’s fibre optic network covers more than 130,000 kms.

Recently, STC was one of the operators in Saudi Arabia to launch LTE services, and is planning to cover about 400 locations during the first phase. STC was also the first to upgrade its network to HSPA technology to meet the demand for its QuickNet services in KSA.

04. Nabeel Bin Salamah, CEO, Zain Group

Zain appointed Nabeel Bin Salamah as the CEO of Zain Group effective from February 14, 2010, with the aim of “continuing the company’s future direction and path in maximising shareholder value”. And the CEO has certainly managed to deliver some sound financial results. Kuwait’s Zain Group posted a net profit of KWD 140.2 million ($506.5m) for the first half of 2011, an increase of 17% on the company’s profit for the same period last year.

The company attributed the rise to an “operational efficiency drive” implemented in the past year, according to the company’s chairman, Asaad Al Banwan. Zain managed to increase its profits despite achieving only a modest increase in revenue, which increased by 2% to reach US$ 2.381 billion.

The company confirmed that its H1 results excluded capital gains from the sale of its African assets to Bharti Airtel in 2010. Zain’s customer base increased by 6.1% in the second quarter of the year, to reach 39.9 million by June 30, compared to 37.6 million at the end of Q1.

Since assuming the role of CEO, Salamah has been directing the company to focus on the key growth markets including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Iraq, and has been instrumental in building on investments in network upgrades that has seen an increase in subscriber base while also attaining a net profit of $506.5 million, up 17% of the company’s profit during the first half of 2010 as compared to the previous year.

Bin Salamah has a Bachelors degree in Electronics Engineering from the University of Dayton, Ohio, USA. During 2009, he served as Kuwait’s minister of communication, electricity and water, and formerly, he served as general manager of a mobile operator in 1997.

05. Manoj Kohli, CEO (international), Bharti Airtel

Manoj Kohli, international CEO and joint managing director, Bharti Airtel, may be one of the region’s newer CEOs, but he has wasted no time in stamping his mark on Africa’s telecoms sector. Since taking over most of Zain’s African assets in June 2010, Kohli has overseen numerous outsourcing deals as the telco aims to replicate its formidable, low-cost approach in India.

In the past few months, Airtel Africa has outsourced numerous parts of its network after signing deals with companies including Ericsson, Comviva, IBM, and Tech Mahindra. In its Q2 2011 results, Airtel Africa cut its net losses by 90.8%, posting a net loss of INR64 million ($1.4m), compared to a loss of INR697 million the previous year.

While Airtel appears to be making ground by striving to cut costs and offer low-cost services, it is also looking to offer additional services to its customers and will soon be rolling out a mass-market messaging service that includes instant messaging and access to social networking sites, powered by UK messaging specialist Synchronica. Kohli heads the international business group which leads the international strategy and he is also a director on the board of Bharti Airtel.

06. Shaikh Mohamed bin Isa Al Khalifa, Group CEO, Batelco

Shaikh Mohamed bin Isa Al Khalifa was appointed group CEO of Batelco in August, replacing Peter Kaliaropoulos, who is now CEO of strategic assignments responsible for the group’s joint ventures. The appointment positions Shaikh Mohamed as one of the region’s most important CEOs, and one with a considerable weight on his shoulders in both the company’s home market and in its international markets.

Prior to this appointment, Shaikh Khalifa was the CEO of the Social Insurance Organization (SIO) which was formed by the merger of the General Organization for Social Insurance and the Pension Fund Commission in 2008.

07. Sifiso Dabengwa, CEO, MTN Group

With a footprint spanning 21 countries in Africa and the Middle East, MTN Group is a true telecoms powerhouse. Despite failing to merge with another large operator in 2009, MTN has remained a formidable presence in the region’s telecoms sector.

In recent months, the company has conducted numerous network upgrades across its group as it seeks to ensure robust network quality. For example, in September, MTN South Africa deployed network monitoring and optimisation technology from Arieso, a UK-based network specialist, to enhance its network.

The company’s CEO, Sifiso Dabengwa, was appointed group president and CEO of MTN Group in April 2011 after a successful stint as COO and after being with the company for more than a decade. Prior to joining MTN Group in 1999, Dabengwa was employed at South Africa’s electricity generator Eskom as executive director.
Dabengwa holds B.Sc. in Electrical Engineering, and an MBA.

08. Pieter Uys, CEO, Vodacom Group

Pieter Uys has been with Vodacom for about 18 years and was a founder member of the company’s engineering management team. South Africa’s Vodacom, which is 50% owned by the UK’s Vodafone Group, has prospered since it was established in 1994.

As the first mobile operator in South Africa, Vodacom has been a pioneer in Africa’s mobile sector with customers in South Africa, Tanzania, Lesotho, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Currently, Vodacom is involved in the apps store space developing applications for this market, and Uys has been at the forefront hoping that the initiative will help spur the development of a mobile apps ecosystem in South Africa. Joining the Vodacom Group in 1993 as a founder member of the engineering team, prior to the network’s commercial launch, Pieter Uys has held various senior positions within the group.

09. Osman Sultan, CEO, Du

By targeting a 50% market share of the UAE’s mobile market in the next 2-3 years, Du CEO has set his targets high. Having already secured a market share of about 44%, Sultan’s ambitions appear to be realistic. Whether or not Du reaches its target, the company has made huge progress since launching operations in the UAE in 2007.

The coming 12 month promise even greater competition, with the UAE’s two telcos set to start fixed-line infrastructure sharing. Du, which currently has the smaller fixed network, appears to have most to gain from the initiative, and Sultan is no doubt hoping to replicate Du’s success in the mobile sector in the fixed-line market. Sultan was appointed CEO of Du in January 2006.

10. Khalid Al Kaf, CEO, Mobily

Saudi Arabia’s Mobily has made some major announcements in recent months, re-enforcing CEO Khalid Al Kaf’s reputation as a regional pioneer. In September, Mobily announced the launch of LTE, making it one of the first three operators in the Middle East to launch the service.

In June, Mobily also trialed a “superfast” 100-Gigabit broadband service in Jeddah in a bid to capitalise on demand for high-bandwidth data applications. These developments were also backed up by some solid financials. Mobily stated that its revenues for the first half of 2011 ending June 30 increased by 27% to reach SAR9,611 ($2,563) million, compared to SAR7,554 ($2.014) million for the same period last year.

11. Scott Gegenheimer, CEO, Wataniya Telecom

As general manager and CEO of Kuwait’s Wataniya Telecom since January 2008, Scott Gegenheimer has ensured the telco’s growth in a highly penetrated market. Wataniya Telecom, which is controlled by Qatar’s Qtel Group, posted solid results for the first half of 2011 with a net profit that rose by 19% to reach $157 million.

Gegenheimer has over 20 years of telecoms and technology experience. Prior to taking up the CEO role of Wataniya Telecom, he served as co-CEO of Tunisiana, a leading mobile operator in Tunisia which is a joint venture between Wataniya Telecom and Orascom Telecom.

Gegenheimer became the CFO of Tunisiana in 2002, and took the lead in arranging Euro290 million of project financing with a consortium of European banks during the operator’s start-up phase. He has also held senior finance positions at Motorola, Cisco Systems and Adaptive Broadband where he was engaged in various roles.

12. Emad Makiya, CEO, Zain Iraq

Since becoming CEO of Zain Iraq in June 2010, Emad Makiya has made some major decisions that look set to propel the company to its next phase of growth. In June, Makiya announced that Zain Iraq intended to outsource the management of its network to Ericsson, and the plan is on track.

Makiya hopes to realise cost savings of about 10-15% in opex after the second year of outsourcing the network. Zain Iraq has also been busy investing in network expansion. In March, the telco launched its services in the Kurdistan. This expansion was the first phase of Zain Iraq’s plan to cover all areas in the northern provinces of Iraq. Makiya was previously ME director of sales for Motorola Networks. He has a degree information and computer systems.

13. Ross Cormack, CEO, Nawras

Over the past 12 months, Nawras has notched up some important milestones under the leadership of Ross Cormack. In April 2011, Oman’s second fixed and mobile operator landed its first sea cable as part of the Tata Global Network-Gulf cable project. The cable will be operational before the end of this year and will bolster the telco’s recently-launched fixed-line operation.

Nawras is also continuing to grow its share of the home broadband market and now covers over 86% of households. After a successful IPO which was the second largest of all time in Oman and the largest in GCC since July 2009, Nawras listed on the Muscat Securities Market in November 2010.

14. Dr. Diar Ahmed, CEO, Asiacell

Having invested over $400 million in its network in the past year, Iraqi mobile operator Asiacell has consolidated its lead in the market. The company claims a customer market share of about 37% and a revenue market share of 45%.

The company’s CEO, Dr Diar Ahmed, plans to build on this investment in the coming year, with plans to continue its successful customer retention strategy by focusing on customer satisfaction. It also plans to launch a portfolio of products and services to meet the needs of its customers. Asiacell also ranks first among Iraq’s operators according to Altai Market Research agency and Ministry of Communication.

Ahmed assumed the role of CEO in 2008 to lead a team of more than 2,600 full time employees and more than 6000 employees on contracts. Since joining Asiacell in 2002, Dr. Ahmed has assumed a number of roles at the company. He joined as a media relations manager and later became marketing communication manager.

15. Rashid Abdulla, CEO, Batelco Bahrain

Rashid Abdulla, who was appointed CEO of Batelco Bahrain in December 2010, has been undaunted by the task of running an incumbent operator in what is arguably the Middle East’s toughest telecom market.

In fact Abdulla has taken the difficult task in his stride and sees significant areas of growth opportunity in Bahrain. Most recently, Abdulla has overseen the launch of Bahrain’s first IPTV service, which could prove instrumental in shoring up the telco’s customer base.

Abdulla, who has been in the telecommunications business for 30 years, was previously the managing director of Qualitynet, Batelco Group’s Kuwait operation. Abdulla began his working career at Batelco in 1986 as an Engineering Manager, having completed a BSc in Electrical & Electronics Engineering as a trainee with Cable & Wireless, Batelco’s former shareholder.

16. Saleh Abdullah Al Abdooli, CEO, Etisalat Misr

Etisalat Misr has, along with Egypt’s other operators, suffered in the past year as a result of ongoing political instability in the country. But CEO Saleh Abdullah Al Abdooli has maintained a steady operation during these difficult times, and has attempted to keep the company focused firmly on the future.

Last month the telco hired Chinese vendor ZTE to expand its network following a successful trial for Software Defined Radio (SDR) base stations. Saleh Abdullah Al Abdooli has been instrumental to the rise of Etisalat Misr as a major force in Egypt’s telecom market. The company has managed to take 20% of the GSM market and gain a dominant position in the broadband market since its launch in 2007. Abdooli was appointed CEO of Etisalat Misr in July 2006 after more than 14 years of service at the company. He has been involved with Etisalat Misr since its inception.

17. Mikkel Vinter, CEO, Friendi Mobile

The vision of Friendi Group as defined by CEO and founder Mikkel Vinter is to be the leading regional MVNO across the SAMEA region (South Asia, Middle East & Africa). During the past year, with launches of MVNO and B-brands in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the company has built on its longer established operation in Oman. In the past 12 months, Friendi Group also launched data services in Oman, and the service has proved a hit, with 25% of revenues in Oman now coming from data, according to Vinter. In Q2 this year Friendi Group secured $25 million of new funding to further accelerate expansion.

18. Nayla Massaad Khawam, CEO, Orange Jordan

Holding the CEO position of Orange Jordan since July 2009, Nayla Khawam has maintained the company’s position amid tough competition and also oversaw the launch of Jordan’s first 3G network. Prior to being CEO Khawam was area director for the Paris region of Orange Jordan’s parent company, France Telecom, where she looked after commercial and technical departments for mass market and business clients.

Khawam has also worked as a forecast manager in charge of building econometric models for the Telecom Industry, as a consultant in BIPE (Bureau d’Informations et de Prévisions Economiques) and as a product manager in the Peugeot marketing department. Khawam holds a certificate in Statistical Economics from the National Institute for Statistics and Management Economy, and a certificate in Mathematics from the University of Paris.

19. Hatem Dowidar, CEO, Vodafone Egypt

As CEO of Vodafone Egypt, Hatem Dowidar has more than 18 years of experience working for multinational companies, among which 10 years have been in the telecommunications sector.

Dowidar initially joined Vodafone in 1999 as the CMO of Vodafone Egypt. He was then appointed as the global director of consumer voice services in the headquarters of Vodafone Group for about 18 months. After this, he became the CEO of Vodafone Malta for two years, and in 2007, he returned back to Vodafone Group in England, and was appointed as CEO of Partner Markets for the Group. In this role, he managed partnerships covering over 45 markets in five continents.

Before Vodafone, Hatem worked in various managerial roles in Procter & Gamble as well as AEG (Daimler Benz Group) in Egypt. Hatem has a BSc degree in Telecommunications Engineering, and a Masters in Business Administration. He has also participated in senior management executive programmes in IMD and LBS.

20. Ahmed Abou Doma, Group CEO, Orascom Telecom

Ahmed Abou Doma was appointed CEO of Orascom Group in May 2011. Since Jan 2009, Abou Doma was managing director and chief executive officer for Banglalink, Orascom Telecom’s mobile operator in Bangladesh.

Abou Doma started his career in the field of Information Technology when he joined IBM in 1993 and till 1996. Between 1996 and 1998, Abou Doma led the business development team of Datum IDS launching the 3rd established ISP in Egypt at the time. In 1998, and as part for the startup team, Abou Doma helped launch Mobinil, the first mobile operator in Egypt.

Between 1998 and 2003, Abou Doma held different senior management roles in Mobinil. From 2003 till end of 2008, he held the position of marketing director of Mobinil, the leading mobile operator in Egypt. Abou Doma holds a BSc degree in Electronics and Communication Engineering from Cairo University.

21. Ihab Hinnawi, CEO, Umniah

Ihab Hinnawi joined Umniah, Jordan’s third mobile operator, as the CEO in 2009 and has worked hard to build up the country’s third biggest operator, which now has a respectable market share of about 27%. Prior to assuming his position at Umniah, Hinnawi joined Batelco Bahrain in 2009 as general manager of the enterprise division, directing the sales, service and marketing operations of Batelco’s solutions portfolio.

Umniah looks set to continue to grow its market share next year as it plans to launch 3G services in early 2012, a move that will help it compete with its bigger rivals Zain and Orange. In 2007, Hinnawi held the position of CEO at Batelco Jordan, where he successfully set the strategic direction of the company.

22. Ammar Aker, CEO, Paltel Group

Ammar Aker was appointed as the CEO of the Paltel Group, the incumbent operator in Palestine, in Feburary 2010. Paltel saw its revenues increase by 11% and its net profit by 16.6% in the first half of 2011, despite facing tougher competition from Wataniya Palestine, the country’s second operator.

In May 2011, Paltel signed an MPLS inter-carrier interconnection (ICI) agreement with Hong Kong-based telecom operator, PCCW Global Ltd, to boost connectivity. Aker started his career at Jawwal, the mobile of Paltel, in February 2000 as the financial controller and was promoted to CFO a year later. Prior to assuming the position of the Group CEO of Paltel, Aker held the CEO role of Jawwal since 2005. He was a member of the executive management board of the Paltel Group that led several initiaves.

23. Sheikh Saud Bin Nasser Al Thani, CEO, Qtel Qatar

Despite fierce competition from Vodafone Qatar, Qtel’s resilience in its home market has surprised many analysts. By managing competition, driving innovation and increasing investment in systems and processes in Qatar, Qtel has had a successful year and maintained its customer base of 2.4 million customers. Al Thani has also overseen Qtel’s $650 investment in a nationwide fibre network, the biggest infrastructure investment in Qtel’s history.

Saud Bin Nasser Al Thani joined Qtel in 1990. Over the past 17 years at Qtel, Al Thani has gained a wide range of experience in internal relations, personnel administration, human resources and policies and procedures. He has handled key projects like the restructuring of the organisation in 1998, the structure review in 2000 and the job evaluation review with Qtel’s auditors KPMG.

24. Bassam Hannoun, CEO, Wataniya Palestine

Wataniya Palestine announced the appointment of Dr. Bassam Hannoun as its new CEO in May 2010. Since that time, Hannoun has already overseen a successful IPO and led the company to attract some 410,000 active subscribers as of June 2011.

Before taking on the role, Hannoun served the role of CEO of Wi-Tribe Ltd, formerly wi-tribe Jordan, which is a subsidiary of the Qtel Group. He joined wi-tribe in 2007 and was instrumental in setting up the wireless broadband provider’s infrastructure and launching the first wi-tribe operation, paving the way for a new lifestyle of independence in the broadband market in Jordan.

Dr. Hannoun has strong regional and international experience, and has expertise in the mobile industry cutting across 2G and 3G systems, both in technical and commercial capacities. He was previously chief sales officer for Orange Jordan. In Europe, Dr. Hannoun was responsible for the planning and optimisation of GSM networks. Dr. Hannoun has a PhD in telecom engineering and holds an MBA.

25. Ahmad Al Hanandeh, CEO, Zain Jordan

Ahmad Al Hanandeh, a Jordanian national, was appointed CEO of Zain Jordan effective July 1, 2011. Al Hanandeh took up the role following the exit of his predecessor, Dr Abdul Malek Al Jaber.

Al Hanandeh comes to Zain Jordan with a professional track record, having joined as chief financial officer of Zain Sudan’s mobile operation in March 2011. Prior to this, he served for four years as general manager of Posta Plus, the Gulf-based company specialising in courier and postal services across the Middle East. From 1994 to 2006, he was a key member of the Aramex Group initially joining as an accountant and rising to country manager of several of Aramex’s Asian operations. Al Hanandeh is married with three children. He graduated in Banking and Finance from Yarmouk University, Jordan in 1994.

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