Building bridges

Zajil telecom looks to leverage infrastructure investment for regional growth
Al-Soulah: We hope that Kuwait can become attractive as a transit hub
Al-Soulah: We hope that Kuwait can become attractive as a transit hub

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With Kuwait finally looking set to create an independent telecoms regulator, Khalifa Ebrahim Al-Soulah, CEO of Zajil Telecom, is hoping that more will be done to bridge the telecoms gap between Kuwait and its neighbours.

We want Kuwait to be a regional player. Because of the position of Kuwait — it’s close to Iraq, it’s close to Iran, and those are two big markets — we can connect with them. I believe Kuwait will have a big role in this region.”

These are the words of Zajil Telecom’s CEO, Khalifa Ebrahim Al-Soulah. Set up in 1991, the company claims to be Kuwait’s first internet service provider, so it has seen, first-hand, Kuwait’s surrounding countries develop while its home country has lagged because of government inaction. And now that Kuwait’s government finally looks set to create an independent telecoms regulator, Al-Soulah is hopeful that the market will open up enough to create long-lasting relationships with Kuwait’s neighbours.

This is not to say that Zajil hasn’t already thrived in its own market and abroad. In a bid to seek out new revenue streams, the company has worked hard to provide MPLS services to large enterprise customers. According to Al-Soulah, Zajil enjoys a close relationship with British Telecom, for which it resells services, and he boasts that Zajil is now one of the region’s leading MPLS service providers. Indeed, he describes this area of the business Zajil’s core strength, as the ISP now has around 35 completely owned and managed points of presence (POPs) around the MENA region.

“We’ve built a regional infrastructure to connect companies together over different countries using a very advanced MPLS network. It uses different cables — marine and terrestrial cables — to provide highly available connectivity,” says Al-Soulah.

Meanwhile, the company has also made a strong play in the data centre services game. Last year, it opened a second data centre in Kuwait. It also has data centres in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan and the UK, from which it offers everything from managed services to pure-play cloud offerings. By any stretch of the imagination, Zajil has not confined itself to its home market, and sees itself as a regional player.

Al-Soulah realises, however, that collaboration is the key to winning big on the regional scene, particularly if regulation is working against you. To this end, Zajil is part of a consortium of three Gulf operators, which is now teaming with Vodafone to build a land-based transmission cable system to link the Middle East and Europe. Al-Soulah explains that the benefits of being involved in such a collaboration are clear both to Zajil and its customers.

“It can add more connectivity and more capacity. And it gives us the variety to use different cables. Our plan is to extend the cable to Iraq and to Turkey, so we can extend it to Europe and get bandwidth from Europe through Iraq, and to the Gulf. Usually we get it from Fujeirah [in the UAE] to the North,” he says.

The 100G fibre-optic system, to be named the Middle East-Europe Terrestrial System (MEETS), was actually the result of another region-wide project aimed at bringing together the Middle East’s surplus energy resources and reselling the electricity to other regions, the GCCIA electrical grid, according to Al-Soulah. That project, he says, required a fibre-optic network, so, for the operators involved in the MEETS consortium, it provided a strong opportunity to benefit from an infrastructure that was already going to be built.

The idea, he explains, is to enable better bandwidth across the region, and not only to bring better services to Zajil’s home country of Kuwait. He believes that it is Zajil’s duty, as a large ISP, to embark upon projects that will enable better ties between GCC countries, as this will ultimately benefit customers across the region.

Such is the thinking behind Al-Soulah’s attitudes towards announcements that Kuwait is on the cusp of creating an independent telecoms regulator. He believes that the new government body — which, at the time of writing, was still unannounced — has a great opportunity to bring new levels of connectivity between the Gulf and other territories. What’s more, he believes that Kuwait can become the hub at the centre of it all.

“We hope that this organisation will have a clear vision that can really help the market to be competitive in the region. We need to open the transit facility and make it attractive. We have good bandwidth in Kuwait, and we can deliver it to Iran and Iraq on transit, and we can attract other countries to use Kuwait as a gateway. This is our objective and hopefully the TRA will have the same vision to make Kuwait very attractive as a transit hub in the region.” he says.

However, Al-Soulah does not mince any words when cautioning that the new government body should be made up of carefully chosen people. “Hopefully they select a good management team to handle this TRA. Otherwise it will be like any government body — slow,” he says.

Al-Soulah also claims that governments around the region are too slow in their adoption of cutting-edge technologies, and that businesses such as Zajil rely too heavily on large customers from the aviation, banking and logistics industries. That said, Zajil has begun working with a number of regional governments, Al-Soulah says.

“We are working, slowly, and we are targeting the wider GCC with e-government. We already signed with four countries to connect all GCC countries’ e-government applications. This is one of our targets. Hopefully we can expand it more and more, so the benefit comes to the people in the region to improve the services between the countries,” he explains.

Until Kuwait’s parliament makes any major announcements, however, Zajil will have to carry on in much the same way. For Al-Soulah, that means developing the company’s portfolio of cloud offerings, as well as improving its data centre and MPLS services. The only issue, however, is that competition is fierce in Kuwait, with several ISPs competing over a small cake. Indeed, Al-Soulah says that the differentiation in price is now negligible, meaning that service providers now need to ensure they deliver high-quality services to keep customers on board.

“We are all competing on a small cake in the market, but the customers are becoming very selective. Users really prefer quality and they have flexibility to move from one to another. Whoever provides good services will survive,” he says.

Al-Soulah believes that Zajil is well-placed to meet its enterprise customers’ demands, as it has spent years building out a top-end infrastructure across the region. And even if Kuwait’s new regulator does not open up the market as he would like, Al-Soulah has plans to expand further into the MENA region. He already has eyes on Libya.

“Now I believe Libya is ready for investment, and we are already working on a big investment in Libya to connect it to the region and to provide local ISP services in the country. We are also considering other countries in North Africa, like Morocco and Algeria,” he explains.

Wherever Zajil next sets up shop, it will most likely still push to create long-standing ties between other territories and its home country. Whether Kuwait’s new TRA sees things the same way, however, remains to be seen.

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