Ali Al-Zahid, CEO of Zain Iraq is confident that the youth-centric operator’s digital investments will pave the way for a brighter future for the company as well as the country’s economy.
Under the leadership of the youngest Zain CEO ever, Ali Al Zahid, Zain Iraq is taking fast strides into the digital era. Backed by a youth-centric approach and extreme optimism about the potential of Iraqi youths and Iraqi economy, the operator has made several significant investments in revamping the network infrastructure of the country par excellence.
“We are ensuring to introduce the best equipment when it comes to telecommunications in Iraq. We are working closely with leading technology companies like Nokia, Huawei and Ericsson,” Al Zahid says. Nokia has modernised and expanded Zain Iraq's radio networks with its advanced technologies across Karbala, Najaf and Basra, with a special focus on the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, to support the expected increase in data and voice traffic during the holy Zeyara as millions of people converge on the region. The upgrade allows users to enjoy improved indoor and outdoor coverage in both urban and rural areas as well as increased data throughput, leading to an overall superior customer experience. Al Zahid explains that the network infrastructure of Mecca was taken as an example for this ambitious project and the results have been great.
In another very interesting and bold development, Zain Iraq took up the challenge to rebuild the entire network infrastructure for Anbar and Mosul after these two governorates were completely destroyed in the war. The operator has also worked with Nokia in the south of Iraq to modernise the networks in Najaf and Karbala. In partnership with Huawei, Zain Iraq rebuilt the whole network in Kurdistan. Al Zahid says: “Kurdistan is a region where we do not have the biggest market share since we were the last to get the permission to build our infrastructure there. However, now, we are the fastest growing operator there, with the best ever network in Kurdistan.”
Zain Iraq has also been instrumental in rebuilding the network infrastructure and ensuring that the newly liberated regions of Anbar and Mosul receive excellent data coverage in terms of 3G. “Without waiting for compensation, we have invested and rebuilt the entire network infrastructure. The investment was around $46 million for one region and for the other region we have already invested $30 million,” Al Zahid says, adding “We are hoping to receive some support from the Government as an acknowledgment and appreciation for these efforts.”
The investments have paid off for the operator in terms of increased market share and growing revenue gap between Zain Iraq and its competition, Al Zahid says. “People prefer us as we have more advanced services on the ground.”
Iraq market is definitely not what would comprise a “favourable economy”. In addition to the challenges which telecom operators worldwide face in terms of increasing customer churn, decreasing voice revenues, search for alternative revenue streams, the Iraqi operators also have to battle issues like political instability, war situation, and lack of adequate power sources. That multiplies the efforts needed from the operators to ensure an uninterrupted network connectivity for their customers.
Another highlight of Iraqi market is the high population of young people, who are consistently on the lookout for new and innovative digital services, and are not exactly the ones to be pleased easily. Al Zahid says: “50% of the Iraqi population is below 25 and this requires our approach to be youth centric too. The opportunity for us that we are dealing with a very open-minded population that is hungry and open for new services especially digital services.”
He adds that thriving in the Iraqi market is not easy and the approach that might work in many other countries might fail here. According to him, what’s needed are strategies that transcend PowerPoint presentations into ground realities. “The Iraqi market requires that you actually implement what you have put on PowerPoint. That requires to have people on board with a hands-on approach, who are willing to go the extra mile. The standard solutions sometimes don’t work in Iraq and you need to be very agile and very flexible. It’s a 24 hour job and requires to do a lot of things out of the box.”
The question that arises here is how the young CEO manages the multitude of challenging situations. “The challenge that telcos have around the globe is that many a times, they handle the business in an old fashioned manner and if they continue to do so, there will be no telco in the future,” Al Zahid says. “We are in a very competitive market and missing opportunities means that you can lose significant market shares, I think such a scenario calls for people on the board with a digital perspective, who are willing to take risks.”
Al Zahid lays the maximum emphasis on few factors like the right hiring, complete clarity and understanding with the shareholders, a belief in the future of the economy and most importantly the confidence to take risks even though things might go wrong at times.
In terms of hiring, the CEO makes sure there is a diverse mix of people at work- people with experience, people brimming with creative ideas, people willing to take risks, people who are experts in their fields and show us the way forward.
In terms of shareholders, Al Zahid believes as a CEO, it’s very important to maintain a close line of communication with the shareholders including Zain Group and its executive management team. He emphasises that having an experienced leader like Mohammed Al Charchafchi as chairman and a visionary like Bader Al Kharafi as the vice chairman (who is also the Zain Group CEO) makes it things easier for the operator, since they are believers in trying new things, taking risks, making bold moves and succeeding.
The last two to three years have been extremely unfortunate for Iraq considering the war situation and accompanies instability and loss of infrastructure. The country lost two governorates to terrorists and luckily regained these governorates again. This brought with it an enormous impact on the revenues of the operator in ways more than one. Network infrastructure was destroyed, shops were shut down, people lost jobs and spending power was terribly impacted with that. Al Zahid says how instead of being discouraged with the unfortunate turn of events, the operator made efforts to rebuild the lost infrastructure to restore connectivity(3G) for its customers. “It was a very big investment and this also shows how much dedication we have as a company and how much faith we have in the future of the country. With a population base of 35 million, most of whom are youths, this country definitely has a big potential though at times conditions are different from what we wish for.”
Al Zahid further adds that contrary to what would be expected of most organisations during such a time of crisis, Zain Iraq didn’t lay off any of its employees, in the war-torn regions of the country and made sure all of them kept getting their salaries for a long time after that.
As the operator was trying to overcome the losses, it had to bear the brunt of additional taxes imposed by the government, which took a further toll on the revenues, Al Zahid says. He adds that it’s essential for the Government to involve companies like Zain Iraq in discussions that affect the economy, given the fact that these companies make a significant contribution to the GDP of the country and are playing a crucial role in the rebuild of the economy.
Al Zahid points out that Zain Group and other Zain Iraq shareholders have invested over US$5 billion in rolling out mobile services in Iraq since grant of operating licence in May 2003.
In order to counter the revenue loss due to taxes and wars, Zain Iraq resorted to the search for alternative revenue streams. Considering the huge proportion of youth population, it has put in place a special unit to focus on digital innovation. Al Zahid says: “Zain Iraq is among the leaders in terms of digital revenues across all Zain operations and this is because we have invested a lot of resources not just in terms of finances, but also in terms of dedication and skillsets.”
Another area where the operator has its focus on is gaming, which is picking up at quite a fast pace. In addition, the operator tries to ensure new technologies are introduced in Iraq not quite late than when they are introduced in other parts of Middle East. It makes us happy because we can see a bright future for this place,” he adds.
In terms of broadband connectivity, the operator has invested significantly in 3G and is now expecting the regulators to facilitate 4G in the next 12-18 months.
As a young operator, Zain Iraq has been constantly engaged in efforts to drive youth engagement via social media and other platforms. Al Zahid shares an instance, when the operator conducted a Facebook campaign inviting customers to pitch in ideas for a TV ad for a new data bundle it was planning to launch. “We were amazed by the number of ads received as well as the creativity. We were pleasantly surprised at how many people were actively visiting our Facebook site, seeing the ads, liking and sharing the posts,” Al Zahid says. The winning entry for this came from a group of four Iraqi youths, who not only got to have their ad on TV but also availed a training at the operator’s creative agency.
In another instance, a 27 year old girl expressed her two-fold wish list on the operator’s Facebook page. She wanted a jar of Nutella and the chance to do a trainee job at Zain Iraq. She not only had her Nutella jar couriered to her; she was also invited for an interview with the executive management, following which, she was offered a trainee job.
“It’s required for us to be in touch and stay transparent in our operations,” Al Zahid says. He adds that he regularly sees the company’s Facebook page and even replies to customers’ comments when required. Having started his career as a call centre agent when he was a student, Al Zahid understands the importance of staying connected to the customer base at all points.
To encourage entrepreneurship, Zain Iraq also organises start-up weekends wherein youths are invited to pitch in their ideas. If selected, the operator tries to play the role of an investor as well as the apt link between the creative talents and the best in the industry, hence paving the way for them to go ahead.
When as CCO, Al-Zahid launched a multi-faceted marketing campaign dubbed “Hassa Eliya,” (Now for Me). The ground-breaking marketing initiative focused on inspiring and empowering young Iraqi talent by encouraging them to explore their potential and skills, and equipping them with the necessary tools to help achieve their goals.
The first initiative utilised in the programme was a specially created “Hassa Eliya” Facebook page that served as a platform for young Iraqis to voice their ambitions and which showcased a newly produced television commercial, which garnered an impressive five million views in its first 72 hours of release. Some six months later, this viewership number had increased to 16 million with 70 million impressions, with a total engagement that exceeded 550,000 young Iraqis inside the country and from around the globe.
Upon being asked what his most notable achievement has been as the CEO of Zain Iraq, Al Zahid says the ability to lead the organisation and gaining the trust of everyone on board and to gain market-share from its competitors for three quarters in a row has been the biggest highlight.
Al Zahid says: “I have grown up in a telco background, from starting as a call centre agent to being responsible for sales to being the director of sales at a certain point of time, to being the chief commercial officer. Because of me our company is very commercially oriented unlike many other operators who might not necessarily have a CEO with a commercial background.
“There’s a time when someone with finance background should lead a company, there are times when someone with commercial background should lead the company. Our situation now demands a commercially driven approach.”
Al Zahid believes in leading by example. “I can’t ask my people to go to Mosul and do a customer acquisition tour if I am not willing to be with them. It’s required to have right leaders with dedication and role models to the organisation. I have learnt from such people than those who might have a lot of theoretical knowledge without the right attitude.”
In terms of sales, Zain Iraq is working with several partners on the ground. It has re-modernised all its shops in Iraq, not just in terms of aesthetics but also in terms of competencies of the people working there. “The right people to drive sales at shops are not necessarily ones with fancy degrees; they are the ones who like to work with people, who are communicative and sales oriented,” Al Zahid says.
In the times to come, Zain Iraq is determined to strive towards being the best youth-centric and digital operator. The operator plans to carry on with digital investments, hire the right people, engage the youth and appeal to the masses for its ability to take risks and make things happen.
ALI AL-ZAHID: IN PROFILE
An Austrian national with Iraqi roots, Al-Zahid held the position of CCO of Zain Iraq since June 2015 before being promoted as the CEO in January 2017. Prior to that, he had joined the organisation as director of sales in September 2013.
Al-Zahid brings to the table 17 years of extensive experience with international telecom operators including Orange Austria, O2 Germany (Telefonica), and Zain Iraq. He also has experience in management consultancy, having worked with two European based firms for five years. Al-Zahid combines broad and in depth experience in organisational leadership and development, brand, marketing and commercial strategies in fast growing telecom markets across Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Ali Al-Zahid graduated with MSc in Management & Communication, from Danube University Krems (Austria) in 2004 and is currently part of the TRIUM Global Executive MBA with the London School of Economics, HEC Paris and NYU Stern.