Interview with
Raed Kayal,

Former CEO of GO

Let's Go!

Go! is a decidedly apt name for a company run by engineer Raed Kayal, who graduated as a Bachelor in electrical engineering at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, and ever since has been at the forefront of introducing and developing new technologies in KSA. After a ten-year stint working for AT&T and its successor Lucent, Kayal left the company and started a consultancy agency with a group of investors, offering Saudi engineering talent to companies and operators for 2 years. He then joined Globetel – a joint venture of a US company with a Saudi partner – that offered consultancy services to STC, Nokia and Ericsson. Says Kayal: “We were the first to bring wireless technology to KSA, installing it first in Riyadh. This venture was very successful and we basically set the rules of the game, including for such issues as pricing, which are still prevalent today in the country.”

But blood is thicker than water, and Kayal's entrepreneurial zeal drove him on to grab other opportunities: “After three years, I left and with some friends, we started our own ISP. We didn't try to compete in the mass consumer market, but targeted individual businesses. We were and still are the exclusive ISP for the Kingdom Tower, for example, providing ICT solutions for all its inhabitants and businesses including the Four Seasons hotel.”

Not satisfied with that line of business, Kayal went on and again set up in consultancy, this time around deploying the first wifi network and kiosks with touch screens of KSA in Jeddah – an operation which covered 30,000 m² of outdoors space. Next he introduced the first RFID network, for the Saudi postal services, before diverting from technology to business by starting the first VIP business club in KSA - the Venue Executive Club - offering service offices and meeting facilities. The club is still up and running in Jeddah today.

Finally, he joined the board of new operator Atheeb on June 13th 2009 – at launch of the company – to support the management with his experience. “Atheeb is the second fixed line operator to be licensed after STC's monopoly ended. 2009 was not the best moment to launch a telecoms operator, yet we started in 11 cities simultaneously instead of the 5 required by the license.”

Atheeb quickly made a name for itself by offering two innovative concepts: “First, we introduced the first plug&play product to Saudi Arabia: you buy the connection, take it home and start using it straight away – you don't have to wait for weeks until we get you connected. For that purpose, we use the Ymax technology, which only requires a base station rather than laying cables as in fibre optic technology. This allowed us to enter the market and capture a share of it much quicker. And secondly, we offer our nomadic service: you acquire one phone number which you keep for the rest of your life, and which you can take along to any city in the kingdom – in the long term, this will become a global service.”

The latter concept is very well suited to women starting their own business. Says Kayal: “It allows them to start a business online with a phone number which is purely used for business purposes. Even when they get married and move to another city, the number stays with them and there is no interruption or need to inform clients of a new location or new coordinates.”

Apart from its financial success, Kayal is also proud of other achievements of the company: “First, we have a very young population which soon will grow up and need services which they will find installed and ready when the time comes for them to start a family and a business. Secondly, we have almost 70% saudisation in the company; we picked up a good amount of bright Saudis including women to work together as one team. This is a very high rate in the sector and another investment which will pay off for the country in the near future.”

And speaking of financial results, Atheeb is doing just fine. Says Kayal: “In 2010, we raised revenues by 11% while reducing net cost by 9%, and this trend will continue as we move from being a start-up company to streamlining operations and establishing best procedures. We are about to raise $160 million new capital by issuing our second IPO.”

Light unto the nation

Nour Communications, one of the largest Saudi contractors in communications technology, is part of the Astra group; itself ranked nr 39 in the Fortune 100 of KSA. General manager Paulo Servo explains the company's activities: “We work with manufacturers such as Lucent and AT&T. We install their material and link it up to create the networks. We have the largest fleet of specialised equipment in the region and over the years have worked for many different clients, including Aramco, Mobily, STC and Zain as well as data operators such as ITC. Right now we are involved in a major defence project, which we are finishing ahead of time. Military contracts are always good business, with clients who know what they want, which usually involves having their own parallel network set up.”

Nour works both on the operating and contracting side, having acquired and sold data licenses and worked with satellite transmission, mobile and fixed lines. The company also has its own mobile provider, Nournet. Says Servo, who has built up thirty years' worth of experience working in KSA: “If you are dedicated, you can achieve a lot in this part of the world, but you have to be proactive and act rather than talk. To put it bluntly:
money talks, bullshit walks. As for Nour, we have expanded a lot and are now in the process of consolidating our market share. At the same time, however, we are looking to diversify into installing pipelines for water, irrigation, sewage and storm water pipes, recycling circuits as well as landlines, electricity lines etcetera – we are investing in new equipment for those areas.”

Today is as good a time as any for companies to come and set up in KSA, Servo contends: “Right now, manufacturing is a good proposition here - there are 3 cable manufacturers in KSA, but most other components for transmission equipment still need to be imported. For contracting, demand continues to outstrip supply, as it has done here since time immemorial. But the real promising areas for foreign companies to invest in are electricity generation and water desalination, where supply is always short and demand will always keep rising.”

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