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Telecom Review conducted its first virtual panel for 2023, titled “Go Saudi With Zain,” on February 21.

In the panel, moderated by Elias Saab, chief commercial officer at Sofrecom Group, esteemed speakers Eng. Saad A. Al-Sadhan, chief business and wholesale officer, Zain KSA, and Yi Lian, CMO of META region and hybrid cloud at Alibaba, discussed at length the dynamics of a winning cloud strategy, including the Market Place (Go Saudi) Ecosystem, time to market, governance compliance, market insights and a full range of information on establishing well-rounded cloud services in Saudi Arabia.

Focus on ICT Developments and ‘Market Place’

Responding to the moderator’s question on Zain’s involvement in the development of a thriving digital ecosystem as part of Saudi Vision 2030 and the unique offerings of Zain’s Market Place in terms of Software as a Service (SaaS) packages and other benefits, Eng. Saad A. Al-Sadhan said, “Saudi Arabia is focusing a lot on the ICT market that is booming, along with the largest investments in MENA Region. All investments are estimated to be over $30 billion, so it is not something small. One of the main pillars of Saudi Vision 2030 is digital transformation.”

It is said that there are multiple items that will come together to fulfill the digital transformation in order to take us to Saudi’s vision, including hierarchy and the specific movement towards this vision.

Al-Sadhan explained, “the government recently initiated the Cloud First Policy which focuses mainly on the data, localization, and data residency to avoid data migration outside the country because data is very sensitive information that we have to put it in the vault to make sure that it is secured and it is all about the data access and penetration. So therefore, at Zain KSA, we invested in the cloud business three or four years ago with Alibaba, and our aim was very clear: to build the local node with dual redundancy in Saudi, so we built one in Riyadh and one in Jeddah, and mainly, we are offering all the available solutions, like SaaS, IaaS and PaaS. On top of that, we are doing this because we are committed to add value to our customer, reduce costs, improve the performance, increase the customer agility, as well as allow the business and the customer to focus on their core competencies. And this will help them to achieve great success and their vision and KPI.”

The vision of Zain, Al-Sadhan added, focuses on SaaS, but they do present three offerings: IaaS, PaaS and SaaS. He also said that everyone is focusing on IaaS and PaaS, but SaaS is the niche market; the partnership with Alibaba is leveraging this service and offer.

He indicated also that in the last event in September, in Copenhagen, Zain initiated the “Go Saudi” project, trying to push the partners, the suppliers, and the vendors to come to Saudi and start leveraging the portfolio in the market. They also offer SaaS to multiple levels of customer size, from large enterprises and the government to SMEs. So, they have multiple offerings to fit the size of each customer and company.

He also stated, “Our development team started working on this vision, and they started working definitely with the top partners in the world and independent software vendors to attract them to come and work with us in general. So we do state-of-art Saas made with this partnership with them. We do the offering definitely over our cloud with different flavors — different package. The most important thing is to meet the customer demand. So we are covering not only international, multinational SMEs but also governmental entities. For every segment and every size, we have certain products to serve them, with certain partners looking after this sector. So the example that comes to my mind is one customer that wants to have everything in one solution. So we created something that we call “business in a box,” where we have the mail as a service, we call it Zain Mail. We have ERB as a service, we have Zain Drive, and we have Zain Calls, which is collaboration for the employee and outside.“

He added that they also do smart attendance for different types and levels of customers, where the customer can do all the attendance through a mobile application. They are doing this because there is a lot of demand in the market for such services. He highlighted the fact that they are not developing this alone, in-house, but with partners. The solution is demanding because customers want to streamline their operations and improve efficiency by leaving this job to Zain and its strong partners. This is called Customization, he explained.

Partners Benefit From Zain Cloud’s Seamless, High-Standard Services

Al-Sadhan elaborated on how their Zain Cloud offering helps global companies navigate the national cybersecurity and data regulation compliance processes.

“If you are looking from the outside, you might think it’s not easy or impossible to achieve if you’re not taking the right path,” stated Al-Sadhan.

In Saudi, the cloud-first policy is in line with the key pillars of Vision 2030 and the nationwide digital transformation efforts. Al-Sadhan explained that this policy regulation is about keeping the data inside the country, including IaaS, PaaS and SaaS, mainly for the government and large corporations. They have different corporate tiers that also aim to cover SMEs and SoHos networks.

“The main regulators responsible for overseeing compliance with such requirements as well as certifications are the Communications, Space and Technology Commission (CST) and the National Cybersecurity Authority (NCA),” added Al-Sadhan.

These regulators have established classifications and frameworks for all cloud service providers (CSPs) to ensure data safety and localization. Zain Cloud is categorized under “Class C” — the highest certification from both CST and NCA. “If you reach Class C, it provides you with all the ISOs needed to provide services to the government and large enterprises by meeting the requirements imposed by regulatory frameworks,” explained Al-Sadhan.

All of Zain Cloud’s global and regional partners can benefit from its reliable and secure services in no time, with seamless delivery and the highest standards.

Zain Cloud: A Successful SaaS Partner Case Study

Moderator Saab also asked about the importance of the relationship between Zain and Alibaba Cloud.

In context, Alibaba Cloud started in 2019, and at present, it has 86 availability zones in 28 Alibaba Cloud regions and is the third largest cloud provider by market share globally. In the Alibaba Cloud Marketplace, there are more than 2,000 technical partners in different categories.

“Nowadays, the Saudi market is becoming more and more popular, especially in tech industries, with more investments going to the digital transformation of both public and private sectors. We see the dramatic opportunities of technology partners, especially SaaS vendors, in Saudi Arabia,” expressed Yi Lian of Alibabaa.

In line with this, Lian stated that it is “the time to pave the road and lead technology partners” to the Kingdom. Zain Cloud is now powered by Alibaba Cloud’s Apsara Stack. Alibaba Cloud and Zain Cloud are working together to empower the Saudi market. With Apsara Stack, Zain Cloud provides the same stable, secure and scalable service as Alibaba Cloud’s public cloud. Alibaba Cloud’s ECS, OSS, RDS, SLB and many more such products are also offered to Zain Cloud.

“Zain Cloud is focused on partnering with SaaS vendors; with very flexible cooperation, their business is growing rapidly. We are glad to see the Zain Cloud business growing very well with the recent expansion of the data center in Jeddah,” Lian pointed out.

It will also be easier for Chinese technical partners to bring their solutions to Saudi Arabia through this partnership. Additionally, a Chinese maintenance service team is available in the office to help with troubleshooting.

“With the partnership, Zain Cloud is one of the most successful customer case studies for SaaS partners. So we can establish a very good example for other SaaS partners to go Saudi or globally, and we’re also willing to help all SaaS partners like Zain to go to the market,” concluded Lian.

Moving forward, more ISVs can leverage Alibaba Cloud’s service along with Zain’s platform to empower their businesses.

Cloud and Infrastructure as the Right Mix

Explaining how Zain Cloud and Alibaba Cloud can help international companies tap into the metaverse market, which is expected to sizably grow in 2023, Al-Sadhan said that the metaverse is trending nowadays, touching the cloud, day-to-day operations and businesses. “Zain Cloud and Alibaba Cloud offer international companies and partners a strategic opportunity. Saudi is growing in the metaverse market, as the numbers are showing. We are attracting them to jump with us using the partnership model. We believe in the partnership model for a win-win partnership, and we don’t deal with our partner as a supplier or vendor; all of our treatment is based on a partnership model,” he said.

“Currently, we have more than 25 to 30 providers, from international to regional and local companies,” Al-Sadhan added. Zain is offering different types of services to attract others and to leverage this strong cloud computing infrastructure that it has invested in for the past three years. “We have the technical expertise; we have the market access, the data localized and the regulatory framework,” he continued. International partners can enter the market with strong confidence, and achieve success in this high-potential area. In addition to the cloud, the company also emphasizes its strong infrastructure. Indeed, Zain KSA is a telecom operator that has both a cloud provision and the necessary strong infrastructure — fiber, 5G, etc.

“We invested a lot in the 5G network, launched back in 2019. It was the biggest 5G network in the region,” Al-Sadhan detailed. “Our footprint is something that we keep investing in, and we know that this will complement a lot of our cloud, which is sitting on top of a strong network technology where such technology is needed for a large-scale metaverse rollout.” Indeed, Zain has all the pillars necessary to enable the development of new technology and keep it updated.

Additionally, moderator Saab inquired about Zain KSA’s accelerator programs in terms of research and development for rolling out cloud services in record time to market. Eng. Al-Sadhan noted that Zain focuses a lot on the all-important time-to-market by pushing agility and trying to have strong partners. “In our cloud, we understand how critical this aspect is and how important it is to our customers; therefore, we have many stages,” he noted, explaining that the first stage of this program is the accelerator program, which focuses on cloud assessment and deployment, followed by the cybersecurity assessment — also very important nowadays from a regulatory standpoint. “The template is ready to be signed for this marketplace agreement with our partners, and the contribution of each party as well as the responsibility matrix is ready.”

The second stage is working closely with the partners after fulfilling all the cybersecurity needs to define the comprehensive go-to-market strategy; this focus is particularly important in order to best define the targeted customer and the value proposition. “The good thing here is our partner can leverage in our direct and indirect strong sales channel to be achieved and easy to be offered on the market, as well as providing the technical support on top of that,” Al-Sadhan explained.  

Moderator Saab noted that Alibaba is supporting the cloud part, where they have the in-house talent to help Zain in the day-to-day operations, and because all security matters and all data should be handled in-country.

Innovation and Collaboration

The moderator drove the conversation towards how Zain Cloud was helping companies drive innovation in their products and services locally.

Al-Sadhan responded by saying that when it comes to 5G, Zain KSA and Zain Cloud believe in the power of innovation and cooperation to drive success. "We don’t do it alone. Without collaboration and right innovative partners, you cannot convince the customers. Our development team works closely with all our partners to understand the needs of the market and to ensure that our service offerings create value. That is why we emphasize customization of our services. Importantly, we are focusing on cost optimization, which is aligned with our vision of ‘Zero Time to Market,’ delivery in no time as well as 24/7 support along with high-standard SLA. Without offering this service to the customers, it is difficult to consider yourself as leaders in the country."

Explaining how Zain Cloud is facilitating the evolving got-to-market (GTM) and channel ecosystem as well as marketing strategy and analysis in the Saudi market, Saad said, “The customers want to see the full ecosystem. Our Go-to-Market and channel ecosystem focuses on market research, digital marketing and customer engagement to ensure a localized marketing strategy. We have conducted comprehensive market research with new technologies such as big data and data analysis. We want to perform a marketing strategy to position our strong SaaS offering to the market. As you know, it’s a very competitive landscape, and we want to maintain strong partnerships with international as well as regional players in the country. The success of the ecosystem is the secret.”

Reemphasizing the importance of Cybersecurity framework at global standards, Al-Sadhan said that Zain Cloud follows the highest global standards so that it’s easy for the international partners to collaborate as well. "We are working closely with our partners to set up such mandatory technologies to set cybersecurity standards. We recognize the importance of the cybersecurity solutions, and we don’t see it just as a mandate from the authorities. We see it as part of our day-to-day business  and we believe in that. It’s in our DNA, and we are delivering this message to both our partners and customers,” Al-Sadhan explained. "Without having cybersecurity in place, we cannot fulfill the Saudi government’s Vision 2030 strategy of digital transformation.  Our vision for cybersecurity is playing a key role in the protection of sensitive information and assets of both company or personal data. We confirm that we adhere to a strict cybersecurity framework, which is aligned with the global standards.’ He stressed Zain's focus on continuous monitoring; regular visits from the authorities to make sure that the cybersecurity infrastructure is up-to-date; and close collaboration with industry experts and partners both locally and internationally.

As final thoughts, Al-Sadhan said, “We cannot do it alone as the market is too huge. The country is moving forward with lots of gigaprojects, which are multiple kilometers of development — metaverse, digital analysis, machine learning, artificial intelligence, IoT and so on — all looking to have it on the cloud. It is not anymore on-premise because the data demand is huge. Without the right computing elements, it is not easy to deliver on the digital transformation demands. Saudi Arabia’s fast-track mode into digital transformation is touching all the pillars of Vision 2030: quality of life, digital transformation, digital economy, investment and so on. To attract international business, we have our slogan, 'Go Saudi,’ and our ministry of investment has 'Invest in Saudi.’ So the whole country is moving towards this direction," he concluded. 

A poll was initiated at the end of the webinar with the following responses from the attendees.

Do you have an interest in extending B2B business into Saudi Arabia?

  1. Yes (77%)
  2. No (8%)
  3. Assessing the move to cloud (15%)

What type of obstacles or risks are you facing to break through into the new market?

  1. Regulatory and policies (38%)
  2. Infrastructure (19%)
  3. Technical know-how (15%)
  4. Security (27%)

What kinds of services do you provide?

  1. SAAS (50%)
  2. PAAS (4%)
  3. IOT (46%

How is your solution contributing to Saudi digital transformation?

  1. Technical support capabilities (31%)
  2. Legal and regulatory compliance (8%)
  3. Cybersecurity (0%)
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