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Since being named as Group CEO of Ooredoo in November 2015, Sheikh Saud Bin Nasser Al Thani has infused the regional leader with a new sense of impetus and fresh energy. With the company serving more than 133 million customers as of September 2016, Sheikh Saud has challenged Ooredoo's operations to deliver and sustain data experience leadership across its markets and help more people get the most from the internet.

In an exclusive interview with Telecom Review, we sat with Sheikh Saud and spoke about the challenges facing operators in the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia, as well as Ooredoo's plans for delivering a digital future.

Looking at the state of the industry at the moment, how do you assess the communications sector and its prospects?
This is an exciting time for the communications sector. We are in the middle of a generational shift in customer behaviour and technological progression. Telecoms and digital are converging very rapidly, and customers need operators to support their digital lifestyles.

Such a period of change presents operators with both challenges and opportunities, in terms of changing our business models, ensuring our networks are advanced enough to support our customers, and finding sustainable ways to monetize data.

For Ooredoo, these are all opportunities that we have embraced - transforming our company into a data experience leader, ensuring network leadership in every market that we operate in, and ensuring that our organization is agile enough to keep ahead of changing market demand.

Despite some of the economic pressures we've seen over the year caused by shifts in the macroeconomic climate and ongoing disruption in markets like Iraq, we believe we're entering 2017 better placed than ever to deliver real value to our customers and shareholders.

When you look back over your first year as Group CEO of Ooredoo, what stands out as the major achievements?
When I became Group CEO, I was already very familiar with the breadth and diversity of Ooredoo's operations, and I think what impressed me most was the leadership qualities you could see in every market. We made substantial changes to the way we operate in 2016, and set some very ambitious targets, but time and again our people rose to challenge.

We refined our strategy and operating model over the year, with our LEAD strategy encouraging ambition across the Ooredoo Group. The LEAD strategy drives our OpCos to grow revenue faster than their markets by becoming "data experience leaders", and by developing new revenue streams in B2B, fixed and digital.

The strategy also helped to inculcate a Performance Culture, where we empowered teams to pursue excellence within their own markets, and introduce efficient models to improve our profitability and margins through improved efficiencies of scale.

What support did Ooredoo Group provide to help operations achieve these goals?
To support our data experience leadership, the Group has provided some key resources, including a clear and consistent brand, video-grade smart networks, great content and mobile apps that enhance the digital experience. We're also working to digitize our customer interactions, creating more opportunities for self-care and self-service in order to enable more people to enjoy the internet.

This focus on delivering data leadership is already showing returns for our stakeholders. Data revenue increased to 39% of Group revenue in the first nine months of 2016, and I think we've shown that Ooredoo is one of the companies that are taking the lead in data monetization.

To deliver the best data experience, you need to provide the best networks, and I think this is another area where we've made real progress in 2016. Ooredoo now provides 4G networks in eight of our ten markets, and we've launched 4G+ in Qatar, Oman and Kuwait.

As more people spend more time online, and particularly as the internet of things universe grows and adds more devices to the network, these advanced networks provide the foundation to offer the best data experience.

What are the challenges that you've faced over the year?
Like every operator, we're facing up to the challenges of working in a changing industry. The emergence of new business models, such as the over-the-top sector, the new cost models and changes to roaming fees and spectrum costs continue to challenge our industry.

Plus, Ooredoo operates in some tough environments. A number of our markets continued to see significant instability in 2016, such as Iraq, but I'm very proud of the way the team at Asiacell continue to rise to the challenges. We've also seen some economic fallout due to the impact of the depressed oil price and some challenges created by currency volatility throughout the year.

We also operate in competitive markets, which have seen a number of new entrants during the year and where we've seen strong price competition.

However, by rising above these challenges, we're able to deliver real market leadership. You only get better by facing tougher tests, and I think the Ooredoo team really demonstrated their capabilities to do that in 2016. 

So, how will Ooredoo try to sustain data experience leadership, given the competitive environment?
Ooredoo has been developing its strategy to compete and excel in the digital and data space for some time, and we are now well-positioned to leverage some very attractive opportunities.

We have leading data networks across our markets, with 4G and 4G+, as well as great fiber services, plus we've really expanded our portfolio of digital services in 2016. This has included a huge expansion in mobile video consumption across our markets - many of our customers use their devices as their primary channel for entertainment - and we now have both the flicker-free network quality and digital library to support this change in customer behaviour.

Plus, we're moving beyond mobile. Throughout 2016, we expanded the range of ICT, fixed line and internet of things services to provide a comprehensive portfolio for businesses. By deploying the strength of our networks, we're able to work as a digital enterprise enabler - making it easier for companies to do business digitally.

How successful has Ooredoo been in moving into the business services space?
Overall, Group B2B revenue increased to 17% of Group Revenue or QAR 4.1 billion by the end of Q3 2016, reflecting Ooredoo's ongoing investment in services for business customers.

Beneath those impressive figures are a host of success stories of companies whose business growth was enabled through Ooredoo's focus on business services.

As a result of our network leadership, Ooredoo is able to offer a suite of advanced business services, particularly in emerging areas like the internet of things, along with the expertise to deploy them effectively. Our IoT Connect solution gives companies total control over their inventory, enabling them to make their organizations more profitable, flexible and customer-friendly - regardless of their size or focus. Not only will companies be able to realize their potential, but it will also help them create new business opportunities.

Additionally, Ooredoo has long-standing links with companies across our footprint, from the largest enterprises to small local businesses, which enables us to be a "one-stop-shop" for all IT services. Customers can come to Ooredoo's highly trained specialists and seek everything from connectivity to data centres, through to full system integration services.

How is Ooredoo enhancing its network to support this vision?
2016 was a busy year for our technology teams across our footprint and we are set to realize some significant benefits from this activity this year.

We completed our network modernization program across all ten of operations and continue to expand our networks to accommodate exponential data growth. We launched 4G LTE in Myanmar, Indonesia, the Maldives and Tunisia, and began to rollout 4G LTE in Algeria. We also launched 4G+ in Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar, and began to rollout in Indonesia and Tunisia. We now have fixed networks in six operations and we upgraded our global internet capacity and increased the number of destinations reached with four new undersea cables.

To help transform our network architecture to support next generation infrastructure, we introduced our UNIFY strategy across all operations in 2016 and saw significant benefits. We have implemented leading-edge NFV technology, which helped to reduce the challenges created by legacy systems.

What company changes did you have to make to adapt to tougher market conditions during the year?
We made a number of changes, and these were driven by the need to stay ahead of the market rather than in direct response to market conditions. 

So, we had a major focus on efficiencies throughout 2016, delivering significant savings through centralized group purchasing, infrastructure-sharing and group-level support for refinancing arrangements. In addition, we continued the divestment of non-core assets in order to better align our group portfolio, including wi-Tribe Pakistan in March 2016.

We brought in new management with strong track records at both Group and OpCo level, with a new Group management team and new CEOs in four out of ten operations. We optimized headcount at our headquarters, delivering around $US 40 million directly to the bottom line.

All of these efficiencies have ensured that we're starting 2017 in excellent shape and ready to face the challenges ahead.

In terms of network modernization, are you going to continue to try to stay at the cutting-edge of services? You've said you're testing 5G in some markets.
We have begun 5G testing in some markets, most recently demonstrating 5G capabilities in Ooredoo's 5G laboratory in Qatar, completing trials for speed and latency, and achieving incredible speeds of nearly 36 GB per second. We also showcased the potential of 5G services with a live demonstration of 5G-enabled robotics at Ooredoo's headquarters in Doha for Qatar National Day.

In every market, we're looking to provide the best network experience for our customers. However, our approach is very much to build smart networks that provide the best coverage where our customers need it most. Certainly, throughout 2016, we've looked to ensure that network investment is delivering real returns for our customers, and we've delivered speed upgrades as and when compatible devices are available in the market.  We're going to continue this approach in 2017 and beyond.

You pursued an ambitious growth strategy over the past decade, buying controlling stakes in operations in the Middle East and Africa, and launching new operations in Oman and Myanmar. Will you continue to expand through acquisition and which markets are you looking at next?
We have made very successful acquisitions over the past ten years and have successfully rolled out the Ooredoo brand in the majority of our markets. It is now time to consolidate our position by focusing on operational speed, execution excellence and robust performance management. Our diverse portfolio is part of the unique strength of Ooredoo, with a balanced mix between mature (Qatar, Oman, Kuwait) and emerging markets (Indonesia, Myanmar, Algeria), and we want to get the most from that portfolio.

We will continue to examine opportunities as they arise and as they fit with our prudent growth strategy, but our real area of focus now with the LEAD strategy is driving organic growth across our operations.

You mentioned the importance of clear branding. When you launched the "Ooredoo" brand back in 2013, there was some doubt in the market that the brand would translate for customers. What benefits has the brand delivered and, looking back, do you think it's been positive overall?
The Ooredoo brand has really emerged as one of our best assets. We've now rolled out the brand in most of our markets, and it was ranked as the top ten most valuable brands in the MENA region in 2016, according the "Brand Finance Middle East 50" report. Ooredoo's brand value has consistently increased since we began to rollout the Ooredoo brand in February 2013. Over those three years, we saw a 169% increase in the estimated brand value, which the report calculates at US $2.1 billion in 2016. The report also said that, with our AA+ brand rating, Ooredoo is the strongest telecoms brand in the region.

In addition, we've benefited from significant economies of scale and expanded reach with our shared brand. Joint programs such as Ooredoo's "Fans Do Wonders" were seen by more than 13 million YouTube viewers - a new record for the company. We've expanded community programs, such as our Mobile Health Clinics initiative with the Leo Messi Foundation, as global programs under the Ooredoo brand - so it has delivered social good as well as economic benefits.

What are the other areas where you see Ooredoo making an impact?
I'm very proud of our corporate social responsibility programs, both at a Group level and across our footprint. Ooredoo operations are very active in their local communities and we are increasingly deploying the power of our networks to give people access to the services and support what they need.

So, throughout the year and across our operations, we have supported a number of initiatives to help our communities. We have pledged to support the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (Global Goals), which aim to eradicate poverty and improve the lives of people, with a particular focus on good health, gender equality and innovation.

At a Group level, we organized our Stand for Good competition in 2016, which saw 780,000 users visited Ooredoo's dedicated gaming microsite and more than 14,000 players take part. The campaign brought international attention to Ooredoo's CSR initiatives, including its work with the Leo Messi Foundation on the Mobile Health Clinic program, which provides healthcare services for remote areas in Indonesia, Myanmar, Algeria and Tunisia, as well as CSR activities in areas including empowering women, helping refugees and educating youth.

In addition, we support an initiative in Myanmar that's made a real impact called 'MayMay', which is an excellent example of the direct contribution mobile technology can make to improve people's lives. MayMay is Myanmar's first mobile app for maternal and child health, which is bridging the mobile and health sectors to help ensure that a wealth of useful maternal, child health and wellness information is readily available to women across the country both during and after pregnancy. There is a fast-growing demand for the service, which is a great example of the benefits of having a mobile phone in today's digital world.

Achieving gender equality through the empowerment of women is another key area for Ooredoo, and one that sits at the heart of our corporate culture. Our companies provide a range of award-winning services for women in markets ranging from Iraq to Indonesia, bringing more women online, boosting national GDP and helping create fair and equal access. Indosat Ooredoo's Wobe (short for 'Women Benefit'), a micro-business app with e-wallet, was developed precisely with that vision. By facilitating access to mobile phones and improving financial literacy and business skills, Wobe's ultimate goal is to empower women in Southeast Asia and provide them with new opportunities.

In Iraq, Asiacell is working with Ericsson and the International Rescue Committee for a "Connect to Learn" project in Iraq to support refugees and internally-displaced children. The project uses a cloud-based ICT platform, Connect to Learn, made accessible on a 3G internet provided by Asiacell, to support the professional development of teachers in schools for refugee children. Through this technology, teachers have access to teacher training materials that have been developed or curated by the International Rescue Committee, which are aimed at helping teachers to create safe, quality learning environments.

These kinds of projects, which bring our drive to provide the best data experience together with our commitment to helping our communities, really bring out the best in Ooredoo's people, and I'm keen that we continue to expand and support these projects in 2017 and beyond.

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