Coffee With: Hatem Dowidar, group CEO of e&
Coffee With: Hatem Dowidar (LinkedIn), group CEO of e& (formerly Etisalat): Hatem Dowidar joined the UAE’s largest telecoms operator as its COO in 2015, becoming its international CEO the following year, and Group CEO in 2020. In the two years since, the company’s market value has increased by more than 150%, while Forbes Middle East named Dowidar #16 in its 2022 ranking of the region’s top 100 CEOs.
Dowidar was at the helm for the rebranding of the company earlier this year as e&, which saw it split into telecoms provider etisalat by e&, e& international, consumer services branch e& life, investment arm e& capital, and e& enterprise as the company repositions itself as a global tech player.
ENTERPRISE: Etisalat was a known name. It had brand equity, particularly in the UAE, but had emerged as a clear Mideast-born telecoms operator with a clear business proposition. Why the shift in strategy? What does it mean to become a global tech and investment company?
HATEM DOWIDAR: We're a 46-year-old company that, like many others in our industry, has seen the telecoms market reach saturation around the world. Almost in parallel, we've all seen these tiny companies that sprung up in Silicon Valley 25 years ago start to compete. Once, they were tiny compared to even the smallest telcos. Today, they've become giants and the telcos are still largely where they are: stagnant. That's not e&. We've done things differently since our foundation and as the business landscape underwent unprecedented changes, we embraced a progressive outlook to seek ways to transform into a global technology and investment conglomerate early this year.
Our performance in the first half of the year demonstrates our resilience as we drive value from our core, focus on diversification, further digitalize and develop innovative solutions, build stronger regional adjacencies organically and through M&A. This year alone, we've taken massive strides in entering strategic partnerships and made several acquisitions for future business growth, driven by our commitment to providing innovative solutions for the benefit of our customers and offering long-term sustainable investments for our investors.
E: So that was the catalyst? The rise of Planet Startup?
HD: Yeah. What these companies offer are services that we call “over the top” services they can offer on top of anybody's infrastructure. Ours or others. What we've set out to do is design a suite of services that we can offer to any customer. To customers who are buying our connectivity, sure. But also to people who are getting their connectivity elsewhere. We planted the first seeds of this with our enterprise services, pushing into the internet of things (IoT) and cloud services. We started building our own data centers and selling capacity on these data centers.
E: What was the turning point?
HD: It was the pandemic. It was a great catalyst for us to rethink our business model. At first, we thought we were fortunate to be a defensive industry in the middle of the pandemic. If you were in aviation or hospitality, you really suffered. If you were in medical supplies, you did amazing. For us, as a telco, we found that there were fewer people out in the streets and in offices using their mobiles — but they needed a lot more broadband as they started working remotely, studying remotely, and so on.
As a defensive industry, we managed to deliver solid numbers in the middle of the pandemic, but we started thinking. The whole process of adapting to new ways of thinking, of working remotely — it was a catalyst for us to step back and say, "Right, what do we want to do in our next phase?"
I mean, the regulators opened up voice-over-IP, opened Zoom, opened Teams, and a dozen other apps. We realized that the pandemic was a stimulus, that it was changing the ground beneath our feet, and we wanted to be ahead of it rather than being reactive.
Hence the realigning of our business operations by creating business pillars (etisalat by e&, e& international, e& life, e& enterprise) and our investment arm, e& capital. Our overarching promise is increased smart connectivity, more digital products, innovative tech platforms, and a more seamless customer experience. Most importantly, our commitment is to remain agile and continuously adjust gears in our shareholders' and customers' best interests.
E: So the future is a business that combines the steady dividends of a utility with the growth prospects of a tech company?
HD: Absolutely. The telco industry was being commoditized — our goal was to pivot beyond that. There's a limit to how many gigabytes and minutes you can sell as a telco. But to become a technology company that's at the forefront of advancement and that creates a lot more value? That has the dividend stream of a utility but the growth prospects of a tech player? That's the best of both worlds — for our customers, our shareholders, and our people. That's why we're transforming from a regional telecom into a global tech company.
E: Why was it necessary to change the name? Why "e&”?
HD: It's more than just a name change. We knew we needed to signal to the world, to our staff, and to ourselves as a leadership team that we're becoming something different. It was to signal the magnitude of the change. It denotes that, yeah, you have our traditional telecom business Etisalat, but there's lots more coming into play. “Etisalat” in Arabic means connectivity, which was fitting for our role as a telco. However, with our progression into the digital space, we now provide more than just traditional connectivity. The name e& is a reflection of our ambition to push boundaries, accomplish more, and be well-positioned for the future.
E: What are your investment priorities right now?
HD: I think what we're doing with e& enterprise is particularly interesting. We're investing in three key areas: cloud, cybersecurity, loT, and Al.
In the cloud, it's all about the growth of our data centers and platforms as we help more companies move away from their own hardware and into the cloud and play a leading role in customer cloud transformation, including for our government clients, large-scale corporates, and enterprises.
Moving customers towards the cloud brings forward the need to step up cybersecurity, so in addition to our own resources, we've recently acquired Help AG, a leading
regional provider that is headquartered here in Dubai. It's a full acquisition and has helped us deepen our offering already trusted by some of the most demanding clients in the region — banks, governments, and major corporates.
We've focused our Al and loT efforts on helping governments and enterprises elevate to data-driven and highly automated organizations. Recently, we fully acquired Smartworld, one of the UAE's leading systems integrators, and formed a new company called e& enterprise iot & ai which will act as the vehicle for the loT and Al organization.
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