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From leading 5G infrastructure development in Kuwait and three other markets to pioneering the concept of Tower sale and leaseback across the region, as well as achieving an ‘A-’ score in the ‘CDP Score Report – Climate Change 2023’ for the third year in a row, staying ahead of the curve and pushing boundaries with sustainability at the core, are things that are deeply rooted in Zain’s DNA.

The Group’s overall and particularly its highly profitable flagship operation in Kuwait performance has been nothing short of stellar in recent years. A key highlight of the Group’s forward-looking approach in 2024 was the appointment of a new CEO for Zain Kuwait-with the goal of taking it to new heights and expanding innovative services in Kuwait and the greater GCC.

In an exclusive interview with Telecom Review, Nawaf Al-Gharabally, CEO, Zain Kuwait, elaborated on the operator’s continuous contribution to the Zain Group’s overall growth vision, enhancing the customer experience and brand value, solidifying its position as a dynamic and innovative telecommunications powerhouse in both Kuwait and the broader Middle East region.

First of all, a big congratulations on being appointed as the new CEO of Zain Kuwait. You have been a veteran in the company with over 25 years of service in various key roles, recently as the Group and Kuwait CTO. What is your assessment of the company's transformation throughout the years, and what are your aspirations for its future trajectory?

Thank you! I am truly honored to lead Zain Kuwait, a company that has played an instrumental national role in the telecom, economic and social landscapes, pioneering numerous innovations not just in Kuwait, but across the region. We take pride in the fact that Zain has always been at the forefront of technological advancement and innovation in the industry.

Since our journey began in 1983 in Kuwait as the first telecom operator in the Middle East and Africa, we’ve enjoyed a proud history of achievements, like being the first to launch commercial GSM in 1994, 3G in 2004, 4G LTE in 2012, and 5G in 2019. Additionally, Zain Kuwait pioneered the concept of tower sale and leaseback in the region as the first operator to do so, with this also expanding to our operations in KSA, Jordan and Iraq.

Staying ahead of the curve and pushing boundaries are things that are deeply rooted in Zain’s DNA, and I’m privileged to have played a role in its journey and to lead its success today in Kuwait, working closely with our inspirational Vice-Chairman and Group CEO, Bader Nasser Al-Kharafi, and the group’s executive team.

Over the years, we’ve successfully translated our vision to transform from a traditional telecom company to a comprehensive digital service and ICT provider, bringing our customers the best world-class services, innovations, and enhanced experiences. Alongside traditional voice and data offerings, today, we provide a wide range of cutting-edge digital solutions for both our consumer and business customers. Naturally, this transformation is driven by changing market dynamics and made possible by continuous proactive investments in our people and systems to support the growing demand and provide the best services.

Looking ahead, we’re excited to grow even further with more diverse offerings on both the B2C and B2B verticals by enhancing our existing services and tailoring them to the unique needs of consumers, businesses, and government projects. We do this by integrating cutting edge tools like artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, drones-as-a-service (DaaS), and more with our digital services portfolio. Of course, we achieve this by leveraging our robust ecosystem of strategic partnerships with the world’s biggest technology leaders and local partners.

As a market leading unit of Zain Group, in what ways are Zain Kuwait’s operations supporting the Group’s communication commitments and the overall brand value?

As the flagship operator of Zain Group, we play a crucial role in supporting the Group’s overall brand value through various strategic initiatives. Brand Finance’s recent valuation of the home-grown Zain brand that saw an increase of 11% from USD 2.7 billion to USD 3 billion is a testament to the investment Zain has placed in establishing its name and identity over the past 17 years. The successful media campaigns, garnering over 27 million social media fans and over 250 million video views annually; the many corporate sustainability initiatives; and the DEI initiatives we have introduced over the years, combined with our ongoing innovation and investment in network upgrades—that result in quality mobile and digital services and exceptional customer experience—has made Zain one of the most inspirational and recognized corporate brands in the region and beyond.

Zain Kuwait complements the Group's image as a forward-thinking industry leader by spearheading initiatives across all business lines. From the introduction of new products like Red Bull MOBILE by Zain  (launched as a sub-brand to target the youth segment) to MAX (the market’s first converged value proposition supported by our first-in-class, award-winning 5G network) Zain Kuwait continues to take strategic steps in the B2C and B2B segment to maintain its position as an innovator and market leader.

Furthermore, not only do we embed our values in our products, but we also cascade them into our community via full-scale social outreach initiatives, campaigns, and programs. Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are actively embedded into our organization. For example, WE ABLE, Zain’s disability inclusion initiative, aims to develop an inclusive product and enhance accessibility to Zain’s services. We’re also an avid supporter of local youth, supporting the community’s most vibrant segment by offering digital literacy and internship programs, as well as fostering local startups via our award-winning tech startup accelerator, Zain Great Idea (ZGI).

Our commitment to delivering an exceptional customer experience is ingrained in our culture, and, coupled with a strong focus on corporate social responsibility and community engagement, reinforces the Group's image as a socially responsible and customer-centric organization with a purpose.

How is Zain Kuwait fostering the best tech innovations for customers and businesses in Kuwait through global collaboration? Are there any specific initiatives you would like to highlight that align with these goals?

As I mentioned earlier, we boast a robust ecosystem of global partners, working closely with them to bring the best world-class innovations to our customers. To name a few, we have long-standing strategic partnerships with Huawei, Nokia, Oracle, and Ericsson, where we enjoyed fruitful collaborations that resulted in many successes thanks to our joint leadership in our respective markets, the strategic visions of our management teams, and, most importantly, the dedication and passion of our talented people across nations.

Moreover, our partnerships with technology giants like Microsoft, Google, Amazon (AWS), Samsung, and Dell have paved the way for us to strengthen our offerings, allowing us to stay at the forefront of tech and digital trends and meet the ever-evolving needs of our customers. By leveraging the collective knowledge and resources of our global partners, together with the talent of our national workforce, we can continuously enhance our customers’ experience and provide unparalleled value to them.

To highlight a few initiatives, we’re currently working with Huawei to establish an artificial intelligence (AI) Center of Excellence (CoE)—allowing AI-enabled services on our 5G and 5.5G networks. This proactive step will establish a new benchmark and create new opportunities for the telecom industry in Kuwait and the region, and will encompass innovations such as New Calling, network energy conservation, and efficient O&M solutions. Another example is our collaboration with Netcracker, the global provider of business support system solutions, through which we are aiming to digitally transform our infrastructure and further enable our journey into becoming an end-to-end digital service provider.

We also recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Samsung at the Mobile World Congress (MWC 2024) in Barcelona to explore future joint collaboration and new opportunities, while expanding our long-term partnership and bringing the best tech innovations to consumers and businesses in the Kuwaiti market.

As part of this successful partnership, we hosted a special event to celebrate the launch of the all-new Samsung Galaxy S24 series in Kuwait. The event was attended by executive management teams from both Zain and Samsung, along with our dedicated customers, Samsung enthusiasts, and content creators from the local tech community. Users got to experience the new devices up-close prior to their official launch and learned more about the lineup’s top innovations and best AI-powered features.

In another achievement, in 2022, Zain became the first operator, globally, to commercially launch voice over 5G (Vo5G) with nationwide coverage via the Samsung Galaxy S series, bringing crystal-clear voice calls over 5G to the nation’s biggest network. The step reaffirmed the leadership position that our award-winning network enjoys as the first and best choice for a seamless digital experience.

These examples underscore how our partnerships help translate our vision. In the end, Kuwait is a small country in its size, but our partnerships that are fueled by Zain’s ambition and our partners’ innovations, placed it on the map as one of the region’s leading markets in telecom and ICT.

Zain Kuwait’s customer base in 2023 increased 4%, totaling 2.7 million customers, and revenue grew by 5%, reaching KD 360 million (USD 1.2 billion). In your opinion, what were the driving forces behind this remarkable achievement?

Our strong financial results can be attributed to a combination of key factors. First and foremost, it would not be possible to achieve such results without the dedication and amazing talent of our people and their team efforts. Furthermore, the market landscape in Kuwait is intense, and despite aggressive competition in the market, we remained resilient and used this competitiveness to fuel our passion for excellence.

On the operational side, the diversification of revenue streams through products such as MAX, Red Bull MOBILE by Zain, and the expansion of products such as Zain Plus have also driven revenue growth and customer retention. Investments into our 5G network expansion and optimization ensured the delivery of reliable and high-quality services and have supported the growth of business.

Moreover, our concerted focus on exploiting our leading 5G network—especially in the lucrative B2B space targeting enterprises and government bodies—has positively contributed to revenue growth and profitability. Overall, these factors collectively underscore Zain Kuwait's resilience and adaptability in navigating the dynamic telecom and digital service landscapes, resulting in our impressive financial performance.

Zain Kuwait recently became the first, and only, operator in Kuwait to win three major awards in the same year from Ookla Speedtest, the renowned global leader in connectivity intelligence. What is the significance of these awards, and how did Zain achieve this milestone?

Receiving three prestigious awards from Ookla Speedtest—'Fastest 5G Network', 'Best 5G Video Experience', and 'Fastest Internet'—marks a significant milestone for Zain Kuwait, setting us apart in the telecom industry and cementing our leadership position. The three accolades came after our network successfully topped the extensive analysis carried out by Ookla on hundreds of thousands of user-initiated tests made by consumers in Kuwait. The tests were carried on all of Kuwait’s major networks, and our network deservedly scored the highest results in the above three categories in Q2-Q3 2023.

At the heart of Zain Kuwait lies a relentless drive to explore the potential of technology. These accolades are a testament to the tireless efforts and dedication of our team, reflecting our strategic investments in network infrastructure. As pioneers of the 5G revolution in Kuwait and beyond, our goal has always been to ensure our network not only meets but also exceeds the expectations of speed, reliability, and quality our customers have come to expect from us.

The awards for 'Fastest 5G Network' and 'Fastest Internet' highlight our success in providing an exceptional internet experience, catering to the diverse needs of our customers, from streaming and online gaming to everyday browsing. Additionally, winning the 'Best 5G Video Experience' award emphasizes our commitment to supporting high-demand apps and platforms, ensuring our customers have access to smooth video streaming services—an essential component of today’s digital lifestyle.

Our path to these achievements is deeply rooted in our vision to lead the telecom sector and contribute significantly to Kuwait's digital transformation. We have also invested extensively in enhancing the skills of our workforce and fostering an innovative culture within Zain Kuwait. Our dedication extends to sustainability and aligns with Kuwait's digital aspirations. We aim to do more than build a network; we're here to create experiences that connect and enhance the lives of our customers.

These honors from Ookla are a source of immense pride and motivation for everyone at Zain Kuwait, and they push us further in our journey in pursuing innovation and excellence. We are committed to continually enhancing and enriching the digital experiences of our customers today, and well into the future.

2024 will see the commercial launch of 5.5G or 5G-Advanced connectivity, bringing greater business opportunities across industries. How does Zain Kuwait intend to harness this technological paradigm shift?

Well before 2024, Zain Kuwait was at the forefront of the 5.5G revolution, a significant leap that's set to redefine connectivity and open new doors for business innovation across industries. We’ve invested early in upgrading and enhancing our network’s infrastructure to prepare for the shift towards the 5.5G era, which will bring limitless opportunities and open up new horizons for businesses and consumers alike.

To test our readiness, we recently achieved speeds of 10 Gigabits per second after completing a 5.5G trial on our network in partnership with Huawei, making Zain the first operator to reach this milestone in Kuwait’s telecom market. We’ve also succeeded in testing Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communication (URLLC), a key 5.5G feature.

These achievements are a clear indicator of our readiness to lead the shift towards 5.5G. In the end, this is not just about faster internet; it’s about reshaping how businesses operate and how services are delivered to meet the ever-evolving changes in market dynamics and customer expectations.

As noted earlier, we are currently working closely with Huawei to establish an AI Center of Excellence, something that is at the heart of our strategy right now. This initiative is a testament to our belief in the power of combining 5.5G capabilities with AI to unlock unprecedented opportunities. We’re talking about a range of AI-enabled services that promise to enhance operational efficiency, drive energy conservation, and offer innovative network maintenance solutions.

The introduction of 5.5G, with its unmatched speed and efficiency, along with Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communication (URLLC), sets the stage for transformative applications in cloud computing, big data, immersive AR/VR experiences, and manufacturing automation. These are not mere upgrades but game-changers that will redefine industry standards and user experiences.

Moreover, our AI-powered, real-time voice/video translation service, which is nearing its commercial launch, highlights our commitment to innovation that bridges linguistic and cultural divides, offering new avenues in tourism, social networking, and business communications. This is part of our broader vision to foster a digitally inclusive society in Kuwait by leveraging technology.

In this new era, Zain Kuwait is not just adapting; we are setting the pace. Our focus on strategic partnerships and relentless innovation positions us to not only navigate the 5.5G landscape but to shape it. As we embark on this journey, our aim is clear: to harness the transformative power of 5.5G and AI, ensuring that Zain Kuwait remains at the vanguard of digital innovation, driving growth, and connectivity in a 'New Kuwait'.

Fostering sustainability and nurturing ICT talents, especially for women, has become one of the many focus areas for the ICT industry as a whole. Can you share some developments within Zain Kuwait that address these two critical components of the telecom industry?

Our dedication to advancing sustainability and nurturing ICT talent is at the core of our mission, not only to excel as a leading digital service provider but also to act as a catalyst for societal progress. This commitment aligns seamlessly with Kuwait's ambitions for digital transformation, reflecting our dual focus on environmental sustainability and the development of a skilled workforce capable of leading the future of technology.

Our approach is structured around four strategic sustainability pillars: Climate Change, Operating Responsibly, Inclusion, and Generation Youth, all of which are integral in our broader vision— embedding sustainable practices and innovation within our operations. These pillars direct our efforts to build a resilient future, promote digital literacy, and ensure a diverse and inclusive working environment.

To address the Climate Change pillar, we have set ambitious goals, aiming to reduce our environmental impact, alongside our ultimate target—achieving a net-zero carbon footprint by 2050. This commitment underlines our broader responsibility towards environmental conservation and responsible operations. Notably, Zain is the only telecom operator in the MEA region to achieve an ‘A-’ rating in the CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project), which positioned Zain first in the region and among leaders globally, in accordance with climate control initiatives.

The Operating Responsibly pillar ensures our operations are guided by ethical practices and a commitment to sustainability. This encompasses everything from reducing energy consumption across our network to implementing green initiatives in our offices and facilities.

The Inclusion pillar ensures access to digital tools and education for all segments of society and it is a key part of our mission. We strive to eliminate the digital divide by providing educational programs and resources that enhance digital literacy, especially for our employees. We’ve launched numerous programs that are well aligned with this pillar. For example, the Zain Diversity, Equity & Inclusion University (DEIU) in collaboration with the IE University in Spain, which extended the opportunity to many of our employees, encouraging them to participate in inclusive programs, and highlighting the possibility of attaining a master’s degree.

Women are an integral part of the Zain success story. From pioneering women in leadership positions to constructing a revolutionary HR policy and other innovative talent development programs, Zain’s focus of integrating women fully into all aspects of the business is proving to be an enormous benefit to the culture and productivity of the company. Today, Zain Kuwait is proud to state that 26.9% of its leadership team are women.

Finally, the Generation Youth pillar aims to cultivate the next generation of ICT and digital professionals by focusing on the youth. Our strategic partnerships with institutions like the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences (KFAS) and the Sabah Al Ahmad Center for Giftedness and Creativity (SACGC) are prime examples, where we offer programs designed to equip young Kuwaitis with critical digital skills, preparing them for the challenges and opportunities of the digital age.

Through these initiatives, we not only contribute to national sustainable development goals but also ensure that young professionals are well-prepared to navigate and lead in the digital world. Our efforts in education and training, particularly in emerging technologies and digital upskilling, are tailored to foster innovation, critical thinking, and a deep understanding of the digital landscape.

In conclusion, our endeavors in sustainability and talent development are driven by a comprehensive strategy that integrates our operational goals with our social and environmental responsibilities. As we move forward, our focus remains on utilizing technology to tackle modern challenges, affirming our position as a catalyst for positive transformation in the telecom industry and beyond.

Regarding your expansion into the B2B corporate segment, what can we expect in terms of innovation in Zain Kuwait’s digital service offerings?

Expanding within the B2B corporate sector is more than a strategic move for Zain Kuwait; it's a vision to redefine the digital landscape for businesses in Kuwait, paving the way to becoming the digital transformation partner of choice for governments and enterprises. Our approach centers around initiating a digital transformation journey that will drive growth, efficiency, and innovation across industries. We're setting our sights on empowering businesses with digital solutions that are as forward-thinking as they are reliable.

At the heart of our expansion strategy is a commitment to innovation. We continue to lead the way by working closely with our subsidiary, ZainTECH, and introducing a suite of digital services designed to meet the ever-evolving needs of the corporate sector. This includes advanced connectivity solutions, drones-as-a-service (DaaS), cloud computing and cybersecurity services, cutting-edge Internet of Things (IoT) applications, and insightful big data analytics. These offerings are crafted to not only enhance operational efficiencies but also unlock new possibilities for growth and innovation within the businesses we serve.

As we embark on this expansion, our partners can expect a commitment to excellence, innovation, and a partnership that goes beyond traditional service offerings. We aim to be at the forefront of digital transformation, empowering businesses to navigate the complexities of today's digital age with confidence and agility.

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