Fahad Al Othman’s journey over the past three decades has been as diverse as that of his beloved homeland. As Kuwait emerges from the pages of a varied history book filled with tales of wealth and conflict, Al Othman, former banker and refugee, sits confidently behind his stately desk in a stunning art-strewn office. Having just released its first quarter results, the HumanSoft Group is continuing to increase profits at a staggering rate, from $1.5m in 2010, to $26m in 2014, to $58m in 2015. But these figures are a small part of the story. Today the Chairman is attending to business; last week he was attending a theatre production by his students—a moment he says was actually one of his proudest.
“When you see these young people and these achievements, I feel very emotional, I feel very touched” he tells me. “And it just motivates me and puts me on track.”
Completing his own higher education in the U.S., Al Othman began by following his passion for writing and filming to study broadcast journalism. But returning to Kuwait in the seventies he was faced with only one option—a government-owned television network. Determined to pursue a career in the private sector and avoid getting trapped in bureaucracy, he abandoned his chosen path and entered the world of banking, quickly discovering a new interest in credit.
Finding the subject fascinating and enjoying the sense of satisfaction he got from helping others, he became an expert in the field, spending a year with Bankers Trust in London and teaching evening classes on credit analysis. “I didn’t have the words for it but the entire experience of teaching felt really good” Al Othman says. “It was emotionally tremendously rewarding. So I found myself naturally wanting to help others learn. I got joy out of it.”
When after a decade in the sector the politics of middle management became “uncomfortable and ethically challenging” Al Othman left banking behind. Having spent years treating his role as that of a consultant he decided to continue, seeking out a project where he could deliver a tangible result. He found a company on the verge of bankruptcy and seeing a chance to make a difference, and a profit, he made a deal with the chairman: “I said look, I’ll fix this company for you and you give me 50%. Through this I learned to manage and turn around companies. I walked out with some good cash, but more importantly I walked out with this whole experience and confidence.”
And then disaster struck. On 2 August 1990 Saddam Husain’s army invaded Kuwait and life for every Kuwaiti citizen suddenly and dramatically changed. Around half the population fled—and Al Othman was one of them. Giving up his business and his home he headed back to London, where he was powerless to do anything other than watch as his homeland and heritage was ravaged.
Ever in need of a project and seeking a distraction, he was drawn to a Pitman training course, learning the basic functions of computing at a time way before the internet went mainstream and information technology was still in its infancy. Seeing the limitless opportunities ahead, Al Othman didn’t just finish the course with good word processing skills; he left with the seed of an idea that would one day see him heading up a multi-million dollar company. He spent the next six months reading, researching and learning. When Kuwait was liberated in 1991 he returned home a budding entrepreneur.
“I started a computer company basically supplying software, hardware, etc” says Al Othman. “The country was still full of smoke because of the oil fires, so it was still kind of a war zone, things were not normal. But companies and industries wanted to get started and they needed someone to help them.”
So help them he did. Working mainly with the oil industry at first, Al Othman and his partner set themselves up from scratch, building up a dependable reputation and relying on verbal agreements rather than contracts as businesses began to once again find their feet. After a year the bigger deals began to come in, including one with Kuwait Airlines. However, six months after supplying them with top of the range systems, a follow-up call revealed an interesting find. Although it had bought the equipment, the airline had struggled to find people qualified to use it, meaning the majority of their investment was gathering dust.
“That was a very special moment” Al Othman remembers. “I was shocked. I went home—I didn’t want to lose the idea, I just wanted to digest it: without training in IT we will not expand. I went to the U.S. and I tried to understand the HR dimension of IT. I came back with fresh eyes and New Horizons and I decided to make the entire focus on training.”
Splitting from his business partner, Al Othman founded the first Middle Eastern franchise of the New Horizons Computer Learning Centers in 1996. Starting in Kuwait, the centers grew fast, expanding to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar. Al Othman had hit a nail on the head. New Horizons Kuwait didn’t just dole out short courses to corporate business; it innovated the training to suit the region, offering a generation of people the opportunity to open doors that had previously been closed to them.
“The corporate business here, if you added up everyone in IT, would hardly have been 150 people” Al Othman tells me. “So if I achieved 100% target I still wouldn’t have had a sustainable business. So we started to look at the demographic, and we saw that 70% of the population was below the age of 21. I figured that whatever we do we have to do for this segment.”
The founder and his small team of four set about designing a program for students with no previous experience that would give them a stepping-stone qualification into Microsoft. It was so successful that the Kuwait office began generating more revenue than any location in Europe, Middle East and Africa. Young people had found a new path into the job market, businesses were finding qualified employees and within six years of the first center opening, the HumanSoft Group was established. Just one year later Al Othman began proceedings to set up two private higher education establishments, and in 2008 AUM and ACM became fully operational. Today HumanSoft has no less than eight subsidiaries under its umbrella, with AUM and ACM alone welcoming around 9,000 students through their doors.
Al Othman’s lifelong enthusiasm for education and reinvention is tied to a deep desire to give back to his country. It’s not surprising then that when Tony Blair was hired as an advisor to the Kuwait government in 2010—an appointment that was reportedly set to earn his firm up to $41m—Al Othman did his research into the former U.K. Prime Minister’s intentions. When his findings proved to be somewhat lacking in his eyes he took action, publically calling on Mr Blair to attend a televised discussion about the future of the country.
“I read some of what he wrote and it was just a cut and paste of superficial things. I didn’t think he had the expertise or the desire to invest what it takes to really understand” he tells me. “I have been living it day and night, dreaming about how we get this country to move better and develop.” Unfortunately Mr Blair declined to respond. “I don’t blame him” Al Othman says with a shrug, “he’s a consultant—if he gets paid to do the least why would he do more? I blame the hirer.”
If his invite had been accepted the ensuing debate could have been riveting, not to mention useful. The Chairman is impassioned about the future of Kuwait, speaking animatedly about his pride for the resilience and strength of his country, as well as his desire for progress.
“It’s an evolution, and it’s a complicated one” he says. “This is not a controlled laboratory, this is human. On the whole I think we have done a very good job, but it’s fair for us to be much more ambitious. I have tremendous respect and appreciation for what has happened in the last 40 years, but the world has become much more complicated and interconnected, and we need a new vision that is holistic and strategic.
“I don’t think that is happening. I think we are in a crisis. In that way I think the decline of oil prices could be a blessing because it will put pressure on us to ask the hard questions. The problem is that obsolete government agencies cannot come up with this. You cannot ask a sick person himself to find a cure.”
The Kuwaiti government set out its most recent ambitions in 2014, in a five-year, $117.6 billion development strategy. According to the Oxford Business Group, the 2015-2020 plan takes further steps towards repositioning the country as a regional trade and financial hub by 2035. A large element of this builds on the 2014 law on private-public partnerships, which seeks to promote investment by offering certain benefits and exemptions for foreign investors in the public sector. Some major infrastructure projects planned under this include a $27bn rail network and a $20bn metro line, as well as a new port on Boubyan Island and extensions to Kuwait airport.
However, this commitment to expansion with foreign investment comes alongside a determination to reduce foreign workers, with a reported reduction of 100,000 expats a year expected from 2013 to 2023. The consequences of this are likely in part to have led to Kuwait being voted the least popular country for expats by InterNations members in 2014 and 2015.
Al Othman believes the initiative needs to be more focused on the end goal: “In any vibrant economy expats are an absolute necessity” he explains. “The vision ought to be about how we can transform from a wealth-distribution economy to a wealth-creation economy. How can we take this wealth and use it along with the human resource we have and turn that into some sort of added-value. In that case then your need for expats should grow higher rather than less.”
For now at least it seems his concerns will go unheard. M.R. Raghu, Senior Vice President of Research at MarKaz, thinks the government’s response is natural considering global fluctuations over the last two years: “There are fears that the current low oil price scenario may be reflecting structural changes to the industry, rather than simply being a temporary trend” he says. “Expats enjoy significant social privileges in Kuwait, like free healthcare, etc. So during tough times, the government is trying to make sure that the expat numbers reflect actual need.
“As the government attempts to steer through an economic diversification process, there is the need to create more jobs for nationals. The jobs have to come from somewhere. It should not be surprising that Kuwaiti national interests are foremost for policymakers.”
As one of the key aims of reducing expats is to encourage local Kuwaitis into private-sector jobs, education has a large part to play in the transformation. AUM and ACM follow a philosophy that revolves around two fundamental factors, one teaching the knowledge and the subject matter in the lead up to graduation, the other looking at developing the character and work ethics of the students for when they eventually leave and enter the workforce.
Al Othman’s hope is to develop young people that “think independently as leaders”. This involves thinking outside of normal curriculum activities and well-worn paths, and of news ways of motivating students to get excited about their future prospects. AUM and ACM follow their alumnis for several years after graduation to see if they’ve succeeded in entering a rewarding career.
This approach represents the values of their founder. Above his own ambitions, political views or business aspirations, Al Othman feels a sense of responsibility to the next generation. “Universities get the most precious years of young people’s lives” he explains. “We all have to ask ourselves, are we really making the most of these years, to get well educated people into the world? I think generally speaking the answer is no. Educators have been following the same routine for hundreds of years. The world can be a much better place if we think more creatively and innovatively.”
Innovation and quality are at core of the next stage for the two major institutes. AUM is in the process of setting up a Nanotechnology research centre, as well as carrying out a project to develop “more relevant” ways to teach engineering for the 21st century. In February 2016 the university participated in the Kuwait International Nanotechnology Conference & Exhibition to discuss the latest applications in science and technology.
The creative subjects are also due a boost, with plans for a mega-theatre on campus by September 2016 that will enable students to put on performances of a west-end quality. These productions will be open to the public to drive culture forward for the whole community.
And it’s the development of the community that is at the heart of this business leader, university founder and art lover. Asked what he most loves about his homeland and he says there is a spirit about Kuwait that is entrepreneurial, globally responsible and peaceful: “The love that Kuwaitis have for each other and for their royal family, these are very special things. I think this is something unique and has brought us to where we are today. We are a vibrant nation. I’m very proud of this country. I believe that we’re going to move forward.”
Whatever road lies ahead, with the benefit of experience and passion, Al Othman and Kuwait are well prepared.