In her free time Muna Al Hashemi likes to play chess. It’s the perfect hobby for someone who is always trying to outmaneuver the competition.
Not incidentally, that’s one of Al Hashemi’s primary objectives as CEO of Batelco Bahrain. She’s in charge of domestic operations for the telecom’s parent company, Batelco Group, at a time when the telecommunications industry in Bahrain is being reshaped by new technology—and by increasing competition.
Last year Batelco Group’s gross revenues amounted to $973.7 million across the 14 countries in which it operates, down 1% percent from 2015. Consolidated net profits were $99.7 million. Of revenues, 41% came from its operations in Bahrain—which is Al Hashemi’s domain.
“Batelco is very receptive to the market changes,” says Al Hashemi. “We are pursuing a transformation strategy to stay ahead of the game always.”
And the game is changing. Bahrainis are quickly embracing a world of smartphones and instant connectivity, rendering other communications technologies obsolete. Along with the U.A.E., Bahrain is among the top countries in the world in terms of digital adoption, with smartphone penetration well above 100%, according to McKinsey’s Digital Middle East Report 2016.
Al Hashemi can ill afford not to exploit these developments. Batelco once enjoyed a monopoly in Bahrain, but now contends with a crowded market. It faces major competitors including Kuwait’s Zain and the Saudi Telecom Company-owned VIVA, along with a slew of smaller operators and internet providers. They’re all competing for a market of about 1.4 million people.
All told, it’s a demanding time to lead a telecom in Bahrain. Batelco Group’s chairman Shaikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Khalifa summed it up like this while announcing the company’s 2016 results earlier this year: “Market conditions in Bahrain and across a number of the group operations are challenging due to the world’s economic climate in general and also due to the vibrant nature of the communications industry, which is experiencing a powerful shift as all players strive to gain a strong foothold in the world of digitization.”
For Al Hashemi, turning Batelco into a digitally-oriented telecom while simultaneously keeping ahead of the competition is a multifaceted undertaking. “We are transforming our culture, our mode of operation [and] our infrastructure,” says Al Hashemi.
On one hand that means she’s steering the development of a wide-range of new products and services for both consumers and business customers. Batelco touts that it’s exploring everything from applications of the Internet of Things (IoT), to enabling mobile payments and introducing a variety of cloud services.
From an infrastructure perspective, Batelco signed a deal earlier this year with telecoms technology provider Ericsson to pursue updates to its mobile network. It’s also continuing to invest in expanding its fiber optic network across the country. Simultaneously, the telecom is preparing for transformative technology that hasn’t yet arrived.
Although some mobile operators in MENA have yet to introduce 4G, Batelco is already exploring the next frontier in connectivity. 5G mobile network technology is still a few years away, but Deloitte estimates that by 2021 the 5G subscriber base in the GCC will reach around half a million, and will grow across the region to become the standard by 2025.
Al Hashemi says the telecom conducted the first successful 5G trial in Bahrain in May 2017, with help from Ericsson. Held at Batelco’s headquarters, the test demoed to a live audience how the technology could be used in IoT applications.
She estimates that 5G should be ready for commercial use in Bahrain sometime in 2019 at the earliest. According to Ericsson’s 5G Business Potential Report, 5G technology could create $600 million in business opportunities in Bahrain.
Right on Batelco’s heels, Zain Bahrain recently announced it expects to launch commercial 5G by the end of 2018. The race is on.
Another focus area for the telecom is cloud services. By 2019, McKinsey estimates that the Middle East and Africa will have the world’s highest cloud traffic growth rate, at 41%.
According to Al Hashemi, Batelco was the first in Bahrain to launch a series of cloud-based services designed to digitize operations for its enterprise customers. The technology has opened up a variety of opportunities for the telecom. It now offers different customizable cloud services for businesses such as software as a service, cloud infrastructure, e-commerce assistance and more. “This is the beauty of the cloud,” says Al Hashemi.
This year Batelco added to its cloud offering by establishing notable new partnerships. In May it announced an agreement with Amazon Web Services, allowing the telecom to deliver more cloud products and services. A month later, it signed an agreement with Tata Communications to get access to its global data center, cloud and connectivity solutions.
Internet connectivity itself is another playing field. Last year the company launched Bahrain WiFi, which provides wireless internet access at major public locations throughout the country. The move is also part of a broader push to develop Smart Cities in the country, leading Batelco to explore numerous IoT opportunities.
It rolled out one example of that last year. Following discussions with local kindergarten schools and nurseries about what problems they faced, the telecom brainstormed ways to create IoT enabled products and services. The result was Batelco’s Connected Vehicle Solution, which outfits vehicles, such as school buses, with cameras, sensors, a GPS tracker and other systems so that administrators can monitor riders better.
Batelco also recently finalized an agreement with the Chinese tech accelerator Brinc to create an innovation space in Bahrain that will hopefully produce more IoT products.
But, with new technology emerging all the time, other Batelco announced it was phasing out its landline SMS service due to a lack of demand.
For Al Hashemi, dealing with all these changes has not come as a surprise. If anything, her approach to the job is centered on being adaptable. “I think it’s very important to have a very flexible mindset,” says Al Hashemi. Being shrewd helps too—a colleague describes Al Hashemi as the smartest person in the room during meetings.
Speaking with Forbes Middle East, Al Hashemi is cheerful but serious. It’s the attitude of someone who has watched Bahrain’s telecommunications industry transform completely since she joined Batelco more than two decades ago.
Born in Bahrain in 1971, Al Hashemi grew up in the tiny Gulf nation. Upon graduating from the University of Bahrain in 1994, she set out to begin a career that would allow her to put her degree in electronic engineering to good use. A telecom seemed like a good place to start.
She took a job as a technician in Batelco’s engineering section in 1995. From the start, it was a job where adapting to new technology was a constant factor. “I remember when I joined the company, the big focus at the time was analog,” says Al Hashemi.
It wouldn’t be for long. A skilled engineer, Al Hashemi worked her way up the ladder at the telecom—receiving a steady stream of promotions over the following years. She proved herself at each level by helping implement new communications technologies and services.
Al Hashemi made an impact helping update Bahrain’s mobile networks by leading the introduction of 3G technology. During the rollout, she oversaw a team responsible for developing both the technical and commercial aspects of the network in Bahrain.
When 4G technology came along, Al Hashemi played a role in launching that too. It was one of the first telecoms in the Arab world to launch a 4G network. Later, she worked to develop Bahrain’s fibre optic network. In a short span of time, all these technologies have had a transformative effect on communications in Bahrain—no small feat considering the country is considered to have one of the most advanced and liberalized telecom industries in the GCC.
By 2009, she was a general manager. In 2015, Al Hashemi was promoted to CEO, exactly two decades after she joined the company as an entry-level employee. She is the first woman to serve as a CEO at the telecom.
Al Hashemi is proud of all these accomplishments, but admits the stakes are much higher now that she’s CEO. “The launch of 3G and 4G, these are no longer big achievements,” she says.
Aside from introducing new technology, a key responsibility that has come with leading Batelco into a new era has been transforming its culture. A big part of that has been building a staff suited to handle the rigors of a changing industry.
She’s brought in new employees with new skill-sets. Internally, Al Hashemi has worked to identify employees with leadership potential and shape mindsets by engaging with staff from all levels of the company. A byproduct of that has meant letting go of employees who didn’t fit with company plans, or who couldn’t adapt. That, says Al Hashemi, has been the hardest part of the job.
Ultimately, it’s all part of Al Hashemi’s game plan to keep Batelco ahead of the competition.
She remembers reading once that good companies focus on what their competitors are doing, while great companies focus on what their customers want. “I think this statement nicely summarizes the way we think at Batelco,” says Al Hashemi. “We focus on what our customers want, not what our competitors are doing.”
Beyond that, her next move is anyone’s guess.