The story of Arab telecommunications is rife with great achievements, rapid changes, sudden setbacks, and yet-to-be-realized potential. New technology, infrastructure and mass uptake have allowed the region’s information communications technology (ICT) sector to provide more exciting corporate tales than most other industries between Casablanca and Kuwait City could offer. The Arab ICT sector has also attracted some of the most enterprising and daring minds in corporate Arabia — among them is Saad al-Barrak. As the head of Kuwait’s MTC/Zain, Barrak led the telecom company from a purview over one small nation to a customer base of some 70 million customers and an intercontinental footprint. His narrative of how Zain became a marker in the history of Arab enterprise success is the subject of his first book, “A Passion for Adventure”. Barrak sat down with Executive for an exclusive interview to discuss his newly published work.
The PR announcement of your book trumpets that Saad al-Barrak “transformed a moribund ex-state-owned Kuwaiti operator into the telecom giant Zain”. Do you see the story this way, as one person’s singlehanded triumph – yours?
Nothing could be further [from the truth]. There is no one-man show. No, I think the issue was building a coalition and extending it to a whole organization composed of people who are believers and achievers at the same time, because believing is achieving. And that is how it happened; it was the Zain cult that achieved this transformation.
You wrote about your mother as being the ruler of the bayt (house), the interior life in the family and that she was very important for your evolution. How does this reverence for your mother as a person who manages the home correlate with the ability to manage a global company?
It correlates very well. It [describes] dedication, belief, and determination. For example my mother’s dedication to her family and to her children was insurmountable. Family is a unit and managing it is managing a group of people trying to achieve objectives. This is very much in line with managing [a company] where you are responsible for managing a certain group of people and achieve objectives. The sense of dedication and commitment and sacrifice and tenacity in pursuing your objectives are extremely interrelated.
You highlight the importance of achieving objectives, but in your book you took a jab at Peter Drucker’s management by objectives and said your way is management by love. Why?
That’s right. I think objectives are stationary or static and limited in that regard. We therefore should look at objectives as the floor and not as the ceiling. We also should look at them in an evolutionary way because objectives evolve. For example when we started our 3x3x3 [Zain growth strategy] we were talking about 30 million customers, which soon moved to 100 million as our objective. The issue is the direction and the way forward, thriving, growth, and so on. To thrive you need objectives as stepping-stones and not as the architecture itself.
You said that 90 percent of managers are stuck in a structural approach to management of the type introduced by 19th century economist Frederick Taylor. Do you see this high prevalence of focusing on management by task as opposed to relationship as something specific to the Middle East region?
No, I think it was an outcome of the industrial age. Mechanization was a historical stage. People were too loose and you needed quantification to measure and streamline advancement. That is needed and Taylor was definitely one of the greatest contributors to management who tried to take a step forward by bringing quantification and mechanization in a way that is conducive to better managing and progressing in your objectives. It is great as long as we look at it as a stage, but we must not forget the essence of management, which is the human side and the humanization of business. I say the emotional, spiritual side is the essence of management and leadership, not quantification.
The story of Zain as you were involved has a beginning and an end. In your book, did you conceal any regrets about how it ended?
Not at all. I am a warrior, not a worrier. If I finish one battle, I go to another battle. If I finish one war — and by that I mean peaceful war — I go to another one. I have no regrets in that regard. Of course, I look at regrets as learning episodes and not mourning episodes. I will have to employ this in the next episode of my life, but it is a journey and the achievements have already happened. We have achieved a great dream of taking a very small company from a very small country to be nearly a global company, highly international with massive achievements and 16,000 people working on it. The moments of happiness were 99 percent. I hope we will all enter our new stage in life, wherever we are and whatever direction we are taking, in a very positive and enticed way that should make us happier and make us better achievers and better global citizens.
In the sense that Zain’s role did not continue on the world stage and that the project regressed to a smaller level, is this not a point of regret?
It is not a matter of regret. It is a matter of being objective and pragmatic. We always strive to change it but we are not surprised or shocked to see that this limitation is there. It is sad if you go back to a smaller level, definitely. We wanted to be an example to the whole world and set an example for our region at the same time.
Seeing yourself as you say as cultural revolutionary, can you change the mindset of the Arab corporations?
That is the reason why I wrote this book. We wanted to document the great experience of the Zain story and reflect in it the new business and economic ideology that we are preaching and which is compliant and part and parcel of our universal, open philosophy — an all-encompassing philosophy considering the universe as our homeland and humanity as our tribe.
In your opinion, why are there not more globally known Kuwaiti entrepreneurs?
Kuwait is a very rich country and many Kuwaitis can make a lot by staying in Kuwait and around it. This did not really push them to be on the bigger platform. No incentive.
Do you want to play a role in Kuwaiti politics?
That is a very dangerous question. I also have a passion for politics as I have a passion for leadership. So far I am really enjoying the private sector and the space that the private sector gives you. Politics is very limiting to the space. I still can give and be very active and so [being in politics] could be extremely inhibiting to my soul. But later on, at the right moment and with the right combination of the leading change coalition, if the circumstances are conducive and if the country is ready to accept such a coalition to change it to a better country, I will not hesitate to be part of this.
Looking forward, you are talking about a company and other ventures. Where do we stand?
I have started a company called Ila, meaning forward or toward in Arabic. In this company we focus on two things. One is that we provide management expertise and strategic advisory for ventures in telecom and telecom-related IT. The other side of the business is investing in very small startups that are extremely promising.
So you take a financial stake in those companies?
We invest in each startup between $1 million and $5 million. Later on, we want to set up a fund of $300 million to invest in telecom-related IT, according to our philosophy of creating small startups that are very promising in value creation.
One of your statements is do not set out to make money, set out to make history and the money will follow. What is your net worth as result of practicing this maxim?
We made money for our company, for Zain. But it was on our expense, because it took all our efforts and the remuneration was not as commensurate as it should have been. We have no regrets in that regard. We are trying now to make good wealth out of this new venture, Ila.