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KUWAIT - Economy

Bader N. Al-Kharafi

Vice Chairman & CEO, Zain Group


Bader N. Al-Kharafi is the Founder and CEO of BNK Holding, his personal holding company headquartered in Kuwait and established in 2016. BNK Holding oversees and manages a portfolio of businesses spanning over. multiple industries that include healthcare, technology, telecoms, industrial, securities exchange (through the Kuwait Boursa privatization), food & beverage, media, manufacturing, real estate, banking and automotive. He holds many board-level position, including being Vice Chairman of Gulf Cables, a manufacturing provider of cables and Vice Chairman & CEO at Zain Group, a leading mobile voice, data, and digital services operator to over 50.9 million active individual and business customers as of March 31, 2022.

"We are maximizing the many technology developments within the core telecoms business while exploring new frontiers and diversifying into emerging lucrative business verticals in the ICT, digital infrastructure, fintech, and digital services space."
Zain is a pioneer in digital technologies, driving meaningful connectivity and socio-economic development in Kuwait and across its regional footprint.
In the past few years, Zain has gained great traction by transforming into a leading digital lifestyle provider. What milestones has Zain Group achieved in this context in the MENA region?

As a pioneer in digital technologies driving meaningful connectivity and socio-economic development in Kuwait and across our regional footprint, in accordance with our “4Sight” strategy to future-proof the company, Zain continues to digitally transform itself and pursue opportunities to innovate. We are maximizing the many technology developments within the core telecoms business while exploring new frontiers and diversifying into emerging lucrative business verticals in the ICT, digital infrastructure, fintech, and digital services space. To meet the ever-growing demand for reliable, high-speed connectivity in Kuwait and across our markets, Zain is making significant investment in spectrum license fees, 4G network expansion and 5G upgrades, and Fiber To The Home (FTTH). We are diligently monetizing these networks, offering appealing fintech, content, gaming, and other highly demanded services for our digital savvy consumers, as well as compelling and lucrative B2B services to governments and enterprises. In recent years, we have introduced a wide range of new digital services and new entities that are witnessing impressive customer uptake and revenue growth. ZainTech, our one-stop digital and ICT solutions powerhouse, has gained enormous traction since its launch in October 2021, establishing the groundwork for exponential profitable growth by being the digital partner of choice for governments and enterprises across our markets. ZainTech’s recent acquisition of leading managed cloud provider BIOS Middle East is set to supercharge our capabilities in the critical business area of hybrid and multi-cloud managed services. Cybersecurity, IoT, AI, big data, smart cities, drones, robotics, and other emerging technologies are additional services and growth areas that ZainTech is focused on, which will drive revenues and enable the company to provide the most comprehensive suite of digital and ICT transformation services in the region to organizations and government entities all under one roof.

As a leader of the major digital services corporation in the Middle East, what is your perspective on the fintech sector across the region?

Achieving our fintech aspirations is a key strategic initiative of Zain as we continue innovating and expanding mobile financial services across our operating markets, providing much needed and life-enhancing services to our customer base and beyond. In Kuwait, we have applied for a digital banking license with the central bank and are keenly awaiting the grant of the license aiming to be first telco-led challenger bank across the Middle East. We are of similarly achieving confident (in Kuwait) the customer and transaction growth we witnessed with “Tamam,” our micro-financing arm in Saudi Arabia, the “ZainCash” mobile money platforms in Jordan and Iraq, and “M-Gurush” in South Sudan, which have been truly impressive in recent years. In Bahrain, we recently acquired a digital banking license from the Kingdom’s central bank and expect commercial launch in 2023, while in Sudan we are currently fulfilling the necessary regulatory requirements to be awarded a digital banking license and expect to launch in in the first half of 2023.

Zain was a pioneer in the sale and leaseback of its passive tower networks. What are the advantages of such?

Portfolio optimization is one of the key parts of the 4Sight strategy centers that extends to the sale and leaseback of the passive infrastructure of our tower network, thereby unlocking capital and allocating resources for more effective and sustainable use. In 2017, we were the first in the region to announce the sale of our 1,600-tower network in Kuwait for USD165 million, followed by Jordan in 2021 for USD88 million. In early 2023 we completed the agreement with the Public Investment Fund in Saudi Arabia to sell 8,069 towers for USD807 million. Similarly, in January 2023, Zain Iraq entered into a definitive 15-year agreement to sell and leaseback its 4,968-tower portfolio for USD180 million.

What are the major challenges facing Zain in Kuwait and across markets?

Zain’s diverse footprint sees our markets deal with multiple socio-economic challenges, and the management continues to effectively deal with such matters, including fluctuations in currency exchange rates, a changing taxation environment, regulatory and spectrum developments, intense competition, and the impact of inflation that is affecting consumer spending. In Kuwait, as the incumbent and dominant market leader in all key financial KPIs, maintaining this position presents many challenges due to the intense competition from two other operators, whereby we see unhealthy business practices, and a new MVNO that was recently launched. Nevertheless, the group and Zain Kuwait teams are focused on overcoming this and doing so successfully as 2022 resulted in Zain Kuwait witnessing impressive growth in its revenue and profit. Other challenges include the higher inflation rate that is impacting purchasing power and cost of technologies, the population reduction of approximately 6% over the last few years, and regulatory challenges. With the new proactive CITRA board and management’s astuteness in constantly investing in technologies and 5G upgrades attracting key corporate and government customer accounts, we are confident that Zain Kuwait will prevail and maintain its premier position in the market.

As a listed entity in Kuwait, the place of origin for the company, Zain controls the biggest share of the market in revenue and profitability. What are your thoughts on the present situation in the country?

Kuwait is having its challenges, yet the infrastructure stimulus investments and digital transformation undertaken in recent years by the authorities on multiple fronts is something we are building on. As the incumbent telecoms operator playing a leading role at the forefront of the country’s Vision 2035, we are focused on investing in and bringing the latest and most empowering digital technologies to our beloved country, in a sustainable manner. Our nationwide 5G state-of-the-art network, unique B2B offerings, and appealing digital mobile services stand out to consumers, enterprises, and government departments alike. This is driving revenue growth and creating shareholder value for all. As a leading listed entity on the premier market in Kuwait, Zain seeks to exceed the regulations issued by all financial regulatory bodies including the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, the Capital Markets Authority, and Boursa Kuwait by applying high ethical standards, transparency, and professionalism toward all our stakeholders, thereby promoting investor and market confidence in Zain.



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