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SAUDI ARABIA - Health & Education

Ismail Shehada

CEO, Tabuk Pharmaceuticals


Recently appointed CEO of Tabuk Pharmaceuticals, Ismail Shehada is today drawing on 25 years of big pharma experience to drive Tabuk’s footprint in alignment with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 healthcare transformation. Shehada worked in the pharmaceutical industry ever since graduating from university in 1999, initially as a medical rep with Glaxo Wellcome (later to become GlaxoSmithKline [GSK]). Having held several different positions over his 18 years with GSK, eventually becoming Saudi Arabia country manager in 2016, he then moved to become GM of AstraZeneca Saudi Arabia. He stayed in this position for two years before becoming area head for the GCC countries and Pakistan, based in Dubai. In 2020, after almost 21 years with pharma multinationals (MNCs), he joined local firm Saudi Chemical Company Holding (SCCH) as CEO of its pharma business.

"In our industry and following Tabuk’s strategy, we focus on two strategic pillars: manufacturing our own products under Tabuk’s ownership as the market authorization holder; and engaging in local contract manufacturing with multinational companies that produce their products at our facilities."

Ismail Shehada, CEO of Tabuk Pharmaceuticals, talks to TBY about the role of the firm in the region, partnerships, and expansion.

Established in 1994, can you provide a brief overview of Tabuk Pharmaceuticals’ journey to becoming the leading player in the pharmaceutical industry in the MENA region?

Tabuk Pharmaceutical started as a family-owned company and has evolved significantly since 1994. Today, we operate in various sectors and are a publicly listed subsidiary of Astra Industrial Group (AIG). Our initial long-term vision is to become the market leader, and though we rank among the top five or 10 in the market, what truly matters is our diversification both in terms of therapeutic areas and geographic reach. This diversification is aimed at risk mitigation and strengthening our financial capabilities in the market. We have structured our portfolio into several key areas: chronic disease, acute disease, and over-the-counter (OTC) medicine. This approach gives us flexibility and risk mitigation for market leadership. We are also expanding our patient reach within Saudi Arabia, covering various diseases across the Kingdom. Tabuk exports high-quality products to over 17 countries in the Middle East and Africa. We also have four state-of-the-art factories, including two in Saudi Arabia. Our most important site is based in Dammam that is eligible to produce injectable products, PFS, vaccines, and biosimilars in the future. We also have factories in Algeria and Sudan, and there are expansion plans for more countries. Our workforce of over 2,400 employees, both in Saudi Arabia and abroad, brings the talent needed to realize our vision. Today, Tabuk stands as the market leader, exporting a Made in Saudi brand.

What is the importance of establishing partnerships to further cement your presence?

Companies like Tabuk, with an extensive network within various government bodies such as the Ministry of Industry, Ministry of Health and the Saudi FDA, are held to high expectations to support the government’s economic agenda through exports; however, exporting high-quality medicine is no simple task—it necessitates proper technology transfer, market research beyond Saudi Arabia, and a robust R&D capability. Understanding the unique needs of patients and disease prevalence in international markets is vital. We must thoroughly study these factors and align them with our manufacturing and R&D capabilities to succeed in international expansion. When it comes to exporting and supporting the government’s goals, our focus must be two-fold. First, to export our medicines, we must establish robust governance processes to ensure regulatory compliance. Different countries have specific regulations, and regulatory affairs processes that can take anywhere up to two years. We need to strategize to expedite approval and regulatory compliance. Second, in the rapidly evolving pharmaceutical industry, we must align our R&D efforts with the scientific agenda and prioritize molecules and therapies that align with long-term clinical trends rather than short-term fads. This comprehensive approach positions us as a strong player for exporting our products internationally while maintaining our status as a generic pharmaceutical company. Establishing strong partnerships with multinational companies is vital. These partnerships grant access to global innovation and technology transfer, fostering mutually beneficial relationships where these companies can manufacture their products at Tabuk facilities. To achieve this, our factories regularly undergo audits by these multinational partners, allowing us to elevate our manufacturing standards to meet global norms. Human capital and talent are equally critical. We aim to enhance our manufacturing capabilities by recruiting top-tier professionals from multinational companies, aligning with the Kingdom’s agenda of nurturing local talent. Our recent partnership with King Saud University focuses on training fresh graduate pharmacists within Tabuk, identifying and developing Saudi national talent, particularly in pharmacy and engineering. With the right team and technology transfer from multinational companies, Tabuk is poised to lead innovation in the Kingdom, bringing new medicines to Saudi Arabia and the region more swiftly.

Can you elaborate on your consolidation and expansion strategy, and what unique value does the company’s brand bring to the international pharmaceutical landscape?

In our industry and following Tabuk’s strategy, we focus on two strategic pillars: manufacturing our own products under Tabuk’s ownership as the market authorization holder; and engaging in local contract manufacturing with multinational companies that produce their products at our facilities. This approach allows us to forge strong relationships and facilitate knowledge and technology transfer to Saudi Arabia. Without successful win-win partnerships with multinational companies, achieving this transfer is not possible. We aim to avoid direct competition with multinational companies and offer them the opportunity to manufacture their products at our facilities. This approach benefits both parties, as they can tap into the local market’s advantages, including government incentives and localization support. Why choose Tabuk over other local manufacturers? First, our substantial production capacity sets us apart. We excel in two key areas: regular dosage forms and syringes/injectables, ensuring flexibility to accommodate multiple multinational companies. Moreover, our diversified production lines are attractive to a wide range of partners. Furthermore, when multinational companies seek guidance from authorities, Tabuk is always positioned as a strategic partner for collaboration .

How would you assess Tabuk’s role and relationship with the Saudi government?
The government strongly encourages our participation. Currently, there is a public-private partnership, where Tabuk actively and frequently engaged in the different workshops. This reflects a shift toward inclusivity, where private companies are now working closely  in shaping the government’s industrial roadmap . The government actively established the  open-door policy and engagement with private sector , facilitating the communication between the different sectors. This approach has led the Kingdom to significant progress, with Tabuk, as a leading pharmaceutical company in the Kingdom, being a prominent participant in these workshops and initiatives aimed at improving healthcare quality. The government’s expectations of us as a private player are paramount. We must stay attuned to patient insights and feedback to continually improve. It is essential to benchmark our capabilities against global standards and access global data through our partnerships with multinational companies. Additionally, we aim to actively support the government in advancing the healthcare sector agenda in the Kingdom seamlessly, without encountering challenges. Early dialogue is crucial to preemptively address and overcome potential obstacles. Presently, we find ourselves in a favorable position with positive contributions from Tabuk toward both government and private sector goals.

What are your main targets and priorities for Tabuk in 2024?
First, we aim to set a new strategy for the organization for the coming five years that will align with the government’s healthcare agenda and address evolving priorities. Second, our focus is on nurturing talent, both by attracting high-caliber individuals and developing local talent within Saudi Arabia. Third, we seek to establish a strong pipeline for Tabuk’s future through research, development, and clinical trials. Our aim is not just to produce medicines, but to offer targeted solutions. Tabuk is expanding its presence in the Middle East and Africa and aspires to become a global player. Above all, we are committed to being a patient-centered organization. Our internal efforts are aimed at improving the quality of life and the patient experience in Saudi Arabia.



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