Hatem Dowidar, Group CEO of Etisalat
Hatem Dowidar, Group CEO of Etisalat Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: The UAE telecommunications leader Etisalat has been reporting strong financial results despite the challenges faced from the pandemic. Speking to Gulf News ahed of Gitex 2021, Hatem Dowidar, Group CEO of Etisalat explains the challenges, achivements and the company’s expectations for the future.

Can you take us through the Etisalat journey this year on the operational and financial front?

Etisalat Group’s strong results are an outcome of our efforts to drive growth and generate efficiencies despite unprecedented challenges, thanks to the flexibility and agility in our business model to deliver growth. This was positively reflected in the financial results of the group with a market value of $58 billion and revenues touching Dh26.4 billion with a year-on-year increase of 3.2 per cent and consolidated net profit after federal royalty amounting to Dh4.7 billion.

Many telcos faced major challenges, but UAE is at the forefront of digital technology and connectivity and has the highest fibre penetration globally, enabling consumers and businesses to study and work remotely during this period. We focused our energies on new digital services such as cloud computing and cybersecurity that became major enablers for business.

We are determined to continue the incredible transformation we have been experiencing in 2021 across our markets and believe that our major sustainable drivers of growth remain  our international portfolio and efforts in the digital space. There is strong potential in the cloud, IoT and cyber security space, which will fuel future growth and rebalance telecom revenues.

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On the operations front, despite the challenges faced from the pandemic last year the company's robust plans on business continuity and crisis management helped in maintaining growth.

What is Etisalat’s theme this year at Gitex Global?

Etisalat’s theme this year ‘Shaping the new Digital Era’ highlights how in the new digital economy we can leverage technology to be agile in the face of disruption and create new business models post-COVID. It is about empowering the next era of digital technology where 5G communication, AI, IoT and machine learning enable a new way of living.

The successes during the first-half of the year was not limited to financial performance but also to the global achievements made in our infrastructure and networks. Etisalat’s network was recognised the world’s fastest and fastest fixed network in the GCC. These efforts have resulted in the UAE being ranked with the fastest network in the world during January-June for average mobile download speed. It was the only country from the region to be ranked in the Top 20 countries globally in fixed broadband index with the fastest average download speeds.

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Etisalat’s network was recognised the world’s fastest network and fastest fixed network in the GCC in the first half of 2021.. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

How did your international portfolio perform?

Etisalat Group operates across 16 markets in Middle East, Asia and Africa in addition to the UAE. Many of our markets witnessed strong performance during the first-half resulting in a year-on-year increase of 7 per cent and bringing the aggregate subscriber base to 156 million. This reflected positively on the profits of the company that amounted to Dh4.7 billion.

For instance, Maroc Telecom witnessed an increase in subscribers with a growth of 8 per cent bringing the total number of subscribers during the first half of the year to 73.6 million subscribers. This growth was driven by growth in operations in Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Chad, Benin, Mauritania and Gabon.

Maroc Telecom will focus on investing in high speed broadband to meet the rising demand of voice and data services. This also applies to the other markets in which Etisalat operates where we continue to enhance infrastructure. Etisalat Group aims to increase its stake in Maroc Telecom from 48.4- to 53 per cent, which will contribute positively to the profits.

In Egypt, Etisalat Misr witnessed growth from mobile data and national roaming revenue. Etisalat Misr was also ranked among the second fastest download/upload speeds in the country.  In Pakistan, our operations witnessed growth mainly due to the contribution from all operations particularly fixed and mobile broadband and Ubank services leading to an increase in subscriber base by 3 percent to 25.6 million.

Another historical milestone was to increase and diversify with foreign investments accelerating growth, which will help diversify the investor base and add further value to our current shareholders as well as bring liquidity and depth in Etisalat’s financial capabilities. 

What are Etisalat’s plans in expanding its footprint?

To fuel growth both in the home market and internationally, Etisalat will continue to develop unique competencies, both organically as well as through selected mergers and acquisitions in priority areas. As part of this strategy, in 2020, Etisalat Digital completed the acquisition of Help AG’s businesses in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Help AG is one of the leading cyber-security companies in the region.

The Group’s strategy will remain open to growth opportunities through a majority control of well-positioned operators in target geographies. We will also stay focused on its strategic objectives of maximising value from its core business; growing revenue from its digital/adjacent services and transforming into an efficient, agile, digital Group.

Did you have to revise Etisalat’s main goals for this year?

With changing market dynamics, the focus was combining organic and inorganic growth opportunities to position Etisalat as the regional leader in the Internet of things (IoT), cloud, security, edge computing and Artificial Intelligence (AI). This was achieved by capitalising on opportunities such as 'smart city' and Industry 4.0 projects .

How are you making an impact in the ICT and digital domain with your solutions?

Etisalat’s 5G network will amplify the use of futuristic services and target new opportunities, becoming a trusted partner that supports transformation in a digitally disrupted and fully connected world. The Expo 2020 is a prime example of Etisalat’s solutions aimed at enhancing the digital experience for visitors with technologies.

Our IoT platform connected over 1 million SIMs with renowned entities such as Emirates Transport and Xtramix for fleet solutions and Ministry of Interior for Hassantuk Smart Fire Alarm solution, which have had a massive impact on saving lives and enhancing the state of security for the country.

Etisalat’s sustainability initiatives - what's the latest?

We believe in the positive impact that technology can bring and strive to adopt technologies that ensure long-term benefits to our environment and the climate. The ‘Connected Mangroves’ conservation project in UAE is a noteworthy project combining IoT, cloud, mobile broadband technology that will help better manage the growth of new mangrove saplings by monitoring water level, humidity, soil moisture, temperature, and other parameters.

Another major step was our green efforts, where we have increased business via our digital channels, digital payments allocation and implemented digital self-serve options. The brick-and-mortar experience was transformed to both online and digital retail with self-service touchpoints expanding the rollout of ‘Smart Stores’.

We have achieved many automation initiatives, including the switch of paper billing to digital copies as part of the Etisalat ‘Go Digital’ drive. Over the past 10 years, Etisalat has replaced all the cables, deploying to date over 10 million kilometres of fibre-optic cables, saving over 3,044 GWh of energy per year.

This resulted in the annual savings of over 1.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in greenhouse gas emissions.