Soft touch

Microsoft's Middle East & Africa VP tells Edward Poultney why the group's emphasis has shifted towards thinking locally, and acting globally.

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By  Edward Poultney Published  January 4, 2008

As the technological revolution continues to sweep across the Middle East and the region's residents ‘switch on' in ever-greater numbers, so hi-tech companies increasingly place more and more resources into trying to attract the opportunities available. According to the latest figures the Middle East currently has over 40 million personal computers, an increase of over 30% in just four years, and increased access to communications and hardware will see the figures soar in the coming decade.

A company whose name has become synonymous with the computer era, Microsoft, is the perfect example of this phenomenon. Originally, in the early 1990s, the Mediterranean, Middle East and Africa (MMEA) department was a part of the group's start-up operations.

I know a lot of people use the phrase ‘think global, act local’, but I think we’re probably turning it the other way around

By the middle of that decade the department was still part of what was known as ICON, the intercontinental block made up of most of the developing markets south of the equator, including Latin America and Asia. In under ten years the Middle East has gone from being a small cog in a much larger wheel to a fully-fledged, booming sector in its own right - headed up by Ali Faramawy.

A personable Egyptian, Faramawy is no stranger to the region or its unique cultural identity and is evidently proud of the way that the computer trend has caught on. "It was a relatively small operation that grew very fast," he says of the early days. "It was characterised by the types of people that we had in the operation, what we call intellectual horsepower. We have people who can understand different aspects of technology, marketing, licensing and so on - and this basic DNA worked well for us in terms of how the region has grown and expanded."

This expansion coincided with, or influenced, a change in Microsoft's global strategy - Faramawy characterises this shift as a group realisation that it was a part of something much bigger than simply revenue growth and competition.

First the company formally changed its mission statement to be about "allowing people and businesses all over the world to reach their full potential", unconnected to geography or levels of affluence. The second shift was part of an internal change of focus. "We changed our DNA to have a much stronger level of connection with people in the area," explains Faramawy.

We started linking ourselves to the ambitions and dreams of people in the Middle East and Africa. We started to become much more involved with working with governments - as they are one of the largest catalysts for change."

The rapid rise in personal and public disposable income in the Arab world in the last decade has helped to bolster this process, with people actively seeking Microsoft's input. "Like many emerging markets we started thinking very deeply around what we could do to help modernise education, to help reform and improve government services - we started investing more in building local capacity and companies." As Faramawy proudly states "we like to think that we are taking the bigger perspective". The company puts resources into skills development and training at a local level, with local companies and schemes.

"We love great people," Faramawy smiles. "We love people who are committed, and excited, about making other people great. Whether the others work in the office next door, or government, or other IT companies that we deal with. Using elements of teamwork to build a greater connection with the local community's agenda was a clear priority for us."

This, he feels, is what has boosted the regional sector's standing in the company: "The end result is that MMEA has grown from an area, within an area, within a region to become one of the international groups that stands at the same level of reporting as the US, Europe, Japan and so on. There is a healthy level of cooperation between governments and the private sector in the Arab world. I may be biased but I am really beginning to like what is happening in the IT industry."

Faramawy's perspective on the team making the company stretches across all Microsoft's bands of operation under his umbrella; from the desktop services, to the servers, internet, Xbox - across all customer bands. His recipe for success is to ‘get great people for a great work environment, set high bars for performance and the rest takes care of itself'.

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