Microsoft's new Middle East chief: Why cloud and security are our big focus

With its fast-growing youth population, diversity, and innovative spirit, the Middle East and Africa is a key developing market for Microsoft, according to its new regional chief Samer Abu Ltaif.
Written by Damian Radcliffe, Contributor

Smart cities are one area of focus for Microsoft in the Middle East.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

In late February, Microsoft announced the appointment of Samer Abu Ltaif as its president for its Middle East and Africa (MEA) operation. Based in Dubai, Abu Ltaif has been with Microsoft since 2004, most recently as regional general manager of Microsoft Gulf.

Announcing his promotion, Microsoft highlighted Abu Ltaif's previous experience working with governments, education providers and smaller businesses, all key partners in "the digital transformation agenda of the region".

In the first two of ZDNet interviews with Abu Ltaif, he outlines Microsoft's role in the region and his perceptions of the region's technology scene.

Business priorities

MEA is a key market for Microsoft in the developing world. "A major focus is cloud computing, with the region set to have the fastest cloud computing uptake in the world," Abu Ltaif says.

According to data published in Cisco's Global Cloud Index late last year, MEA cloud datacenter traffic is expected to grow 440 percent by the end of the decade.

"By 2020, 95 percent of all workloads in Middle East and Africa will be processed in the cloud, compared with 78 percent in 2015," Abu Ltaif predicts. "Cloud computing is therefore fundamental to business competitiveness and for the digitization of cities and infrastructure."

"However, with cloud computing comes the need for enhanced security."

Data published by PwC in 2016 suggested that Middle East businesses were considerably more likely to suffer from cybercrime than the global average.

"Only 33 percent of organizations have a cyber-incident response plan," PwC noted, finding that: "Most companies are still not adequately prepared for or even understand the risks faced."

Abu Ltaif says security is Microsoft's other main focus in the Middle East, linking the region's vulnerability to cybercrime with Microsoft's confidence in the security of its cloud platform.

"With cloud computing and security at our core, we're also focusing on assisting in the development of smart cities to help uplift communities and transform enterprise and public-sector efficiency," he adds.

Major growth areas

The strategic importance of these priorities was manifested in the roadshow undertaken by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella last year when he visited Egypt, Turkey, and Dubai to discuss collaboration and the countries' digital transformation plans.

Across the region, Microsoft already has established partnerships with governments ranging from Zambia and Mauritius, to Egypt and Dubai.

"The UAE government is certainly leading the way, as it makes real progress with digital transformation online," Abu Ltaif says, emphasizing the role of millennials, smartphones, cloud adoption, and UAE's National Vision 2021 in this evolution. A recent Accenture report has suggested that digital transformation could further boost the UAE economy by around $14bn by 2020.

Within this, smaller businesses account for more than 94 percent of firms in the UAE, so it's no surprise that they're also a focus.

"Microsoft BizSpark program is enabling startups and entrepreneurs in the country to access technology for innovation and market visibility," Abu Ltaif says.

"We've an ongoing partnership with the UAE Smart Learning initiative to equip 145+ schools, 3,500+ teachers and 24,000+ students with Windows enabled devices that have built-in education apps and touch-enabled content to make the classroom a more interactive and intuitive experience."

Away from the Gulf, Abu Ltaif identifies the growing role of Tunisia and Morocco as "important innovation hubs".

"Last year we launched our Cloud Policy manifesto in Morocco, which outlines Microsoft's global cloud strategy. Morocco was chosen for the launch because we see it as a key market in leveraging digital transformation," he says.

Key verticals

"Aviation and the retail sector are forerunners in adopting new technology," Abu Ltaif observes. "Whereas oil and gas, government, education, hospitality, and construction are also rapidly moving towards digital adoption."

According to Abu Ltaif, the digital economy accounts for 4.1 percent of the Middle East's GDP, but he believes it will grow rapidly, as a result of programs such as Saudi Arabia's National Transformation Program, Qatar Vision 2030, and Egypt's Vision 2030.

Digital technologies lie at the heart of many of these strategies, and Abu Ltaif believes digital "can have a significant impact on the economy and society".

Alongside supporting economic growth, job creation, and increased productivity, digital "can also have a positive impact on inclusion and poverty reduction, increase access to and quality of healthcare and education", he says, adding that these ambitions are also featured in many national development plans.

Looking ahead

In terms of improvements, Abu Ltaif acknowledges that "when it comes to legislation on data privacy and security, the region is sometimes slow to implement reforms". This slowness "can stifle innovation and the free flow of information", he says, although he believes that the tech environment is significantly improving.

"Almost half of banks in the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] have a planned budget of between $5m to $20m over the next five years to enhance their digital capabilities," he says.

"The region is dramatically increasing its spending in reform of government services. There are also proportionally more female tech entrepreneurs in the Middle East than anywhere else in the world."

As a result, Abu Ltaif is optimistic about the region's digital future, as well as the opportunities for Microsoft within that climate.

"It's clear that interest in technology startups in particular is skyrocketing. Half a dozen tech startups in the MENA region today are valued at more than $100m each. There's a significant improvement in investment, as entrepreneurs see the Middle East a fertile ground for new businesses to prosper."

"IoT investments are also growing tremendously, particularly with the slump in the oil and commodity sector, which has driven governments to focus on diversification and utilization of technology like big data and IoT to maximize efficiencies," Abu Ltaif says.

CHIFCO, a Tunisian business that focuses on connected products, is a great example of IoT in the region, he says. The firm's Inner J box product uses IoT and a smart grid to help people save energy by monitoring individual household consumption.

"Users are connected to the energy grid, which allows them to receive requests to cut consumption when demand is high, in exchange for points that can be redeemed as internet or electricity vouchers, equal to their energy savings," he says. The impact of this approach is that some "users are already enjoying a reduction of 30 percent in their energy bill".

Abu Ltaif argues that the Middle East Africa region is adopting a digital-first approach, with businesses and governments in the region increasingly focused on the role that technology can play in helping "to improve the way people live and work".

"Cloud and mobile technologies have given women the freedom to start businesses while living at home," he says, while wider trends such as "a high penetration of mobile devices in the region, along with the readiness of enterprises adopting new innovative technology, are all factors that make the region highly viable to make the most of digital transformation".

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