Business Management

The Palestinian Networker Who Bought an Israeli Company

In September 2013, Alvarion, an underperforming telecoms company, was acquired by a telecoms veteran in a bid to realize its full potential. A logical move, given the successful track record that Hani Alami has in the sector at companies including Coolnet and Alami Telecom, but what made headlines was the fact that Alami is Palestinian and Alvarion is an Israeli company. 

As he reveals in a recent phone and email interview, Alami faces more than most outsiders would imagine. But Alami, who lives in Jerusalem, remains inspiringly optimistic and positive that the benefits of communications can overcome differences and even transform the region. 

Is this an example of how life should be more like the technology industry? Alami has a knack for integrating companies and creating ‘handshakes’ between seemingly incompatible systems. Coolnet integrates wireless comms networks for Israeli companies like Bynet Data Communications and Radwin. It is one of the biggest project contractors in the Arab 48 sector inside Israel for the Israeli telecommunications company Cellcom and for Israel’s largest telecommunications group Bezeq

Coolnet also signed a mutual benefit agreement with the Jerusalem Electricity distribution company (JDECO) to operate and manage their fiber network, connect the grid and offer services to the residential and commercial sectors in the area. This agreement allowed it to build the telecom infrastructure of Palestine.

His achievements, while barely hitting the radar of global business, are of massive significance in Palestine. “The responsibility of creating a sustainable business, starting from scratch, is heavy. All I can do is make sure I still have enough to put back into the business,” says Alami.

Being an entrepreneur in a politically and economically volatile region like Palestine is incredibly challenging, says Alami. With the best will in the world, you’re not going to get into the Fortune 500 very easily, he points out. “It is considered impossible to achieve such a goal,” says Alami. It is not practical to try and copy any of the internationally successful business models and implement them here, it just won’t work, he says. 

Although business culture is basically the same the world over, there are aspects of local life that are much more complicated. While the key performance indicators of any business project in Palestine are no different from anywhere else, in this region the “sensors” have to take account of a wider range of factors -such as the unfairness of the local market. “The normal processes of macro analytics of any business model don’t apply and a more detailed perspective is needed,” says Alami.

“We usually need to dig into the micro-details of our models, to fine-tune aspects and team orientation,” says Alami. The main challenge is to remember that more work needs to be done on organisational training, he says. When you have a limited opportunity you have to do everything to exploit it fully. Alami alludes – somewhat mysteriously – to the ‘mentality and behavioural dynamics’ that must be catered for. Having done that, he then seeks to build operational expectations, and then to reach out and meet the current and future demands of the industry. As would any business, but Alami has to exploit his opportunity more efficiently.    

“Every model I build here is primarily sensitive to small or limited markets with very low levels of customer awareness and minimal international exposure to expand our markets,” says Alami. “This is not healthy in a fast-moving world like the one we live in today, where many startups are up and running before the first pitch.” 

This is the harsh environment Alami has grown up in and he has developed skills to survive in. He insists that you can’t generalise about businesses or even sectors in this region but says there are some core principles that apply. “I have to take many things into consideration: the handling of the launch of the business, the product and its target market… But on top of that I have to deal with taking the business to a point [beyond which] many people’s efforts fail under the occupation,” says Alami. 

With all the restrictions and barriers on growth and trade, developing any project within the Palestinian territories is an uphill struggle. The effect of sanctions dampens demand for his companies’ services, as Palestine has a limited number of consumers who can afford broadband. While the developed nations of the west have a web site for every 10 computer users, in Arab countries there is one website for every 280 users. 

On the other hand, this does create a much bigger potential for growth. 
Between 2009 and 2011 the number of web users in the Arab world doubled from 35 million to 70 million, according to Al-Monitor, a newspaper that covers the Middle East. Today the figure stands at 140 million, so there is the potential for exponential growth. And the rate of connectivity among Palestinians is unusually high, as a result of the restrictions on movement that are imposed on them.

Alami remains patient in the face of a list of frustrations: if the occupation agonies were not enough, his companies are hampered by monopolies.

In 2008 the MTIT (the Ministry of Telecoms and Information Technology for Palestine) announced a liberalisation of the local telco market. But the monopolist that preceded it, PALTEL (Palestine Telecoms), proved difficult to compete against. “To this day, the effect of the monopoly hinders our business progress and customer acquisition,” says Alami. The lack of internal regulations by the MTIT has also hampered his efforts to monitor market dynamics and plan for the future, he adds.

He’s also dogged by what he refers to as the “yellow media” which, he says, do not help the political situation. This is because the media tends to support the status quo, so that the dominant players (which are usually the highest bidders for contracts) are favoured. Alami claims that companies other than the big incumbents are often “shunned”. 

“We have a government that is still formulating and trying hard to stand on its feet,” says Alami, “[but] we strive [for] innovative and customer-centric solutions, a policy that’s proved beneficial over the years of our experience.” In other words, the only way to compete is to give better service.

In that respect, Alami sounds like he speaks the language of technologists everywhere. Would he say that people in the industry are more broadminded about religious and cultural differences that exist between them? Maybe, by being technology focused, they are more interested in what they have as common standards, rather than the syntax and protocols that fracture communication and understanding. 

“Lucky – that’s how I would describe Palestine on this question,” says Alami. “There are no barriers between different cultures and the religious population. In any ICT company, organisation, building or even a residential block you will cross through a coloured flag of ethnicities and religions neighboring on another. All work together without any problems.” 

Technology has a role to play in breaking down barriers and bringing people together, he believes: “Technically-healthy economic systems will bring peace and prosperity to their countries. Business leaders and project managers today are more powerful than governments and political bodies.” 

And there is plenty of scope for ICT to grow locally. 

“The potential of R&D and tech development in every country is initiated by the military. In Palestine we do not have military, or governmental capacity to inject money into R&D and academia in order to make different tech sectors bloom. I have yet to visit an R&D centre, school or university lab that is leading our youth into this field. This restricts the opportunities for even basic third-party outsourcing of business or basic high-end services,” he says. So a relatively low level of investment would act as a powerful stimulus. 

“Investing in R&D will yield a growth in the variety of occupations and roles. Gross income will be driven with continuous investments [and] thus a stable and productive economy will emerge.” 

When he started, the ICT sector barely existed in East Jerusalem. There were only two ISPs providing ADSL services and they couldn’t compete against Israeli operators. Alami’s vision, he says, is to provide a new innovative and entrepreneurial community.

As he told Al-Monitor recently, Alami does not care about the borders that divide people. He does care about building an entrepreneurial spirit in East Jerusalem. He says he wants to create the foundations on which to build an innovative society. “A society that might just benefit from knowledge and experience,” he says, “that will create a more promising youth and future for Jerusalem and Palestine.”


Nick Booth worked in IT in the UK’s National Health Service, financial services and The Met Police, witnessing at first hand the disruptive effects of new technology.


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Nick Booth

Nick Booth worked in IT in the UK’s National Health Service, financial services and The Met Police, witnessing at first hand the disruptive effects of new technology. As a journalist and analyst, his mission is to stop history repeating itself.

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