Meet Kuwait's cable guy


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From Qatar’s Al Jazeera television channel and Bahrain’s Gulf Air to the UAE Central Bank, many high-profile Arab companies have been targeted by internet hackers in recent years. Luckily for Kuwait, the Gulf state has so far remained relatively immune to cyber attacks.

“I think our network is secure, but nothing is 100 percent. For some major clients we do alert them if they are getting attacks,” says Waleed Saleh Al Qallaf, chief executive of Qualitynet, Kuwait’s largest internet provider.

“Why are people not sniffing at your network?” Al Qallaf ponders. “Because they are not interested, maybe nobody is looking to Kuwait at the moment... [but] once they do, they can hack their network and destroy it,” he warns. “We tell them that they are getting attacks... [but] it is up to the customer to put a firewall and put in a security policy.”

While Kuwait may not be high on the target list for cyber criminals, Al Qallaf reveals the country’s internet sector has attracted some keen international interest. Despite having a population of just over 3 million, a maturing market and challenging growth rates, Al Qallaf says Qualitynet is currently being courted by a major international operator — on a par with names such as Orange, Vodafone or Virgin — for a potential takeover bid.

“Yes, one major [deal] is going on now, talking with the owners of Qualitynet and the owners of that entity. They have an interest to acquire us,” he says cryptically, but is reluctant to reveal any more details of who the prominent potential buyer might be.

You could be forgiven for wondering about the attractions of Kuwait and its tiny internet market. According to data from InternetWorldData.com, Kuwait’s 1.9 million users make up just 2.2 percent of the entire Middle East market of 223.6 million users, which itself only accounts for 3.7 percent of the global online community.

Despite this, Kuwait has a strong heritage in this sector and is one of the region’s most mature markets. In 1992, only months after US-led allied troops forced invading Iraqi soldiers out of the country and restored peace, Kuwait became the first country in the Gulf to establish internet services for its consumers.

Qualitynet was only the second internet provider in the country when it was set up in September 1998 after the government sought to privatise the sector and reduce the monopoly of the government-controlled sole operator.

It was launched by a trinity of major players in the region: local conglomerate Ali Alghanim and Sons Industries, telecoms giant Batelco and lender National Bank of Kuwait, and is now the biggest player in the market, ahead of its rivals FastTelco, KEMS and GulfNet.

Kuwait quickly embraced the internet, growing from 150,000 users in 2000 and a penetration rate of 5.8 percent to around 1.1 million within a decade. While penetration rates of 29 percent — according to figures from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) — were still low, it has sought to increase this and has invested in many programmes over the last two years to boost internet usage and access.

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