By Jola Chudy
Faisal Al Bannai doesn't just dominate the industries his businesses are in, he redefines them. At the helm of EDGE, the UAE's first defence conglomerate, he draws on a career that has seen him create and lead companies at a turbocharged rate. In a world where agility and strategy must intersect faster than ever before, he is poised to serve the UAE's defence ambitions with his signature sense of urgency.
There’s a recurring theme that seems to crop up when speaking with – or about – Faisal Al Bannai. A highly awarded and widely respected businessman, who founded the region’s largest home-grown mobile phone retailer before turning his prodigious vision to communications and defence, Al Bannai’s leadership style, it is very apparent, belongs firmly in the fast lane.
“I continue to be amazed by his ability to quickly ‘ramp up’ in new sectors, as he simplifies complex problems, and inspires and guides experts in their respective domains,” says longtime colleague Reda Nidhakou, Al Bannai’s VP of Strategic Programmes at EDGE Group.
Al Bannai himself tells CEO Middle East that he hires staff based on their ability to look swiftly through and beyond obstacles in a perpetual mission for tangible deliverables. It’s how he describes his own leadership style
“Any leader needs a can-do mindset, you need to find a way to get your team to their goals. It is guaranteed that challenges will come and things will not always go as planned. You need to have the mindset that you will find a way, and crucially you need to have a sense of urgency. Speed is critical in today’s world. The world will not wait.”
And, in a period where business buzzwords such as ‘disruption’ and ‘AI’ have been unceremoniously replaced with a global obsession for pivoting, being nimble and swift, agile leadership, it seems that even here, the ambitious businessman got to the finish line ahead of the rest: he’s been espousing those very values for several years. Indeed, he told Arabian Business in 2014 that adaptability was the key to success, along with balancing the right approach with an ‘as-fast-as-possible’ mindset.
“His approach in guiding EDGE through the Covid-19 crisis is an example of his pragmatic leadership. He has guided us to identify possible levers to preserve the stability of EDGE group while equipping employees to face the crisis through concrete actions,” adds Nidhakou. Today, the company is, along with the rest of the world, adjusting its course in an entirely unexpected landscape.
“We have set strict measures to protect employees, accelerated digitalisation, assessed and mitigated the commercial and financial risks, initiated discussions with clients and partners accordingly, and have also started preparing strategies and action plans for the post- Covid period,” adds Nidhakou.
For many businesses, the start of the year feels a world away from current events and in many ways it is. In February, EDGE was the biggest presence at the Dubai Airshow, a show that was fated to be one of the last high-profile trade and industry fairs before Covid-19 began to wreak havoc around the globe. EDGE occupied the largest stage, with 11 subsidiaries and several high-profile product launches and announcements, including a $1 billion contract between Halcon to supply the UAE Armed Forces. Not bad work for a four-month old entity.
“I want the company known as an advanced technology company that happens to be in the defence sector. Historically, defence industries have been a bit slow. It takes time to roll out a product, there is usually a lot of bureaucracy,” Al Bannai tells CEO Middle East. “We tried to come in with the mindset of a start-up company, but a start-up company on steroids! We’re in the fortunate position that EDGE already has clients and we took over existing companies. Nonetheless, we wanted to demonstrate how EDGE as a group posseses a sense of speed, of agility, innovation and disruption and is able to deliver technology very fast.”
Implementing and maintaining an ambitious corporate culture is one thing, but marrying the entrepreneurial mindset of private business with the traditionally more process-driven approach of government and then multiplying it by dozens of separate entities (EDGE group currently comprises more than 25 companies under its umbrella) is another. How has the leader ensured that a results-driven vision is implemented?
“If there is no challenge, then none of us are needed and we are on autopilot. We are fortunate that we have leadership in this country that has an entrepreneurial mindset. The mandate we have been given by His Highness is to be a change agent in our ecosystem. The ecosystem is the clients, the MOD, the Armed Forces and us. How do we become a change agent with all parties holding hands to achieve that next evolution as an industry, and as a country? We deliver with speed, we deliver new technology and we move faster. We have all heard this message. and the support we have allows us to do this.”
The UAE’s technology and defence ambitions are well-known. At time of going to press, the first Arab space mission to Mars was set to blast off, less than a year after the UAE sent its first astronaut into space.
Indeed, the very formation of EDGE is a key reflection of the country’s determination to be a global defence player, achieving sovereignty on strategic defence tech and assets and creating long-term economic development that isn’t tied to oil or gas.
Exporting technology, says Al Bannai, is a critical part of the UAE’s strategy to cement its position as a leading player in this arena.
“How do we prepare for the knowledge economy, for when the last barrel of oil is gone? EDGE is a cornerstone of this: the defence budget is routed through EDGE which then creates and develops technology either internally or with joint partners.”
A secondary but no less crucial aim is to encourage more specialist study amongst the local population and drive leading industry protagonists and experts from academia to hone in on opportunities and developments here.
“EDGE is also poised to pull in talent from around the globe and bring nationals into the advanced tech space.Unless the field is available in the country, people won’t study it. Before we had a nuclear power plant or the space agency, nobody studied these fields. We want to be a magnet for advanced tech, a destination. Our objective are to enable the country to become a technology exporter and a key part of the economy, and to be a catalyst to bring talent here and encourage talent to grow.”
Al Bannai track record in setting up companies and high-performance teams speaks for itself. He founded mobile phone retailer, Axiom, in 1997, almost immediately after completing his Master’s Degree, and grew it from a team of just four employees into the region’s largest retailer and distributor, valued at over $2 billion.
He then parlayed his technology and communication savvy into founding Dark Matter in 2014, a cyber security company that he sold to private equity firms in 2019, when before confirming his new role as CEO of EDGE.
“My experience at Dark Matter - cyber security and defence - brought me closer to this role, while my experience at Axiom of swiftly setting up effective teams, has also been relevant,” notes Al Bannai.
Dark Matter’s mandate was not without controversy. Al Bannai insists that the company acted within its remit and is adamant, looking to the future at EDGE, that smart weapons and cyber security are two of the most significant areas for growth and development.
“As countries invest more in technology, cyber becomes more relevant. When you introduce autonomous capabilities, there is vulnerability. You need to defend that in the right way. As technology becomes more pervasive in defence, cyber security will become more key.
"Countries in general have a right to defend themselves, even regardless of whether you consider than country a rogue state or not. The US had cybersecurity issues during their elections; does it have a right to defend itself? Of course it does. Controversy comes from the media’s viewpoint, because every country does the same thing.
"It will always be a bit controversial because you can see a weapon, but you can’t see cyberspace, and humans seem to have a higher level of anxiety towards things they can’t see. People make less fuss about missiles that can kill people than they do about companies developing cyber capabilities. It’s strange, but as long as we know we are selling to responsible clients and operating within the boundaries of the law, this is the world we are living in.”
“This is the first time I have moved from being an owner to being an employee,” says Al Bannai with a smile. “I am proud to be an employee though – I have been given a lot of responsibility and authority to really drive the industry here. Although it is a change from owning a business, it is a change where I can contribute to the country in multiple areas. It’s definitely a satisfying feeling.”
His current objectives include ensuring a cohesive culture, delivering a concrete and transparent model to work with external partners, creating long-term strategic alliance… and doing it all with his trademark “speed”.
His numerous awards and professional accolades include CEO of the year, entrepreneur of the year, Arab Achievement award and technology leader of the year. Most recently, he was appointed Secretary General of Abu Dhabi’s newly launched Advanced Technology Research Council (ATRC), a government entity that will be responsible for stimulating research and development and strengthening Abu Dhabi’s position as a global hub of R&D. Spanning sectors such as communications, engineering, artificial intelligence, robotics, space, alternative energy and renewables, ATRC’s mandate will also encompass chemical, petrochemical, food, pharma, construction and other commercial industries. A WAM statement said: “Bringing together cross-disciplinary leaders in research and technology, the new Council will cultivate a collaborative research community, accelerate innovation and discovery and foster a culture of inquiry.”
With Al Bannai at the helm, the corporate mindset required to effect the ambitious mandate seems assured. He has a reputation amongst his colleagues, managers and staff for implementing a results-driven culture.
“I have worked with His Excellency over the past six years in industries ranging from telecommunications and retail to cybersecurity, real estate, R&D and now technology and defence,” says Nidhakou, currently Al Bannai’s VP of Strategic Programs at EDGE. “He is a visionary leader who cares about the UAE’s development and always looks at the bigger picture - solving long-term problems while delivering short-term results. He places people and talent at the heart of any initiative, and makes significant efforts to ensure we develop skills in key areas that determine the future of this nation.”
Khalid Al Breiki- Cluster President, Mission Support writes of his longtime colleague: “Faisal likes to take on tough challenges that are almost impossible to execute. He believes that ‘impossible’ is simply an opinion that motivates him to continuously study the impediments and find creative ways to conquer them. Fair and patient, he does not mind explaining and clarifying concepts more than once. Sometimes he asks questions, not to find answers but to understand your approach to an issue.
"He empowers his leaders to take informed decisions and does not shy away from making tough calls. Faisal’s previous experience as an entrepreneur and his business acumen are an asset to the organisation and the wider defence sector. From structuring contracts with customers to managing relationships with partners, his focus on value addition makes all the difference. He is a highly demanding boss. But, at a company like EDGE that promises speed and efficiency, this quality is not merely understood, but also justified.”