The mobile man who turned to cyber security

Faisal al-Bannai, the founder of Axiom Telecom and CEO of Darkmatter, explains how cybersecurity became his mission

Ehtesham Shahid
Ehtesham Shahid
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The year 1996 proved to be extremely eventful for Faisal al-Bannai.

The Emirati entrepreneur had just completed his masters’ degree in London and was on his way to starting his own business. With a seed capital of £50,000 in hand, Faisal and his three friends/stakeholders across three countries, waited for the software of their dream project to materialize. The deadline came and went and the project didn’t get off the ground.

This was to be Faisal’s first lesson in business: “nothing goes as planned”. As funds ran out, the group turned to trading to keep the business afloat. By a quirk of fate, Faisal found himself at a car tint store in Dubai, where he spotted mobiles being sold.

“I asked the shopkeeper where he was getting his phones from - the UK, he explained. So I said ‘if I can get you these phones cheaper, will you give me a back-to-back deal, for a week until I bring more?” “For the right price, yeah,” was the reply.

Faisal was soon on the phone with his colleagues in the UK. “I told them, look, you have nothing to do, software is not there yet, so you better find the phone this person wants at cheaper rates and ship them.”

The deal was struck and Faisal asked his father for a temporary loan to fund the phone shipments. The al-Bannai family’s business fingerprints are spread across printing presses, restaurants, and real estate, to name a few. But it was mobile technology that occupied Faisal’s imagination.

“I had go to the bank and open an account. I had to go to customs and clear shipments, I was delivering the goods to the dealers. I was collecting checks. I would drive down to the airport.” Faisal became a one-man army.

This continued for a few months, then they decided to import extra phones on the same shipments to make more money. “My room at home was turned into a warehouse. Whatever was left after selling to the main dealer, I would sell at a better margin,” he explained.

This eventually became their line of business. “I told the guys, this software is going nowhere, and this mobile phone thing is quite interesting, so let’s restructure the company - and that’s how Axiom Telecom started.”

By the year 2000, Axiom was a 100 million dirham business. In 2005, it achieved a turnover of 3 billion dirhams. “Today we do close to 9 billion in turnover. We are by far the biggest company in MENA in this industry. It has been quite a journey,” Faisal says with a wide grin.

In his first stint he was fortunate to have learnt the business from zero. The “always evolving” cutting edge technology fascinated him and was “extremely challenging.” It is the same fascination, with technology, that has got him started on a new venture - a cyber security firm called Darkmatter - which is marketed as a digital defense and intelligence service.

But what lured Faisal into this space? “The key fabric of cyber security is communication. There are a lot of players around the globe but there is still an opportunity to do this right, to do this differently and build it from the ground up in a totally different way,” he says. According to him, most of the big cyber security players are global and had built on different foundations in the earliest days of cyber security. “They don’t understand the local market as much,” he says.

Moreover, he explains, they are either very large, built over the years, with legacy systems and legacy technologies, or very small companies that sometimes don’t even see the light of day. “Once in a blue moon one of them strikes gold. I also found that most global players here are either US or Europe headquartered, and the rest are sprinkled around the globe.”

This part of the world, he believes, is getting third grade services and solutions. “Even if you’re buying the right box, it’s about the whole ecosystem around the person advising you and integrating all these things. And yes, maybe the global guys would fly in their super specialists once in a blue moon.”

The market for cyber security is growing across the region. According to security experts, increased investment and awareness in security measures are key for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) decision-makers if they are to defend against potential attacks on critical energy infrastructure.

Dr Kevin Rosner, Senior Fellow with the Institute for Analysis of Global Security, says GCC countries endowed with energy-related natural resources, need to assess whether they’re adequately protecting assets which they consider central to state interests.

“Decision makers should be reminded that energy infrastructure is part of a supply chain which only as strong as its weakest link,” Rosner told the Infrastructure Security Conference in Bahrain recently.

Fortunately for Faisal, he seems to be on the right path all over again. Governments and key entities are realizing that the cyber threat is growing at an exponential pace. “Ten years ago, you would not hear of a cyberattack. Today, every other day, someone is attacked,” he says. “This is what made us decide we need to bring the global experts here.”

Among the experts working for Darkmatter are the likes of those previously tasked with risk assurance for and those who managed cyber security for the FBI. “We are really trying to get the best brains from around the world to develop the next generation products,” Faisal says.

But what gives Faisal al-Bannai a sense of achievement? “We have put all the verticals of cyber security under one roof, with extremely specialized personnel,” he answers. And what is his next target? “Very soon - in the next year or so - you will see certain technologies coming out of the UAE and competing in the global space.”

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