In April, Shawki Ahmed Hayel Saeed made the unwitting shift from a chief administrator in the private sector to the government. Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi appointed Saeed to a two-year term as governor of the Taiz governorate, or province, in southern Yemen that has a population of some three million people and includes the city of Taiz.
Saeed had previously served as chief financial officer of Hayel Saeed Anam Group, overseeing all financial activities for his family’s large network of companies with a turnover of US$8 billion and 25,000 employees worldwide. Among their ventures includes producing ghee as well as factories and industries in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, the U.K., Malaysia and Indonesia. Saeed was also the managing director of Tadhamon International Islamic Bank, of which the HSA Group owns more than 40%. Within the province’s government, he had earlier been head of the Taiz finance and planning committee, but says he never harbored gubernatorial aspirations.
The Taiz native assumed office at a critical time in Yemen, which is facing significant economic hurdles amid political transitions following last year’s uprisings that brought down former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This year, Yemen topped Forbes‘ "world’s worst economies" list and the World Bank says the country faces "acute poverty" with nearly 50% of Yemenis living on less than US$2 a day. Saudi Arabia recently said it would give US$1 billion to Yemen to help in recovery efforts. As the oil-reliant country reckons with various challenges, the 51-year-old Saeed is at the helm of a province known as Yemen’s cultural and educational hub.
In an interview with Arabic Knowledge at Wharton at his HSA Group office in Yemen, Saeed speaks about what he’s doing to encourage budding business-owners; the hurdles of doing business in Yemen; how he’s running the public sector like a business; how he’s contacting other countries to fund government projects; and why he thinks women are taking the lead in entrepreneurship.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Unemployment remains a problem in Yemen, even in Taiz. Are there jobs not available or is it a question of training, with people ill-equipped for the job market? As governor, what are you doing to address this?
Shawki Ahmed Hayel Saeed: We just finished our studies. What I have in mind — I was working on that project two years ago, but I didn’t really get good cooperation from the ex-governors, now being a governor, now it is my case. And I think we can resolve it in one way or another. What we have said is that we have identified I think 36 or 37 jobs or businesses, where I can take young men and women [and get them] trained. I have about 14 vocational and training centers in Taiz which belong to the governorate. What we thought is that I will take these people, I will put them in training in these vocational centers and these jobs are easy jobs, being a good driver, a good mason, a good carpenter, a good welder, a good secretary, a good accountant, they are small jobs. Today, as a businessman, if I want to appoint a driver, I can find a driver, but a driver who will drive a car but who will not take good care of my car, a driver that will not say "hello" to you in the morning, "good morning." What is distinguishing between a Yemeni working in Saudi Arabia as a driver to a Filipino or an Indian driver in Saudi Arabia? It is those small things that really make him being a professional driver, or masons or whatever.
So these things will take between three months to nine months [of] training. I have the centers, I have the people, I have the programs. I need the money to support these guys until they get their certificates. And then we thought maybe we could use our [HSA] Group factories and the business committee in Taiz for training to get a job certificate that they have worked somewhere else. So we will need the money to support these activities. How can we get it? The government cannot do it. And I cannot do it as a governor because according to the law all the money that I collect as revenues for the local council is supposed to be spent on infrastructures-schools, buildings, streets, whatever-so we set up a fund. We called it a community sharing, community support to the unemployment and poverty. We launched it in Ramadan; I got a lot of business people, so we have now collected more than 110 million Yemeni Rials (US$513,500). I’m targeting 500 million Rials (US$2.3 million) — I think I will get it, no problem. Because the GCC ambassadors are willing to support [it], but I said to them, let me start and then I’ll come to you. The Americans or the Europeans will support us as soon as we start working. So that was one thing.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What are you doing to help entrepreneurs and those wanting to start their own businesses here?
Saeed: The second thing is to take the young men and women, either you train him or you train him to have their own businesses-if a lady…wants to have a beauty center or to have a place where she can make clothes and things like that or a man who wants to be a carpenter-a small SMS. In Yemen now, if you want to have your own SMS, if you have your own small businesses, you go to the bank [and] you want to take a loan, they will kill you for their requests. I used to be a managing director of one of the biggest banks, Tadhamon International Islamic Bank, we have a small businesses division. [For a loan] I need from you support, I need from you some certificates, a lot of things [are] being required and can you imagine somebody [an average person] going to the bank and saying: "Can you give me 5 million?" They will ask her a lot of things and then if she gets all these done and then they’ll tell her, ‘OK, we’ll charge you between 25 to 30% interest,’ so what do you expect?
So we thought out these funds, if I’m going to be training her to have her own beauty center, I would train her to be a good businesswoman — how she can manage her business — and this money that I’m going to be taking as funds, I’ll put it in the banks as deposits and I’ll tell them the money that you have in the bank is our money and I will send her to the bank and she will get the loan between five to eight percent and that’s all between one year to two years.
So that’s the only way to do it. And this we will work in Taiz and they will go around the country and then maybe we’ll start marketing them to go outside Yemen to Saudi Arabia. I have a division working on that one now.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You’ve said that Taiz’s population is more than 50% female. Do you think there are enough opportunities for women wanting to own their own businesses?
Saeed: I will tell you that women [are] far better than men in Taiz. I looked into the figures in Tadhamon International Islamic Bank and I was amazed or surprised to find that women that have taken businesses and loans in Taiz from our bank, other banks — they were far better than men. And not only one woman taking a loan, there were sometimes 10 women agreeing to one loan and they repaid the loan and took another loan. Men, they will take the money and get married and chew qat; I don’t know what they do with the money. But really, I think women can do a better job in Taiz than men.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How has the revolution impacted living and doing business in Yemen?
Saeed: Let me put it to you this way. I used to travel a lot during the last one year, the last two years, and every time I used to go whether to European countries or Arab countries everybody looks at me, "Oh, you came from Yemen, how did you manage to get here?" That is the first question. "How do you live in Yemen? Do you find food? Is there electricity? Is there water?" They ask me these questions like I came from a country where it used to be a strange question, and then when I ask myself this question-sometimes I ask myself this question-especially one day when I was in Europe, in Frankfurt… this guy was asking me and I said to them, "Look, you know in Yemen, we don’t have electricity in the last two years, we don’t have water, food is a problem for a lot of people, security is a big problem, fighting is here and there, everywhere — how are we managing, I have no idea. God knows what happened in the last two years. I think it was God that was controlling things here in Yemen.
Revolution, when it started in Egypt, it took I think 18 days, until Hosni Mubarak was out of office. We [HSA] have factories, we have businesses there… I think in the first 10 days, I would say about 90% of the banks and factories closed [in Egypt]. Here in Yemen, the revolution continued for almost one year and a half, factories were running, supermarkets were open, people were walking in the street, fighting was in the streets, demonstrations were in the streets, everything was happening in the streets and things were going normal. I will add to this one thing, [the] exchange rate before the revolution was higher than what it used to be after revolution, it has improved anyway, because there was a lot of funding and it came from outside to people here inside.
Let me put it this way: Can you imagine, yesterday I got a call from a manager of one of our factories, my cousin, he called me, he said our trucks were caught taking oil and ghee from our factory here to Sanaa in a village called Yarim, in Ibb governorate, next to our governorate. The truck was taken after two o’clock, after midnight by some people, and they were running after, they were looking for the truck; I mean what are you going to do? And we used to have these problems during the two years, for us as business people, can you imagine taking our products from Taiz all the way to Hadramout or Al Mahrah or to Saada or to these areas? I mean by the time our delivery trucks come to those areas, you know, wow, it’s something.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What’s it like to transition from the private sector to public service? Have you transferred any habits or methods from your business background in your government operations?
Saeed: I’m sitting now in my [corporate] office, I have my secretary outside, I have only one secretary and people come to me only for a meeting and they have an appointment and I spent time with two or three people talking about one subject.
[In] my government office [there are] two rooms, two secretaries, so you pass the first room, and then you go to the second room and then you are in the governor’s office. That means you’re supposed to be the only one that is meeting the governor, but when you go into my office, you’ll find 10 people talking at the same time, different issues.
The second thing is here in the private sector, when someone comes here he gives his paper to my secretary, my secretary will maybe summarize it and comes to me and says this man needs this issue or he gives me the paper and it’s clear what I want. In the government office, people come to you with a big file and they don’t want to give it to your secretary, they want to give it to the governor himself and they want him to read it at the same time, and they want him to assign it or to give instructions on the same file, at the same time. People in the governorate office don’t believe in discipline… because here in government offices you cannot dismiss somebody. If he’s appointed into government office, that’s it, unless he’s committed a crime or something that’s going to take a long time to get him out of the office. So that’s why they fight to find an office job in the government.
I hope that I am going to have the discipline now in the governorate office. People will leave their papers with my secretary, I will read it in my office or read it the afternoon, I give instructions on the paper, not at the same time. So I’m saying to people, give me 24 hours before you get your paper. I’m putting an office which is a public relations office inside the governorate square where people, inshallah after Eid, they will come and leave their file, they don’t have to go and see my secretary. They will leave it in the front gate, they will take a small card giving them numbers, you come back the next day and take your file. I’m having two days’ meeting, open meeting, with the public, Sunday and Wednesday, where I meet everybody that comes. They sign and they go inside, 100 to 150 people a day. You come and then you have the head of my deputies, head of different departments, service departments. So a woman will come and complain about education or about water and then I will look at her paper and I will sign it, the head of the water department is there or will answer her request, give her answers.
So what I’m trying to put now, I’ve changed seven heads of departments during the first four months and a half. Two of them I’ve sent them to court because they have cases. I’m supposed to be changing the other departments… before the end of the year, hopefully. I have to change the head, the principals of the schools, and their deputies, before the end of September. So I’m trying to find people who will service people better, do their job better, collect the revenues of the local councils, spend the money properly, do their jobs better like any other private sector job. It’s going to be a fight, but I think we will succeed.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Do you think other countries should have a role in developing Yemen?
Saeed: I’m not the president, but I’m the governor of Taiz, so what I’m looking at it as from the opportunity point of view, any influencer who will make things better for my governorate, I’m saying in terms of financing projects, helping people in Taiz, welcome to Taiz. Politically, this is in Sanaa, not in Taiz.
I have good relations with the Qatari ambassador for some time; the Saudi ambassador, Kuwaiti, Emirates, these are good friends of mine, American ambassador, European ambassadors, and I’m really relying on that to be frank. Government cannot finance projects in Yemen; government cannot influence things in Yemen. Maybe sometimes I can do it better with some ambassadors than doing it with ministers or political positions in Sanaa.
I’ve agreed with some of the GCC countries and European countries, I’m going to be spending money here on making feasibility studies, good studies for projects in Taiz-roads, hospitals, water projects — and then I’m going to market it with these ambassadors. And especially the GCC, I think maybe coming from Hayel Saeed family…maybe they have already given me the green signal, "OK, if you have projects we can finance it." And this agreement has already been agreed with the minister of planning: I will get the finances and then you do the political arrangements.