Showing the courage to restore connectivity in two of the world’s most challenging conflict zones, Reema Omari is no stranger to creating successful businesses as CEO of Universal Satcom.
Connectivity is every economy’s lifeline today – and a big casualty in any conflict zone. In fact, according to ratings agency Standard & Poor’s, in 2019 the economies of nations engulfed in conflict underperformed by more than $900bn, and a key reason cited for this shortfall is the loss of connectivity. A floundering internet service means companies cannot contact customers and suppliers, pay staff, distribute products or effectively promote goods and services.
Businesses also typically shy away from operating in conflict zones – but not Universal Satcom. Helmed by Reema Omari, one of the few women heading a satellite solutions company in the MENA region, the company has fearlessly navigated the hazards in such countries to put vital infrastructure in place and restore connectivity to enterprises.
“The reality is that challenging circumstances define a need in the market,” explains Omari. “We try to identify that need and provide a solution to address those challenges.”
That quest for commercial opportunity led her to create a bespoke set of enterprise- and SME-focused services for Yemen, supported by a technically adept team that is able to lay down infrastructure and fully customised services.
“You have to remember that there are many people and companies that have no connectivity at all because of the dispute there. We started in Yemen with a small network providing services for eight locations. We work mainly with the region’s SMEs and the smaller oil & gas businesses who generally need data connectivity. We had contacts there who were interested in upgrading their network, and I looked at how best we could develop that opportunity.”
Omari took a bold step that most people young in the business wouldn’t dare to take: she secured a whole beam on Arabsat when the operator launched a new satellite last September.
“We got an exclusive beam from Arabsat and offer customised solutions ranging from 60GB to 1TB,” she clarifies.
“We are the newest service provider in Yemen and still an early player, but we hope to be one of the recognised service providers in the country soon. It took us one year to find the right satellite capacity to serve the area. We sourced services that would provide very good value without affecting the quality. To suit the SME market, we also successfully launched two smaller packages recently. Our plan, though, is to slowly expand our Ka-band SATNET solution to a global service, with more regional coverage in many countries.”
This high quality means that while SMEs remain a primary focus, the service also appeals to public institutions, civil government agencies and defence corps, all of whom depend on secure and reliable communications. Whether operations focus on emergency response, humanitarian aid, intelligence, security or defence, Universal Satcom “is able to provide flexible and robust high-performance solutions that can rapidly be put in place”, says Omari.
Achieving this outreach, of course, is not without its challenges.
“Having CPEs [customer-premises equipment] in the country was the biggest challenge,” replies Omari. “But I believed we had to be patient and get everything properly in place, not rush in before the service offer was correct. In the first year, we made the equipment available in Yemen – and once we launched, it was fully-fledged. Everything was ready. We assembled and integrated the infrastructure in Yemen with the team we had there on the ground. Throughout, all the equipment is procured from Europe and comes through Dubai, with installation being done on the client side. We send it there to Yemen and the team know exactly how to integrate it.”
Omari is also particular that infrastructure and systems are put in place for the long term.
“Our solution is developed to last five years or more; we are confident there will be a huge demand from Yemen. Our service isn’t the cheapest, but with most of the lower price options, you have to ask – will it work? I sell quality solutions. Things have changed there so much as a result of the war. Previously it was a monopoly, hugely controlled and with very restricted licensing. Now there is room to work in the market.”
Given that Universal Satcom specialises in serving the largely rural parts of the country, isn’t there the problem of people not really understanding how a satellite solution works and how it’s relevant to them?
“Well, the bottom line is that everyone needs to be connected these days. It’s true that most people don’t know much about satellite. I tell them that whether it’s from a satellite or from a cable, you’ll have internet at the end! The bottom line is, without our service there is nothing in the more rural areas.”
Seeing how Universal Satcom has supported enterprises in Yemen, Omari has now expanded into Libya, another country where connectivity leaves much to be desired.
“The situation in Libya,” explains Omari, “is very similar to Yemen. Outside of Tripoli, there is very little infrastructure. Businesses desperately need connectivity and we are there to provide it. In Libya, we currently offer VSAT services through Ku-band, but soon it will be on Ka-band. Libya is another major opportunity for us.”
Omari’s rugged entrepreneurship in two of the world’s most threatening war zones is a stark contrast to her early days. With a master’s in Quality Management Systems from the University of Wollongong, Dubai, and a certification as an internal auditor for ISO 9000 and ISO 14000, she began her satellite journey in quality management with a regional VSAT operator, where she stayed for eight years until 2014.
“There, the CEO taught me everything I know, but sadly he passed away. I gained a lot of knowledge as a quality manager about standards and legal procedures, as well as in-depth knowledge of the business. The CEO gave me a lot of freedom for self-development. I’d been able to work as if I was the owner of the company; this was my training and the start of my ability to build a business from scratch. I developed all my contacts and network at this stage, so when he was gone, I maintained the same standards that he did. But his departure also meant a change in culture and it was time for me to start out on my own.”
The initial approach of Universal Satcom was very different.
Omari explains: “At first I found a different niche, which was the aviation industry. This was the original purpose of Universal Satcom, to provide satellite services for aviation. After thoroughly researching the sector, I created a unique turnkey solution to equip, certify and operate a satcom solution for private business jets. We spoke to business jet owners and thanks to four partnerships with US and European companies, we were able to provide niche solutions in the aviation sector.
“But even small projects in aviation take two to three years to complete, and survival in the interim can be hard while those complex deals are finalised. Our involvement in the sector, though, was impacted when the whole economy changed in 2014; we’d been targeting VIPs, but this segment almost disappeared.”
However, Omari has a never-say-die streak.
“My approach is always that I can lose a battle, but I don’t lose the war. We continued to refine and evolve our aviation offer so that today we are serving aircraft with airtime, passenger connectivity, safety and operational services in global datalink. We provide hardware support, from initial engineering design to final delivery and worldwide ground support.
“Those earlier changes in the aviation market meant that we also started targeting the maritime industry, which is another key sector. Today, satellite communications technologies can transform life at sea. They enable company owners to track their ships and cargo around the globe, and the crew can be fully up-to-date with meteorological developments, track other ships’ movements and, of course, stay in touch with family back home. At Universal Satcom, we can offer regional and global coverage, with installation by experienced maritime or IP engineers and with services and infrastructure proactively monitored and controlled 24/7.
“Our VSAT solution for ships, with connectivity with Ku-band, VSAT and Airband solution, has been a big success and to date, we have achieved more than 100 VSAT systems for vessels. We were offering as a back-up system Fleet Broadband from Inmarsat and Iridium Open Port, so we were unique in this market.
“We noticed that many companies in the sector weren’t really satcom people. They were experts in radio and navigation, but they weren’t VSAT specialists like us. This gave us an ongoing competitive edge, and today the maritime industry remains a key market for us. We have now established ourselves as a communications service provider and systems integrator, focussing on land and maritime. On land, we have Ka-, Ku-, VSAT, with a full turnkey solution. For maritime, we provide a VSAT solution (Ku- mainly), with technical support and a back-up solution based on L-band from Inmarsat and Iridium.”
Universal Satcom’s VSAT internet can be used in a wide range of applications and is designed for any environment. It delivers internet capabilities even in the remotest places, straight from the satellite to the company’s teleport. This means users are never at risk of being disconnected from email, phone calls or critical business applications, even in the most isolated areas.
Universal Satcom operates three distinct divisions as a result, Land, Maritime and Aviation, with highly specialised technical skill sets in each. It’s a strong testimony to Omari’s entrepreneurship that this has in no small measure been achieved through a very powerful series of partnerships, working with global partners such as Intellian, Iridium and Inmarsat.
“To be successful in these challenging markets, you have to be aligned with the companies who have set high standards in terms of technical ability and coverage – companies whom our clients can totally rely on.”
One key reason Omari has been able to shine in this market is the fact that bigger corporations didn’t pay much attention when a small company showed up, giving her the opportunity to blossom away from watchful eyes.
“Big corporations don’t take smaller players like us seriously, and that means we have the opportunity to go out and shine because no one is watching us closely or seeing the need to compete with us. So we can go in under the radar and create real market success in otherwise challenging places like Yemen and Libya, and highly competitive segments like the maritime sector. By the time they noticed us, we managed to hold a strong position in the market.”
So what’s it like to work at the company? Is there an X-factor behind this successful mesh of talent? Omari believes it may be her commitment to a very flat organisational structure.
“I love the phrase ‘simplicity is our complication’. We don’t have elaborate hierarchies; I believe in teamwork and I don’t micro-manage at all. The result is that while we might be a small team, we appear in the market as a huge power! In reality, everyone in the team is a salesperson, representing the business and adding value to as many client conversations as possible.
“I also think it’s important to work around people’s needs and obligations, so we have a flexi-time system in place where the emphasis is on getting the job done right, rather than arriving or leaving at exactly the same time each day. I must add, though, that that doesn’t seem to apply to me – the reality is that whenever you text me, you’ll find me!”