SAP’s Only Man in Iraq

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Mohammed al Najjar starts by telling the story about how Iraqi consumers have embraced new brands in post-war Iraq. Ford was among the first to introduce minibuses to the country, so now everyone refers to minibuses as “Fords.” Consumers buying any kind of detergent always ask the store clerk for “Tide.” Al Najjar’s vision for business software is similar: Whenever a CIO needs a solution, he should say “Give me an SAP.”

Turning this vision into reality means long days for Mohammed al Najjar, senior executive for SAP in Iraq. “It is me, my bag, my laptop, and my beliefs,” he quips. Al Najjar is the only SAP employee in a country of close to 30 million people served by an IT infrastructure frozen in the 1970s.

Combating bombs, heat, and spotty Internet in Iraq    

Mohammed al Najjar seems to be up to the challenge: With over three decades experience managing and implementing innovative solutions to business problems using the latest business software, he has completed projects for entities such as the Iraqi Ministry of Industry and Ministry of Telecommunication, as well as a host of private sector enterprises. He managed to close two large opportunities with very strategic accounts in the first year of SAP’s presence in Iraq.

The conditions under which SAP’s only man in Iraq lives and works are daunting. Travel within Iraq is risky and time consuming, electricity and Internet connectivity are intermittent, and the climate is intensely hot – with summer temperatures reaching 55 degrees Celsius (130 Fahrenheit). Ravaged by neglect and war, Iraq’s IT infrastructure can only be described as Stone Age.

And then there are the bomb attacks. To maintain close contact with the people, he has made a personal decision not to travel in organized convoys or with hired security personnel. But he still takes precautions to reduce the possibility of getting in harm’s way.

Most westerners would throw up their hands and take a different assignment – any assignment. Not al Najjar. Because he doesn’t consider it an assignment; for him, it’s more of a personal and professional mission. He is first a teacher, friend, and consultant to the Iraqi people – being an SAP employee comes after that.

Next page: Training 600,000 Iraqis for the future of IT

Internet and electricity are unreliable in many parts of Iraq. Here al Najjar stands beside a generator. (Photo: private)
Internet and electricity are unreliable in many parts of Iraq. Here al Najjar stands beside a generator. (Photo: private)

Mohammed Al Najjar was born in Iraq but left the country as a young man, more than 30 years ago. He has since earned degrees at universities in Europe, accumulated significant work experience in IT, and after gaining success, has returned to Iraq to contribute to its growth. Other IT companies would have liked to employ him in Iraq, but he was convinced by SAP. “I joined SAP because it is credible, mature, and it keeps its promises. SAP also cares, and that goes very far with the customer,” he finds.

“There is a philanthropic side of me, and with the opportunities I had in life, I thought it time to go back and share this experience with youngsters, give them a new dimension of thinking, and help them have better options in life.”

Training 600,000 Iraqis in IT

By his calculations, roughly 2%, or about 600,000 of Iraqis need training to support the IT infrastructure enhancements that the country might need in the future. Al Najjar is doing what he can, from whitepapers to workshops to shaping college education.

The natural-born teacher believes in the inherent nature of the Iraqi people to learn and innovate, based in part on their cultural heritage: “Talent is abundant in Iraq, evidenced by four major civilizations in Mesopotamia (the current Iraq) that made significant advances, including the invention of the wheel and the first set of written laws known to humankind.”

Mohammed al Najjar has developed a training system to expose Iraqis to Western ideas (the right ones, he jokes). The program is called 3-in-1, and trains Iraqis in Western marketing ideas over a period of six days. He works together with widows and orphan organizations, as well as the College of Sciences for Women at Baghdad University. “I believe that IT is a job that suits women, because it has the least risk,” he explains. “The program is headed by a very open minded dean whom I work very closely with projects on human development.”

Next page: “Good Morning Iraq” invites al Najjar to explain IT

Al Najjar estimates that Iraq will need 600,000 IT professionals to meet demand in the future; he thinks women are well-suited to the industry. (Photo: private)
Al Najjar estimates that Iraq will need 600,000 IT professionals to meet demand in the future; he thinks women are well-suited to the industry. (Photo: private)

Initiatives like the SAP University Alliance have the potential to boost local knowledge and stoke vocational skill sets. The alliance provides university faculties with the tools and resources needed to teach students how technology can help enable integrated business processes and strategic thinking, giving them the opportunity to gain valuable skills with the potential to add immediate value to the Iraqi IT sector.

“A demo can change a life”

Al Najjar is convinced that the best way to initiate business in Iraq is through social or cultural engagement. “SAP can play a phenomenal role in helping Iraq develop a vibrant IT industry,” he exclaims. “With every presentation or demo, I feel that I change somebody’s life.” But can a demo really change a life? “In Iraq it can,” claims al Najjar. In the meantime, he has gained quite a reputation in Iraq as a software evangelist. So much so, that Iraqi TV is planning to give him five minutes per day on the show “Good Morning Iraq” to talk about technology.

This is a great source of motivation for the man who left his home country in his youth, only to return to rebuild society. “Because every time someone comes to me and asks how he or she can make more of their skills, I realize I have achieved a major part of my role,” al Najjar explains. “I don’t perceive what I am doing as a job. The kick I am getting out of this job is seeing the value I bring to young Iraqis.”

“We are the founding fathers of technology”

In the context of his work for SAP in Iraq, Mohammed al Najjar doesn’t feel comfortable with the term “customer,” perhaps because the relationships he has built go deeper. “My customers and market are still in their infancy,” he explains, “so most of my time is spent as a relationship builder, business developer, cultural moderator, and translator. Much of my work involves helping Iraq to understand SAP and SAP understand Iraq.” Al Najjar is excited at the prospects for SAP in Iraq: “We are at a junction in time where we can really make a difference for SAP and for Iraq. We are the pioneers; we are the founding fathers of a new era of technology,” he points out.

Next page: Iraq’s public sector is the main driver of the economy

An Iraqi customer with SAP’s only employee in the country, Mohammed al Najjar (Photo: private)
An Iraqi customer with SAP’s only employee in the country, Mohammed al Najjar (Photo: private)

“The government is the main driver of the economy, with essentially two places of focus: managing current operations and infrastructure changes,” explains al Najjar. “We expect this to continue until the private sector is able to develop itself.” Because of the push to make up for lost time and catch up with other markets, the proportion of IT spending is higher than in other countries – with oil revenues financing it. In 2012, the government budget was €110 billion, of which 7% went towards ICT infrastructure.

Rapid deployment solutions a winner

SAP Rapid Deployment Solutions are integral to the overall business strategy for accelerating the adoption of advanced IT within Iraq. These are expertly designed business packages that include both the specialized business software and the IT consulting services to install it into the business operation. The packages span business and financial management, sales and customer service, through supply chain management.”

“With Iraq in this phase of reconstruction, rapid-deployment solutions provide Iraqi organizations with the message of ‘low risk’ with its quick guaranteed timeline, low cost, and world’s best practices deployed with proven methodology,” Mohammed al Najjar says. “They are a huge winner, because people are eager to move into the 21st century and they don’t have two to three years to implement,” he confirms. “It’s like delivering the world’s best practices on a silver platter.”