Ahead of the Times

Arabian Insight meets Tariq Qureishy, the man who oversees the printing and distribution of The Times newspaper in the UAE and the region to hear about the other strings to his bow.

Arabian Insight meets Tariq Qureishy, the man who oversees the printing and distribution of The Times newspaper in the UAE and the region to hear about the other strings to his bow. Were it set in a novel, you would say there was a pleasing, if somewhat strange, narrative arc to the professional life of Tariq Qureishy.

This man, the brains behind the organisation that brought the London Times to the United Arab Emirates nearly two years ago, started out, in his own words, as “a measly little sales executive in a tiny office” selling the Dow Jones news service to potential subscribers in Dubai back in the late eighties.

Since then, not only has Qureishy risen up the corporate ladder so successfully (before he left Dow Jones, he had made it to the position of commercial director for the entire Europe, Middle East and Africa region), but he has even managed to cross that most yawning of media Rubicons – the chasm between sales and editorial. Qureishy now has his own radio show, reporting on business, and can regularly be heard on the UAE’s airwaves interviewing financial bigshots. However, much happened in between.

After leaving Dow Jones, Qureishy went to work for a private equity firm, where he was CEO (of the Information and Media Group). He says the firm, Cupola, was a predecessor to Abraaj Capital. Qureishy was there for two and a half years, before leaving for a challenge that sounds almost as fantastical as it does fascinating:

“Then I was head hunted and taken to Brussels to head a science research facility called Starlab. They wanted adult supervision for the 175 scientists. It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. I was surrounded by triple PhD’s. I know nothing about science. My job was to take science to business.

“My job was to create a public listing on the London Stock Exchange for the first science incubator in Europe.

“We had a project on time travel. We had the first artificial brain development going on. We had among the first projects on stem cell research in 2000/2001. I started learning and understanding about science in a way that most normal people wouldn’t be able to engage. It was a rapid learning curve.”

Qureishy, who is Pakistani but was brought up in England, has a wonderfully deep and mellifluous voice – a radio presenter’s dream. He laughs that, at the time of Starlab, his mother didn’t think he had a “real” job. But as he remembers his days there, his eyes light up: “I took it because it was a real challenge, and I love that, and because everybody there was trying to deliver the quality of breakthrough to change the world. They were trying to eliminate cancer. Very idealistic. That is a part of my own personal core value system.”

Sadly for Qureishy, and for science, investment into Starlab dried up after the terror attacks of 9/11, and that was the end of that particular journey.

In 1997, Qureishy attended the leadership forum in Philadelphia that was to have such a drastic effect on the direction of his life. At the forum, delegates were asked to write three essays: one on what changes they would make if they knew they only had six months to live, one on where they expected to be in 2050, and one in the form of their own epitaph. Qureishy found the epitaph very difficult to write.

“I had an epiphany. I had to write my epitaph. I sat there, and I thought, hang on, this is not working. I was about career and growth, and development, and earning money, and having power, and more and more and more. Then I thought, hang on, I don’t want someone coming to my funeral and saying well, he had a couple of million dollars in the bank and he was only a good CEO and a good MD and not much more. That just wasn’t me.

“I kept thinking this isn’t me. I had become something that wasn’t me. A hardcore producing capitalist machine, producing money and power and stuff. And that wasn’t me, at my core. So even though my career was extremely successful and I was on a pretty much vertical climb, I had lost sight of what the world is about.”

There and then, Qureishy decided to make some big changes in the way he was conducting his life. He decided, he says, to “give more back to the world.” A year later, he had left Dow Jones, went back to Harvard Business School, set up a charity, and moved to be closer to his father.

He says the changes he made have had a profound effect on him: “That is when my core values became an integral part of my life. I am in some ways a less successful professional than I was ten years ago, but I am more complete as a person. That is what life is about.”

Over the course of our conversation, Qureishy talks animatedly about the holistic approach he takes to life. He has a life coach, he says, and he is an ardent advocate of yoga and meditation. Moreover, after the terrible tragedy of a family bereavement almost a year ago, he is trying to find ways to make sure he enjoys life, and takes time to do things that are fun.

“I should be having more fun. I suppose I have a lot of fun and fulfillment at work. But meditation, yoga, exercising, good nutrition, these are my vices now. To me it is about peak performance. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t gamble.

“Yoga has been a tremendous leveller for me. And meditation. My executive coach is an expert in managing energy in your body. She can get rid of unhealthy energy and align energy properly. I was sceptical to start with, but she encourages me to do things that make me happy. She is about nudging you in directions that make you happy. Name five things that you do each day for fun. I struggled with that. But now I try to do them everyday.”

After his epiphany and his return to Dubai, two years ago he was approached by Saudi conglomerate SAB to head up the team that would establish the printing and distributing of the Times in the UAE.

“It has worked out reasonably well,” he says. “We paved the way. We were the first people to get a licence for reprint. Now the Wall Street Journal has got it, several Asian newspapers, and the Daily Mail has got it. But we were the pioneers. We navigated our way through the murky waters. I was ambitious, wanting the model to be almost entirely retail and subscription driven. I wanted advertising to be a very small component of it. I think was I naïve in that respect. It still isn’t an advertising driven model, but it does account for about one third of revenue.”

He talks fondly of the first few months following the launch of the paper in the UAE, when in the SAB offices it was all hands on deck, all members of staff rolling up their sleeves to get the product out on the shelves and into peoples’ homes. It was tough work, but there was an appetite in the market for the Times.

“Within the first six months we had about seven thousand to eight thousand subscribers. We became the single largest Times publication outside of the UK; it is also printed in Paris, New York, Brussels and Madrid. By the end of the first year, we were the same as all of them put together. So it started really well. But, on the whole, the business model of newspapers is indeed very tough.”

Asked if there is a danger that the Times might not, despite its apparent success, be viable commercially, Qureishy shakes his head. He says: “We are not going to can it. Is it profitable? No. Is it safe? Reasonably. We did have some breakeven months, then we had the global financial meltdown and things got a little wobbly. But we are there or thereabouts, and there is a long-term commitment from Times parent company News International to make sure this Middle East pilot works.”

Now, it seems, Qureishy’s passions are his radio work and a business programme on television, his work to help the regional media evolve futuristically (he refers to himself as “a future interceptor”), and his charity, which allows people to donate money to good causes by mobile phone and other innovative technologies. “It could be a billion dollar concern,” he says. He is also hoping soon to start a family.

Interview complete, Qureishy, who is likeable and charming, fixes Insight with a level stare and says: “I just want to make a fundamental difference in peoples’ lives.” That’s enough ambition for anyone.

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