Interview: Khalid Al Jaber, A serial entrepreneur

As CEO of Innovation Group, Khalid Al Jaber is a 35-year-old Qatari who is involved in all four of his company’s divisions, in the information technology sector and filmmaking, as well model building for the construction, real estate and oil and gas industries, through the German-based Innovation GmbH. Al Jaber is also executive director of Ertibat International, specialising in construction and business consultancy, and is completing his PhD. TheEDGE managed to speak to serial entrepreneur Al Jaber recently about his many current projects, which include the production of two of Qatar’s and the region’s first horror and science fiction films, and an upcoming feature film in an Innovation partnership with US production company Waterstone.

Coming from a prominent in QatarI business family, has that helped or hindered your progress?
Al Jaber has been in business in Qatar for more than 100 years. But when I started my own business, I avoided getting any financial support from my grandfather Jaber Al Jaber, who has worked in real estate and construction since the late 1950s. However, I was always hoping to reach my goals the same way my grandfather did, as I have always seen him as a positive influence. My father Mohammed Al Jaber was ambassador of Qatar in many countries, such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Germany…but he has always been aware of all my plans and decisions. When I started my business in Germany in the 1990s, he gave me many tips and feedback, which encouraged me. Living in different cultures, thanks to my father’s job, enabled me to have a clear vision how I want to run my businesses locally and internationally.

My father’s job as an ambassador for Qatar, has enabled me to have a clear vision of how I want to run my businesses locally and internationally.

How do you manage your time?
It is all about priorities. A couple of years ago I noted down where I plan to be in the next five years. I began my PhD as first priority, and concentrated on Innovation Productions and Innovation Technologies; however I also found myself dragged toward many other projects, such as joining Ertibat International. I also got many offers to start in other fields of businesses, which I am sure would have been an added value, but due to my priorities in what I am currently doing, I rejected them. I even received a promising job offer recently…but I knew it would take most of my time from working on Innovation Group and my PhD so I declined.

What does Innovation Technologies do?
Innovation Technologies specialises in model making, of towers, construction projects, and oil and gas and petrochemical plants. We have done lots of interesting projects all around the world, especially in Middle East, such as Dubai and Saudi Arabia. We did an expansion project for Mecca and a huge project in the south of Sudan and in Libya as well. One of the most interesting projects that we did was the Al Koora project, which was collaboration between seven special needs organisations and a number of Qatari artists. We wanted to make some artwork as a gift for His Highness the Emir of Qatar at a gala dinner, that was organised by Reach Out for Asia in December 2011. It was given the highest value [US$1.45 million (QR5.3 million) and] was sold to Prince Al Walid bin Talal Al Saud in Saudi Arabia.

Where does Ertibat International fit in?
I recently joined them as executive director. It is a group of seven companies that are involved in construction, project management, consultancy and electricity infrastructure. They are doing huge projects, and we have partnered with big name companies such as Blair-Anderson, a British project management and construction consultancy company. There is also plant engineering, which has a lot of projects. We have more than 3000 labourers working for us and are in the process of opening a branch in Frankfurt, along with all of the Innovation Technologies.

How did Innovation Productions come about?
Ahmad Al Baker was the director of the previous movies that we have done and he is also a relative, so at the beginning when I formed Innovation Productions it was just to support him when it came to paperwork and the legal aspects. Innovation Group existed before that, with Innovation Technologies, which was founded in Frankfurt where I studied and used to live, before I moved back to Qatar. It is still run by myself and a German partner in Frankfurt. In 2010 we started Innovation Productions where we introduced ‘The Package’, a science fiction movie for Innovation Productions. Ahmed Al Baker was speaking at TedX Doha in 2010 and he introduced the movie at the time, but it took a lot longer to be launched officially because of various enhancements that we have been working on. We plan to officially launch the movies soon, but for now we are concentrating on the movie ‘Lockdown’ and when we are going to officially launch, it especially after we premiered it at the fifth edition of the Gulf film festival this year.

The zombie horror, ‘Lockdown: Red Moon Escape’ is the first Arab and indeed Qatari produced motion picture, is that correct?
Yes, we launched ‘Lockdown’ at the Gulf Film Festival in the United Arab Emirates. It is a story of two guys who are driving down the highway in Qatar who get caught by zombies and they get taken to a prison, and their main priority is to escape. It is an interesting movie, it was already launched in Dubai and we will be releasing it in Doha by the end of this year.

There is always talk about competition between Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi film making, but when we meet now you feel that you just want to partner with them.

This year you also formed a partnership with Waterstone Films from the US?
We had a representative from Innovation who was at the Cannes 2012 Film Festival, and there we announced a partnership between Innovation Films and Waterstone to make a movie that was inspired and based on a bestseller book, ‘The Greatest Salesman’. We are going to start on the filming of this movie around spring 2013. Both Waterstone and Innovation Films will produce it.

You also run workshops for young aspiring filmmakers in Qatar? Do you see this being a way to further promote Qatari-made films?
We have workshops in Qatar with young people, where these kinds of ideas pop out. We have Scandar Copti managing these workshops and if you go there and watch those guys who are acting, or practicing how to act, you will see the ideas that are coming forward on the spot. We are looking for more talent…filmmakers, scriptwriters and actors. We have a big database so far, all of them young Qataris. They are willing to give time, even to volunteer in our movies, just to hold a camera or a light. Just to get experience. Another thing is that during the filming of ‘Lockdown’ the majority of people that were working for the film were locals. We did have support from some of our partners, such as Speed of Life Studios from Hollywood, who assisted us with editing and monitoring our performance of how the film was progressing.

Do you think Qatar can develop itself as a regional hub of filmmaking? How could Innovation be able to help develop this?
We have had some circles of discussion with younger generations to find out what is on their minds. Even if they don’t know how to make it in a film, we can develop their ideas. For example there are lots of issues that the younger generation are facing, such as the gap between expatriates and locals, they can’t get involved with them as friends and so on. [And] especially when it comes to work, expatriates for example have their own events and the locals have their own. Plus, organisations here always look at expatriates as more trustworthy when it comes to business and work and locals need more experience. Those younger generations, all they are asking to be given the chance to prove themselves…so all of these issues, they want them to be made into movies. Another thing is the labour issues. Nobody has talked about the labourers in the industrial areas, the issue of human rights and what the conditions are. To make these movies we would have to go through a lot of procedures with our government. We can’t just take our cameras and go there and film. So these are the issues that we are going through, yes we did have support from some of the executives and families, but we still need to be more flexible on to how we can transfer their ideas into short films, trying to help them how to make their own films or short movies, supervised by Innovation.

Dubai is fairly well established though and Abu Dhabi is also a step ahead of Doha with its film festival. Do you think there is a sense of competition between these locations?
Yes, there is some competition, especially when it comes to Dubai because there is a lot of movement among the young and youth with Innovation in Dubai and they are doing very well. Yesterday I had a meeting with a young girl from Dubai who offered to cooperate when it comes to making a films that are co-produced by Qatar and one UAE organisation, and some percentage of it would be going to the communities for old or disabled people. We always talk about competition, but when we meet at an event you feel that you just want to partner with them and do something together. The competitive spirit goes away and partnership comes in. This was not how it went during the previous events in Qatar, Dubai or Cannes. The good thing about Cannes is that we met with big companies, and when we introduced Innovation they were very encouraged and wanted to know more about this young and recently formed company in this part of the Middle East, Qatar. What is it all about? Let us know about ‘The Package’ or ‘Lockdown’… why did you come up with the science fiction movie? Why not something cultural or political? There are a lot of questions that needed to be answered.

Where do you see the future going in terms of more productions like yours? Do you really think it is going to grow?
Yes, actually it is growing. When I browse Twitter on a daily basis, I get followed by young filmmakers, film producers, and a university students. That makes me feel comfortable and happy, and that would be a big revolution with filmmaking. The great thing is that most of the young filmmakers or a producers is that they know what they want. With the young lady that I was chatting with yesterday, she said that I am a documentary film director… I said why documentaries and she said ‘because I know how to work with documentaries; I am more comfortable with documentaries’. Others could say that their aim is to do a 3D movie, another girl that I met a few months back; she wanted to do an animation movie…I asked her why don’t we talk about something like a real movie or like a comedy movie…and she said, ‘no I am only focused on animated movies and I am in the process of studying how to propose an animation institute’. This was good because all of them had vision. It is not just about becoming famous or to have the title of a film producer or filmmaker. It is that they know exactly what they are going to do and what their plans are.

So there is a lot of ambition?
Yes, and the good thing here is that the government introduced festivals like Tribeca. That is why Doha Film Institute (DFI) is here. To change the idea of making films. In the past year in Qatar, people were ashamed to be seen on TV or appear in a series or in a movie. Now when you go to the Qatar Foundation you will see a girl who is spending five hours making a time lapse of a building. Or interviewing someone on the Corniche for example, I have seen a lot of guys walking with their cameras for the tragic incident that happened in Villaggio when I was there. This makes me comfortable when it comes to the future of filmmaking in Qatar.

What is your perspective in terms of value of producing English or Arabic film content?
Well, if you see ‘The Package’ promo, we used both English and Arabic. When it is an Arabic person speaking, you will see English subtitles and vice versa. Nowadays everybody speaks English and I know that that the younger the generations, the better English that is spoken. If you want to reach the world, you need to have a strong grasp of English.

But there is definitely something to be said for creating productions in Arabic?
Of course, and we are working on that too. ‘Lockdown’ was in Arabic. We used our local accent in it as well. It is different from a series that you might watch on television. It is something different. It is a new era of filmmaking. We haven’t had a Qatari film in Qatar for something like 35 years. So I think that this is the time that we should show the world what we can do.

This article first appeared in TheEDGE 4.9, September 2012.


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