Caught Between A Rock and a Hard Place: The Sakhr Story

One of my favorite childhood memories is riding my first horse; a brawny black beauty named Sakhr, at the local Hunting and Equestrian Club. Another favorite 80’s memory of mine is playing G1 video games on Atari and Sakhr.

Wait, on a stone?

Yes.

Our story starts with a petrous protagonist; entrepreneur and Arab computing visionary, Mohammad Al Sharekh.

Al-Sharekh was born in Kuwait City in 1942, and received a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University, followed by a Master’s Degree in Economic Development from Williams College in Massachusetts. Since his salad days, Al-Sharekh developed a great interest in scientific research and the information age.

During his career, Al-Sharekh held various positions as an economist and entrepreneur, including his appointment as the Deputy Director of the Kuwait Fund for Economic Development between 1969 and 1973 and as the Deputy Executive Director of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Washington from 1973 to 1975. He also assumed the position of Chairman of the Board of Directors of Kuwait Industrial Bank between 1975 and 1979.

Every Super Hero Needs an Origin Story

The Sakhr origin story that Al-Sharekh likes to relate to which occurred in the early seventies when he was a member of the Board of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development representative of the Gulf states and on a visit to Washington DC; it was when he entered into his office at the time and laid his eyes on a personal computer for the first time in his life — it was love at first byte. Like Aladdin discovering a magical lamp, Al-Sharekh wished that the developer of this magical device had considered the Arabic language and its very logical lexical rules.

Sakhr — The World’s First Arabic (Speaking) Computer

Al-Sharekh founded “Sakhr” Software Company and chaired its board of directors in 1982. His goal was to develop native programs for the growing number of Arab PC users via the Arabization of electronic games.

But it wasn’t all fun and games, through Sakhr, Al-Sharekh pioneered educational software for children via “Sakhr MSX”, a partnership with a medium-sized (back then) company known as Microsoft. Sakhr MSX would go on to achieve widespread success throughout the Arab world, primarily within the GCC.

Al-Sharekh built Sakhr into the strongest software and hardware brand in the Arab world; thus successfully attracting talented Arab youth into the fields of technology and software development. Sakhr was also an early commercial successful selling over two million devices and more than five million software packages across the Arab world.

MSX: A Collaboration between Microsoft and Sakhr

Solid Branding

As for the name he chose for his company, Al-Sharekh recounts his use of a Japanese branding company, which suggested that his new brand should be composed of a few letters; no more than three, thus mirroring the consonant branding principles of MSX.

And thus, arock star was born as Sakhr was chosen from a short list of snappy names. Sakhr is a name that indicates the strength and was ultimately chosen by Al-Sharekh as he recalled a famous verse by Al-Khansaa:

On this Rock I will Build My Company

Amongst the most prominent achievements of Sakhr was the development of a new generation of natural processing technologies (NLP), amongst the first for the Arabic language (more on this below).

Sakhr also developed a plethora of programs that were widely popular in the 1980s, including a Holy Qura’an program, a geography of the Arab world, the first computerized Hajj and Umrah programs, an Arab history program, as well as multiple Arabic language games.

Sakhr also developed an Arabic to English translation engine, which contributed greatly to the development of future Arabic language programs.

Sakhr would go on to develop a morphological analysis program in 1982, a spell checker in 1990, an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) program in 1994, an Automatic Language Formation program in 1996, as well as programs involved in the automatic pronunciation and automatic reading of Classical Arabic text in 1998.

The Sakhr AX 170 Console

Sticks and Stones

Unfortunately, although Sakhr continues to survive as a software company, its legacy as a global tech behemoth is lacking. There are rumors of legal disputes between Sakhr and its various international partners, as well as poaching of key homegrown talent by foreign firms, echoing an early form of the brain drain faced by many MENA countries.

An interesting side note is that a $5,000 investment, 33 years ago during the MSFT IPO, would have purchased 238 shares of Bill Gate’s baby. After multiple splits, those shares would now translate to 68,544 shares and be worth $10,592,104 at today’s stock price. That’s a compound annual return of about 25% per year, or a cumulative return of nearly 211,000%.

It seems that the Arab world will still have to wait for a similar success story.

Post Script

On the the 3rd of January 2020 Google Doodle celebrated the 82nd birthday of Nabil Ali Mohamed’s 82nd Birthday, an Egyptian pioneer of Arabic language computing. It was sad that this was the first I had ever heard of Dr. Nabil Ali’s innovations in the field of computational linguistics that propelled the Arab world into the Information Age. Essentially, Dr. Nabil created programs that enabled computers to understand Arabic in digital form.

Dr. Nabil Ali was born in Cairo on this day in 1938. Expressing an interest in art at a young age, Mohamed was inspired to apply his creative passion for visual aesthetics to the world of engineering. After obtaining his PhD in Aeronautical Engineering at Cairo University, he spent over 20 years working as an engineer with the Egyptian Air Force, as well as with various computer and electronics companies throughout the world.

For Dr. Nabil Ali, digitization of Arabic, with its complex linguistic rules and morphology, was a way to connect Arabic speakers with the world.

Over the course of his career, Dr. Nabil Ali published a number of papers, books, and technical reports in support of the developments he was making in the field of computational linguistics. His work won him several awards, including the prestigious King Faisal Prize, in 2012 — recognizing his pioneering contributions to the Arabic Language and Literature.

Happy (belated) Birthday, Dr. Nabil Ali!

“The Way of the Future”