Saudi Arabia looks to the future — by stepping 5,000 years into the past

The archaeological treasure house of Madain Saleh (above); the Arabian Travel Market’s global reach (below).
Updated 22 April 2018
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Saudi Arabia looks to the future — by stepping 5,000 years into the past

  • Kingdom developing tourism sector as part of economic diversification strategy
  • Vision 2030 foresees 1.2 million new tourist jobs by 2030

LONDON: It is the leading global event for Middle Eastern tourism and it opens on Sunday in Dubai. The Arabian Travel Market attracts the big players of the industry and the wannabes. It showcases 2,800 products to more than 28,000 potential buyers and generates deals worth more than $2.5 billion.

No wonder the world wants to be there, from spas to safaris, from Armenia to Zanzibar and all points between in both the globe and the alphabet.

But this year, one destination is set to attract more attention than any other: Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom’s tourism industry has hitherto centered primarily on the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah; last year’s Hajj attracted around 2.35 million pilgrims, with about 1.75 million of those coming from abroad.

When it comes to non-religious tourism however, it is in the unique position of creating that industry more or less from scratch, which is an enviable place to be.

“It means we are able to learn from the mistakes of others and we can take the best from everywhere,” said Amr Al-Madani, CEO of the Royal Commission for Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia’s archaeological treasure house and home to the Unesco-listed Madain Saleh.

“And we are determined to offer the best in every way,” he added.

Al-Madani recently returned from presenting the plans for Al-Ula at a high-profile gala at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris, an occasion that coincided with the visit of Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the driving force behind Vision2030, the ambitious program designed to revamp not only the national economy but Saudi society as a whole.

Once regarded as practically off-limits to visitors and particularly Westerners (although that was never true), Saudi Arabia is throwing open the gates, as part of plans to diversify its economy and create jobs for its citizens.

The Kingdom’s Vision 2030 economic development plan, designed to create new revenue streams to lower its reliance on oil, envisages the creation of 1.2 million new jobs in the tourism sector by 2030.

Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority in February said it planned to invest $64 billion in its entertainment sector in the coming 10 years. This investment will include the development of a countrywide network of cinemas, following the lifting of a ban last year.

As well as opening up the 5,000-year-old wonders of Al-Ula, there are plans to develop 34,000 square kilometers of Red Sea coastline and 50 outlying islands into luxury beach resorts.

The scheme has already attracted Sir Richard Branson, founder and boss of the Virgin Group, as its first international investor. He is involved in developing the islands — which he described as “breathtakingly beautiful” — as luxury destinations, and has also visited Madain Saleh.

“This is an incredibly exciting time in the country’s history and I’ve always felt that there is inothing like getting a first-hand impression,” he said after his visit.

He praised the Crown Prince for his vision, telling Arab News, “If you want to succeed you should have an idea and a plan to implement it and just do it. He is doing that and his heart is in the right place.”

Though he is overseeing the development of the Al-Ula sites, Amr Al-Madani said one plan was to offer two-center holidays: “Some days exploring the archaeology and the nature in Al-Ula and then a few days relaxing at the beach,” he said.

As well as unspoilt beaches, the Red Sea coast also enjoys the best climate in Saudi Arabia with pleasant sea breezes offsetting the heat.

The Red Sea project is expected to generate 35,000 jobs.

The Royal Commission has already recruited the first 200 future employees who will work in Al-Ula. The group — half boys, half girls — are all high school-leavers or university students from the region. They have already begun three months of training in Riyadh, learning languages and undergoing assessment by psychologists and careers advisers and will later be dispatched to several locations in Britain and the US to continue learning.

Al-Madani said Al-Ula should be ready to receive its first tourists in three to five years, eventually accommodating a million to 1.5 million a year.

Decoder

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Nestle streamlines R&D to speed up product innovation

Updated 45 min 20 sec ago
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Nestle streamlines R&D to speed up product innovation

LONDON: Food giant Nestle plans to combine its scientific research operations into a single unit in an attempt to speed up development of new products at a time when competition from smaller rivals is intensifying.
The world’s biggest packaged food maker, with brands including Nescafe coffee and Perrier water, has been struggling with slowing sales growth for years. Now it is also under pressure from activist shareholder Daniel Loeb to increase investor returns.
To better compete, the Swiss company told Reuters it would merge its Nestle Research Center and Nestle Institute of Health Sciences (NIHS) into one organization called Nestle Research.
The new entity, to be announced later on Thursday, will continue to be based in Lausanne, Switzerland and will employ around 800 people.
The reorganization, effective July 1, will not involve job cuts or the closure of facilities, a spokesman said.
By linking the “blue-sky” research done at NIHS with the more commercially focused Research Center, it hopes to accelerate the translation of scientific discoveries into marketable products.
It also hopes this will help it compete with smaller, nimbler rivals who have been eating away at the market share of Nestle and other big firms like Danone, Unilever, Kraft Heinz and Kellogg.
Nestle Chief Technology Officer Stefan Palzer acknowledged earlier this month that his company had to keep pace with rising demand for goods that are organic, gluten-free or vegan.
“Big trends are embraced by smaller companies a bit more actively than the big companies,” Palzer told Reuters before Nestle’s streamlining plans had been finalized.
“We are adjusting our portfolio, doing many innovations and renovations to make the portfolio more relevant and to address those trends, but smaller companies are more agile.”
In the US — the world’s biggest packaged food market — small challenger brands could account for 15 percent of a $464 billion sector in a decade’s time, up from about 5 percent last year, Bernstein Research predicted last year.
The combination of research units is the latest move by Palzer aimed at speeding up development and ensuring research efforts are commercially viable.
Palzer, who took over Nestle’s innovation and research and development operations in January, is also supplementing long-term research projects with incremental product launches made faster by experimenting with new ideas more quickly.
Last month, for example, Palzer and colleagues got the idea for a vegetarian or vegan food product while on a business trip.
“Thursday we had an idea, Friday we returned to Switzerland and Monday evening I was able to taste the first prototype,” Palzer said. “Wednesday, this prototype was shown to the executive board, and Friday it was in the global pipeline.”
He declined to give more details of the product, except to say it is currently being assessed by the operations team to see how long it will take to produce and on what machinery.
Other steps include efforts to apply specific developments to more products, such as Nestle’s recent designer sugar crystals launched in low-sugar Milkybars in March, which will go into other products in the future.
The importance of agility was underlined by Nestle’s recent struggle to capitalize on resurgent demand for frozen foods.
The company says it reformulates one third of its product portfolio every year.
Nestle spent 1.72 billion Swiss francs ($1.73 billion) on R&D last year, down slightly from 2016 but up 22 percent from 2012. The company’s sales fell 2.6 percent over the same period.
As a percentage of sales, its expenditure has fluctuated only a little, but demands on the unit have increased.
Wells Fargo analyst John Baumgartner said that across 10 large publicly traded US food companies, median expenses for R&D and advertising have declined 20 percent over the past five years.
“As voids of ideas and marketing have emerged, start-ups have been more responsive to consumer needs, won the culture and created the emotional connections that drive sales,” he said in a recent note.
Palzer said some industry peers had been outsourcing innovation to cut costs, relying on acquisitions of small brands or partnerships with suppliers.
But he said it was critical for Nestle to maintain scientific expertise in-house to keep its own portfolio fresh and to be an attractive partner for collaboration with others. Nestle does R&D around the world, involving around 5,000 people.
Fundamental scientific research will remain key at Nestle, Palzer said, but he also highlighted the value of external partnerships and acquisitions that can bring in new research or capabilities more easily.
Scientific research and innovation itself is not necessarily the reason why big breakthroughs tend to be rare for multinational companies, said Shaun Browne, investment banker at Houlihan Lokey, who advises food companies on deals.
“They often don’t have the patience or passion that is really required,” Browne said. “Often these things are one individual who is just totally determined and passionate about their product and sees it through.”