Conference call: Meetings and events are big business and Saudi Arabia is well placed to cash in

This file photo shows the venue where the Quality of Life Program 2020 conference was held in Riyadh on May 3. (AFP)
Updated 06 June 2018
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Conference call: Meetings and events are big business and Saudi Arabia is well placed to cash in

  • Saudi Arabia, as a member of the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA), is working relentlessly for the growth of this industry
  • KSA is very keen to create unique and sustainable business events based on its strengths, competitive advantage: SECB chief

RIYADH: With the announcement of Vision 2030, the public and private sectors in the Kingdom have swung into action to achieve the ultimate goal of diversifying the economy of the country, which until now heavily relies on oil revenues.
The Saudi Vision 2030 has set in motion a massive plan for socioeconomic reforms. All the sectors in the Kingdom are following a three-step strategy to achieve their shared goals: Reforms, increased productivity and finally enhanced competitiveness. 

An important sector that is growing by leaps and bounds in the Kingdom is the meetings and event industry. Since the announcement of the reforms, the importance of this industry has increased manifold, as the country is experiencing a boom in the number of conferences and exhibitions. 

Saudi Arabia, as a member of the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA), is working relentlessly for the growth of this industry.

The Saudi Exhibition and Convention Bureau (SECB) has also initiated “the Envoy Program” to recruit envoys in government agencies, associations, chambers and federations to help these bodies engage with international organizations, discuss partnership opportunities and to attract business events to the Kingdom. The aim of this program and many other initiatives is to transform Saudi Arabia into a regional and global meeting hub.

Commenting on the growth of the Saudi meetings industry, ICCA Regional Director Senthil Gopinath said:

“The meetings industry does not grow in a vacuum. It is linked to business activities, especially international, and the development of the local association, scientific and health care communities. It also depends on the importance of a country as a market. Sometimes growth in meetings industry infrastructure and capacity follows these wider trends, sometimes, thanks to strong government leadership or visionary companies, it can work as a catalyst. Anyone paying attention to what’s happening in Saudi Arabia will be aware that there is a huge amount of change taking place. Saudi Arabia is really getting serious about meetings industry developments. 

SECB CEO Tariq Al-Essa told Arab News: “We cannot compare the UAE or Dubai with Saudi Arabia in terms of numbers of business events or the size of the industry; Saudi demand and supply on the meetings industry is much bigger and stable with high potential powered by Saudi Vision 2030.” 

Al-Essa said four Saudi cities — Riyadh, Makkah, Madinah and the Eastern Province — have huge potential, as they are almost 15 times bigger than the UAE in size and much more populated than the Gulf emirate.

“Moreover, these four provinces combined are way bigger in terms of economy, infrastructure, number of professionals, number of international airports, hotels, international visitors as well as heritage and antiquities,” he said. 

In 2017, the SECB chief said, more than 10,000 business events were held in these provinces in more than 400 different venues like hotels, conference and convention centers.

Al-Essa said currently, the demand in the Saudi meetings industry is organic; and it is growing organically because of the demand to conduct business events organized by official associations, federations, chambers, public and private corporations, universities and event management companies. 

“Therefore, the demand for business events is a reaction to the Saudi economy supported by infrastructure expansions, incentives and facilitation to the meetings industry. In contrast, other countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council tend to interfere by buying and biding for events; thus the demand is not driven by economy, but more likely driven by tourism,” he added.

However, he said, many GCC countries are doing well in this area and increasingly progressing faster than Saudi Arabia.

“Although Saudi Arabia is starting to bid for international business events, the Kingdom is also very keen to create unique and sustainable business events based on its strengths, competitive advantage. There are plenty of opportunities to create or attract all types of business events in many economic sectors in Saudi Arabia including water desalination, oil production, power, petrochemicals, mining, logistics, sports, tourism, Hajj and Umrah services, Islamic finance, countering terrorism and of course, dates production.”

The Saudi meetings industry faces many obstacles and challenges. When the SECB was launched in September 2013, it identified the major obstacles to the Saudi meetings industry growth, including regulatory, accessibility, competency, sustainability, non-availability of information and marketing.

The SECB, he said, worked hard to remove those obstacles and has achieved great results. 


Hajj 2018: What’s on pilgrims’ bucket lists

Masjid Quba in Madinah is a favorite destination for Hajj pilgrims, according to tour guides. Below: The Cave of Hira, Al-Baqi’ cemetery and the Prophet’s Chamber allow visitors to step back in time. (Getty Images)
Updated 15 August 2018
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Hajj 2018: What’s on pilgrims’ bucket lists

  • A number of companies in Makkah and Madinah help people organize their trips, making sure they cover the important sites in the two holy cities
  • Most of the sites in the two holy cities are spiritual, giving pilgrims a sense of the prophecies

RIYADH: Hajj is one of the biggest dreams of every Muslim’s life, and pilgrims looking forward to their stay in Makkah and Madinah say a bucket list is the best way to plan the trip. 

Most of the sites in the two holy cities are spiritual, giving pilgrims a sense of the prophecies. Standing in the places of the Holy Prophet transports them back to the past as if they lived those incredible moments. 

A number of companies in Makkah and Madinah help people organize their trips, making sure they cover the important sites in the two holy cities.

Sayed Shafei, an operation manager for City Sightseeing, a tour company in Madinah and worldwide, told Arab News: “We offer a special tour with a multilingual tour guide presented in eight languages. We also offer 24-hour tickets. We have scheduled tourism trips starting from the Prophet’s Mosque to 12 destinations every 30 minutes. The whole trip lasts for 14 hours a day.” 

Asked about the most popular requests, Shafei said: “Our customers always ask to visit Masjid Quba, the Sayed Al-Shuhada Mosque in Uhud, which is considered a vital historic landmark of Madinah, and Al-Qiblatain Mosque.” 

Most of the group’s customers are from East Asia, but many also visit from Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, Indonesia, Malaysia, the US and Europe.

Munirah Al-Jebreen, an English instructor at Princess Noura University who will perform Hajj this year, told Arab News her bucket list began with an online search. 

“I found a travel guide on Google that has all the best sites in Madinah and Makkah, so I decided to visit Uthman ibn Affan’s Farm and Well in Madinah, the Holy Qur’an exhibition, and one of the most important places I want to visit is the grave of the Holy Prophet,” she said.

The area between the Prophet’s Chamber, which holds his grave, and the Mimbar is known as the Rawdah, which is actually the Garden of Paradise. It is presently distinguished by a green carpet.

Al-Jebreen also listed some of her planned tour destinations in Makkah, including the Cave of Hira, where the Holy Prophet meditated frequently during the first 40 years of his life and the site of the first revelation. 

She will also visit Bilal Mosque and Mount Abu Qubais and, finally, will try Al-Garmushi, one of the famous traditional restaurants in Makkah.