Image Nation CEO Michael Garin: Abu Dhabi Oscar winner turns gaze toward Saudi Arabia

Illustration by Luis Grañena
Updated 03 March 2019
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Image Nation CEO Michael Garin: Abu Dhabi Oscar winner turns gaze toward Saudi Arabia

  • Fresh from Hollywood triumph, the Image Nation boss urges Saudi cinema to focus on ‘what money cannot buy’
  • After a successful career in US media Michael Garin transferred to the UAE in 2007, and became Image Nation’s CEO six years later.

DUBAI: It is not every day you get to meet an Oscar winner.

Last week, the genial and straight-talking Michael Garin, CEO of Abu Dhabi film production company Image Nation, assumed that title. One of his projects, “Free Solo,” about the rock climber Alex Honnold’s epic ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan wall in the US, won the award for Best Documentary at the gala Hollywood event.

Rami Malek’s award for Best Actor in a Leading Role drew plaudits across the Middle East, but “Free Solo” — having also won a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award — is a testament to the Gulf’s burgeoning film industry. Garin has played a big part in that.

So, who would he like to thank? “Well, my mother, my father…” he joked, before naming Evan Hayes, who developed and produced the film, and Ben Ross, his chief content officer in Abu Dhabi.

He also paid tribute to the UAE itself, which launched Image Nation 12 years ago, and Saudi Arabia, where the company is increasingly focusing.

The traditional nature of society in the Gulf had provided stability, he said, allowing a younger generation to “let go” and the industry to expand.

“At the end of the day this is a tribal society with a lot of traditions that are not going to change as rapidly as technology and economics change. There’s a unity and a solidarity,” the native New Yorker said. “People in the rest of the world don’t understand, but democracy gave us Donald Trump.”

After a successful career in US media Garin transferred to the UAE in 2007, and became Image Nation’s CEO six years later. With the CV of a media mogul, he was well positioned to recognize the challenges.

“Failure was punished, culturally. The first thing we had to do was make Image Nation a place where it was safe to fail. You can’t create excellence without people taking creative risks, and most creative risks don’t succeed. If you try and fail, you have to be protected,” he added.

Another issue was that there were few Emiratis with expertise in film. “We were able to convince the leadership that, because this was an industry that did not exist before, you could not populate the upper levels of the organization with local staff. We had to bring expats in who would provide the guidance and training to create a professional industry.”

Now most of Image Nation’s 73 permanent employees are Emirati, many of them in senior positions. “I can honestly say we do not have a single Emirati working here just because they are Emirati. They’re very talented.”

Some have talked about a “motivational deficit and skills gap” in the ongoing policy of “localization” in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, but Garin dismisses it. “There’s a skills gap in an industry that wasn’t there before. There’s a difference between talent and skill. What they don’t lack is desire and ambition,”
he said.

Illustration by Luis Grañena

Image Nation was set up to cultivate a creative film industry in the region, but was not expected to be a source of financial profit. It lives off state funding.

“What I’m very grateful for is that the money comes with no strings. I’ve never had a complaint about the content, never been told what to create,” Garin said. “In the beginning, they were talking like audiences, not producers. We did what they wanted, but not necessarily in the way they wanted it to be done.”

He also explained how the “leadership was lamenting potentially raising a generation of spoiled children,” which led to the twin criteria for films encouraging social development as well as entertainment.

He highlighted a series on the Philippines, designed to show pampered Emirati youth the realities of life beyond their privileged horizons, and a short movie, “Leap of Faith,” to accompany the $4.5 billion campaign by the UAE, in partnership with US philanthropist Bill Gates, to eradicate polio in Pakistan.

But his proudest achievement to date — at least before the Oscar — was the series “Justice,” which follows the lives of a family of Emirati lawyers and their clients, starring local actors and filmed on location in the UAE. “‘LA Law’ meets ‘Dallas’ in Abu Dhabi,” Garin described the show, which was translated into 27 languages on Netflix.

“This is one of the secrets of our success. Everything we do is culturally authentic. I think Saudi Arabia is following suit, combining international expertise with local talent, knowledge and resources. I really admire the way Saudi Arabia has gone about the development of their entertainment sector. There are certain things in our industry that can be purchased. 

You can build get AMC and VOX to build theaters. You can get Paramount, Disney, or Universal to book their movies in those theaters. You can hire Six Flags to build a theme park.

“The Kingdom accomplished two things very quickly: It convinced the world it was serious about opening up society and loosening control, and more importantly, it convinced the local population they were serious.”

Garin had a warning for Saudi policymakers, however. “The only thing that money does not buy in our industry, and I don’t think they understand this yet, is the creation of local content capability. That’s a decades-long efforts of training and development and getting people to learn the craft.”

Throwing money at the problem was the biggest mistake the UAE made in the early days of Image Nation, he believes. “Giving money to aspiring filmmakers without oversight and controls is the quickest way to kill the industry. Even Steven Spielberg works for a studio,” he said.

A note of frustration creeps in when he mentions bureaucracy. “We’ve had great meetings, but it’s all ‘inshallah’ at this stage.” He is equally perplexed at the low financial esteem in which screenwriters are held, which he calls “the single greatest weakness in the whole region.”

He also wants Saudi Arabia to follow the example set by Image Nation’s Arab Film Studios, which teaches young filmmakers in the region about the industry. “But we don’t want them to pay. We’ll give them all our programs and their curriculum and when they are ready to manage it themselves then we can walk away.”

Despite the Oscars euphoria, Garin thinks the Arab world must set realistic expectations for its films. “There is the Best Foreign Film category, which one day we will win, but we’re never going to win Best Picture because of the budgets for those movies. They are made for a global audience. And who votes for them? Americans. It’s a very parochial industry.”


Ahmed Al-Habtoor: Portrait of a driven auto executive

Updated 19 May 2019
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Ahmed Al-Habtoor: Portrait of a driven auto executive

  • There is no country on this planet where you will see Bentleys, McLarens and Bugattis as much as in the UAE.

DUBAI: Over the course of a morning in his office in Deira, Dubai’s traditional business district, Ahmed Al-Habtoor talked eloquently and expertly about the motor business in the UAE and the Arabian Gulf, about customers’ likes and dislikes, about the tough times the industry has faced recently, about his best-selling models, and about the importance of the sector within the UAE economy.
Then, he dropped a small bombshell. He is always chauffeurdriven, and seldom gets behind the wheel of any of the luxury vehicles he trades daily. “I don’t care about driving cars, I care about selling them,” he revealed.
From the youthful chief executive officer of Al Habtoor Motors, who could have his pick of Bugattis, Bentleys, McLarens and other “fast boys toys,” that was quite a revelation.
“I don’t like driving, I like to be on my phone checking emails and messages. I don’t have the patience to look for parking, and anybody who can afford to have a driver should do so,” he added.
So Al-Habtoor is, in more senses than one, a driven executive. The motor division is a key part of the Al Habtoor conglomerate, started by his father, the group chairman Khalaf, in the 1970s as an engineering business but which has expanded through real estate, hotels and hospitality, to education and entertainment.
Motors has been an integral pillar of the Habtoor portfolio since it was set up in 1983 to handle the Mitsubishi franchise in the UAE. “We have strict corporate governance, law, a constitution in the company. The rules are set and we are here to implement the directions of the chairman. We have our own ideas, we try to be creative, but it is a well-established, solid company with very strong roots,” he said.
here is still a large number of workers — whom he called “partners” — who can date their employment back to the very beginning of the Mitsubishi franchise.
He admits to two alternative frustrations in his job, depending on the economic climate.
“When the market is active and business is fantastic, I get frustrated at the pressure of delivering to my clients. I’m just busy, trying to meet the expectation of delivering the right product at the right time,” he explained. “The other frustration is when the market is challenging and low, I’m busy trying to be busy, trying to find business. It’s all about being busy.”
For the past few years, the “challenging” market has been to the fore, as he candidly admitted. The fall in the oil price in 2014-15 began to affect the economies of the energy exporters of the Arabian Gulf toward the end of the following year, and the motor sector was seriously hit. Sales volumes declined sharply — compounded by government spending cuts and some policy decisions.
“I think in 2017 the volume was acceptable. In 2018, it dropped when the government implemented VAT. I don’t think VAT was the wrong decision, but it had a negative effect. It was implemented when the market was in a weak situation. If the market was booming, it would have been much easier for us,” he said.
Al Habtoor Motors’ longevity gives its CEO a perspective on the forces that shape the industry. “It’s a cycle. There is always a cycle every 6-8 years. When oil prices started to fall it had an effect. In our region, government spending is the key to moving the economy. Not only in Dubai, but the whole of the UAE.”
He estimated that the motor industry was the second biggest sector in the UAE’s non-oil economy, behind real estate, but saw no real linkage in the simultaneous downturns in property and motor sales.
The other factor that affected car sales — especially in the high volume and fleet car business — was the increasing reluctance of banks in the UAE to continue previous levels of finance to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) during the worst of the downturn.

“It was not a very wise decision to withdraw support from SMEs. The economy depends on large companies, but at the end of the day, consumption comes out of the (medium) and small businesses. Uncertainty and insecurity in the market made a lot of people stay away from buying,” he said.
Al-Habtoor estimated that car sales volumes in the fleet business were down by 50 percent from the highs of 2015, as they were across the whole of the volume motor business. “Last year was very challenging, but thankfully we managed all the challenges,” he said, on the back of an upturn in business measured across the whole of last year.
He has reason to be more optimistic in the current year. “There has been stimulus to the economy, Expo 2020, and the confidence in the market improved. The changes to visa arrangements, the reduction of license fees — all these are having an effect,” he said.
On the “Expo effect” — the expected boost to the UAE economy from the huge business fair planned for next autumn — he was cautiously positive. “We’ve seen that coming through already. Now it is nominal, but we are seeing green shoots. It is not a big effect yet but it is happening, and the more we go toward October next year the more benefit will come,” Al-Habtoor said, adding that he was confident of getting back to 2015 levels eventually.
That is good news for the Mitsubishi, Fuso, Jac and Chery marks that are Habtoor’s staple. But the group also has an impressive stable of luxury cars, with the dealerships for Bentley, the McLaren sports brand, and the super-car Bugatti, in the UAE
The UAE’s reputation for glamorous, extravagant cars — even down to the Dubai police fleet — is a global phenomenon, and Al-Habtoor does not think it will change any time soon, even in challenging economic circumstances.
“A lot of people want beautiful cars and the best. It always was like that, it still is now and it will be in the future. The UAE and Dubai is always about the best. It’s in the culture of the city. There is no country on this planet where you will see Bentleys, McLarens and Bugattis as much as in the UAE,” he said.
The economics are different in the luxury brands, which were not as badly hit by the oil-related slump as the volume business. “The luxury end was affected by the downturn, but it’s more resilient, it’s OK,” he said.
“In the first four months of this year, we’re the number one dealer in the world for Bentley, and have consistently been among the biggest Bentley dealers in the world, if not the biggest. When luxury goods are moving, not just cars, but jewelry and other things, I feel that the economy will come back soon,” he said.
Bentley sales have been given a boost by the introduction at the end of last year of a new Continental GT, and by the continued appeal of the Bentayga, the company’s first move into the SUV market, which has huge appeal for motorists in the region. Deliberately priced at below 1 million dirhams ($272,250), the luxury SUV aims to take on other upmarket four-wheel-drive vehicles.
He seemed especially pleased with the performance of the McLaren range within his portfolio, vying with other more famous brands in the lucrative but very competitive sports car segment — another best seller in the region.
At the top end, McLaren competes with the best in the sports car market, and its BP23 model sells at more than 10 million dirhams. “There are only 116 vehicles around the world and we have six of them. In that ultimate series sector, McLaren is dominating,” Al-Habtoor said.
Then there is Bugatti, the French super-sports car whose Chiron model is one of the most expensive seen on the UAE’s roads, selling at around 12 million dirhams. Last year, the company sold 12 of them, Al-Habtoor said, but any ideas that McLaren is competing with, and cannibalizing sales, of Bugatti were dismissed.
“That’s like comparing a normal plane with a UFO. I once drove a Bugatti on a track at over 200km and it was as if I was having a picnic in the garden — you don’t even feel it,” he said.
Occasional high-speed track driving, apparently, is one of the few occasions he likes to give the chauffeur a day off.