Coming soon: 600 VOX screens to Saudi Arabia

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VOX Cinemas, owned by the Dubai-based Majid Al Futtaim conglomerate, plans to open hundreds of cinemas across the Kingdom.
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The expansion of VOX cinemas is part of a wider plan to open 350 cinemas across the country by 2030. VOX Cinema
Updated 20 April 2018

Coming soon: 600 VOX screens to Saudi Arabia

  • Saudi Arabia plans to open 350 cinemas by 2030, with 2,500 screens
  • The cinema opening is expected to contribute $25 billion to the economy

DUBAI: Majid Al Futtaim (MAF), the UAE-based malls and leisure group, is to make the biggest investment yet in Saudi cinema with a SR2 billion ($533 million) plan to open at least 600 VOX Cinema screens across the Kingdom over the next five years.

The plan was announced the day after Saudi film fans gathered for the first public showing of a movie for 35 years, and just as the Dubai-based group received a cinema license from the Saudi authorities. 

The first movie will be shown in a four-screen multiplex in Riyadh Park Mall in the coming days, and will be followed by a rapid opening program across the country, Alain Bejjani, MAF chief executive, told Arab News.

“We’re bringing Saudi Arabia the best cinema in the world, and on a scale that will make a difference. It is a historic day,” he said.

The first showings in Riyadh Park mall — in an area that was previously intended as a venue for MAF’s Magic Planet children’s area — will include “animation, family-friendly and educational films.”

But MAF will use its distribution agreement with US Hollywood giant 20th Century Fox to bring the full range of movies to the Kingdom. It will also encourage local film-making talent, Bejjani said.

“We will be able to show anything Saudi law allows us, just as in all the other countries where we operate in the region,” he added.

The boom in Saudi cinema and the wider leisure sector is a result of the transformation of the Kingdom’s economy and society under Vision 2030 reforms.

“Majid Al Futtaim is proud to be one of the largest private sector investors in the Kingdom and Vision 2030, with an investment commitment now increasing to SR16 billion,” the developer said in a statement.

In addition to the cinema expansion, which will involve a SR2 billion investment program and at least 600 screens, MAF also has two big mall projects under way in Riyadh. It is looking to build others across the country, as well as expanding its retail and fashion businesses. The total investment is projected to create up to 120,000 jobs, of which 3,000 will be in VOX cinemas.

Bejjani said that there are plans to build “many more malls,” and that he had already begun to identify sites for these and for new cinemas.” We operate the cinemas like we operate Carrefours (the French supermarket chain for which MAF has exclusive franchise rights in the region), so the cinemas do not have to be in malls. We do not need partnerships, but we are not closed to them either,” he said.

Further cinemas currently under design include MAF’s Mall of Saudi and City Center Ishbiliyah, with both locations opening in Riyadh in future, with additional announcements on new locations expected soon. 

The partnership with 20th Century Fox will be exclusively distributing Fox content to all cinemas across Saudi Arabia. In 2018, the company is planning to release anticipated hits including “The Darkest Minds,” “The Predator” and the James Cameron produced “Alita: Battle Angel,” MAF said.

Bejjani explained: “We want to contribute to Saudi cultural life. We’re very committed and it means a lot to us. We want to help Saudi youth to express themselves and contribute to the evolution of society.

“I have no doubt that the Vision 2030 transformation will succeed. It is the cornerstone of the Saudi future, and the country has all the potential to turn this into reality. The leadership is committed to making it work as fast as possible,” he added.

“Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said that Saudi Arabia is only operating at 10 percent of its potential, and I agree with him. We want to help them achieve the other 90 percent,” Bejjani said.

VOX Cinemas across the region also includes fine dining outlets from British chef Gary Rhodes, and these outlets could also be incorporated into the MAF projects, along with outdoor viewing screens.

Saudi Arabia plans to open 350 cinemas across the country by 2030, which will include 2,500 screens and is expected to contribute around $25 billion to the economy.

The MAF announcement came after the first public showing of the movie “Black Panther” to an elite audience at a new cinema in Riyadh, built and operated by AMC, the American cinema operator.

Bejjani said: “A lot of other operators have declared their interest and their intentions, but we are the only ones who are ready and on the ground. We know the customer, know the market and have a proven track record.”


Oil tankers ‘go dark’ off Venezuela to beat tariffs

Updated 24 min 58 sec ago

Oil tankers ‘go dark’ off Venezuela to beat tariffs

  • High-risk tricks allow ‘rogue ships’ to evade US sanctions, industry insiders warn

MIAMI: In May, after pulling out of a Chinese shipyard for repairs, a giant oil tanker set out on a perilous journey.

Dialing in “Caribbean” on a mandatory tracking system, the captain of the Liberia-flagged vessel headed west. Then, weeks later, as it neared Venezuelan waters, the VL Nichioh suddenly stopped transmitting its location, course and speed in violation of international maritime rules, essentially vanishing on the high seas without a trace.

What happened while the ship was offline remains a mystery. But when it resurfaced nine days later while steaming toward Asia, the Nichioh was riding low in the water — a sure sign to ship-tracking experts that it had turned off its transponder to cloak a valuable cargo targeted by US sanctions: Venezuelan crude oil.

As the Trump administration has clamped down on President Nicolas Maduro with sanctions set on depriving him of easy cash from Venezuela’s vast oil reserves, some ship captains and their employers are eager to help the embattled socialist by “going dark” to hide tankers brimming with crude.

But industry experts say this evasive behavior, perfected by what the US considers rogue ships transporting oil for Iran in violation of US sanctions, comes at a great risk.

“These ships are carrying
2 million barrels of crude oil,” said Russ Dallen, the Miami-based head of Caracas Capital Markets brokerage, who tracks maritime activity near Venezuela to identify sanctions-busting activity. “They can’t be blindly wandering around in the dark. It’s an environmental disaster waiting to happen.”

Under a United Nations maritime treaty, ships of over 300 tons have been required since 2004 to use what is known as an automated identification system to avoid collisions and assist rescues in the event of a spill or accident at sea.

While ship captains have the discretion to turn off the transponders as they traverse flashpoints like the Strait of Hormuz, or to evade pirates off the coast of Somalia, ship-monitoring companies have become adept at tracking a vessel’s movements and draft to help law enforcement monitor for sanctions violations and criminal behavior.

Until recently, tankers docking in Venezuela had little reason to switch off their transponders — a tactic more associated with illegal Chinese fishermen off the Pacific coast of South America or human traffickers in the eastern Mediterranean.

But in January, after Maduro was sworn in for a second term many nations considered illegitimate, the Trump administration barred US companies from dealing with the Venezuelan state-run oil giant PDVSA and threatened retaliation against foreign companies that continue to do business with it.

As part of that offensive, PDVSA’s entire fleet of 34 vessels was frozen, essentially barred from ports in the US and other Western nations, as well as a several private fleets caught delivering oil to Maduro’s ally Cuba. The move has accelerated a collapse in Venezuela’s crude production to its lowest level in seven decades despite sitting atop the world’s largest crude reserves.

“Once blacklisted, these vessels become lepers and are very hard to operate,” said Omer Primor, head of marketing at Windward, a maritime analytics firm that assists law enforcement in hunting down potential sanctions violators. “Nobody will deal with them, so they essentially become floating storage devices.”

In the nine months since sanctions were imposed, there have been 14 suspicious dark activities spotted near Venezuelan waters, according to Windward. That is about 22 percent of the 50 reported port calls to Venezuela during the same period, a sharp decline in above-board maritime traffic in the nine months prior to sanctions.

Windward said that most of the cloaked crude is going to China or Russia — Maduro’s two biggest financial backers, for whom US sanctions are less of a deterrent — as well as India.

There are other tricks companies use to duck detection, such as reporting a false destination, frequently changing management or carrying out high-risk ship-to-ship transfers in which “dark” vessels come together on the high seas to hand over their cargo. Officials in Brazil initially suspected a dark ship loaded with Venezuelan crude of being behind a mysterious spill last month that has hit 2,100 km of coastline.

In the case of the Nichioh, it unloaded cargo in early September in the Indian port of Sikka, where Reliance Industries runs the world’s largest refinery. It then sailed through the Suez Canal and Strait of Gibraltar, reporting as its destination “Carribs for Order.”

But after docking for a few days in Trinidad, the Nichioh switched to “Aruba” and went dark for 10 days, once again picking up Venezuelan crude, according to ship-tracking firm Kpler. As of Nov. 12, the ship was heading past South Africa en route to China.

According to Kpler the two voyages by the Nichioh were chartered by Russia’s state-controlled Rosneft, which itself has been sanctioned by the US for the crisis with Ukraine. Prior to US sanctions, the ship had never reported sailing in the Western Hemisphere.

The ship’s registered owner, a Liberia-based company named Major Shipping SA, could not be located for comment. Liberia is one of the world’s most popular flag states because owners can register ships with few restrictions and little more than an email address. Most of the dark activities spotted by Windward off Venezuela involved Liberia-registered ships.

But it’s not just aging hulks at the fringes of the maritime industry cashing in on Venezuela’s desperation.

In June, Cosrising Lake, owned by an affiliate of China’s shipping giant Cosco, went silent for 14 days after loading 1.9 million barrels of crude in the Venezuelan port of Jose, according to Kpler. A few weeks later, it unloaded its cargo in the Chinese port of Dongjiakou.

Cosco didn’t say why the Hong Kong-flagged ship went silent. But in a statement, it said that it operates in compliance with laws and regulations and that its ships have maintained normal operations of their AIS systems in accordance with the international convention for the safety of life at sea.

The Trump administration is also looking into reports that Hurd’s Bank off the coast of Malta is becoming a staging ground for ship-to-ship transfers to hide Russia’s supplying of chemicals that Venezuela’s industry desperately needs to dilute its heavy crude, a senior US official said. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly. Previously Venezuela imported diluents from the US

“Criminals connected to Venezuela are getting increasingly creative as they manipulate the laws that govern international maritime commerce to bypass sanctions,” said Ian Ralby, head of I.R. Consilium, a US-based consultancy.

“Authorities in the region and beyond need to be both alert and proactive in preventing the Maduro regime from using illicit activity to convert Venezuelan resources into cash.”