Majid Al Futtaim boss: ‘We’ll be everywhere’ in Saudi cinema expansion

Majid Al Futtaim boss: ‘We’ll be everywhere’ in Saudi cinema expansion
Speaking on the sidelines of the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Alain Bejjani, chief executive of Dubai-based Majid Al Futtaim (MAF), unveiled the latest stages of a $4 billion investment plan. (Social Media)
Updated 24 January 2019

Majid Al Futtaim boss: ‘We’ll be everywhere’ in Saudi cinema expansion

Majid Al Futtaim boss: ‘We’ll be everywhere’ in Saudi cinema expansion
  • Alain Bejjani gives details of multibillion-dollar investment plan
  • In discussions with producers to help ‘lay ground for viable movie industry’

DAVOS: A leading foreign investor in Saudi Arabia signaled his confidence in the Kingdom’s economy and investment prospects with a multibillion-dollar expansion program and a rollout of innovations in leisure and retail.

Speaking on the sidelines of the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Alain Bejjani, chief executive of Dubai-based Majid Al Futtaim (MAF), unveiled the latest stages of a $4 billion investment plan.

This includes the first Vox cinema in Jeddah — part of a rollout that will see 300 new screens in the Kingdom within 18 months — and a plan to introduce Saudi-only workforces in the Carrefour chain of supermarkets that MAF operates in the country.

“What Saudi Arabia has gone through in the past three years is unparalleled. It has a great story to tell. It’s a country dealing with its issues, and these won’t derail what’s happening,” Beijani said.

The Vox cinema will open in the Red Sea Mall later this month with 12 screens, of which three will be “gold” luxury venues, complementing existing Vox screens in the capital’s Riyadh Park. A further three locations will be opened elsewhere in the Kingdom in March.

“We promised we’d be everywhere in Saudi Arabia, and we’re keeping our promise,” Bejjani said.

MAF has been at the forefront of opening leisure facilities in the Kingdom, in support of the aims of the Vision 2030 strategy to reform the economic and social environment.

“The Saudi government and its people will see fast that the reforms have a reality in their everyday lives,” Bejjani added.

“What’s important is that people come up with great ideas. We’re helping lay the ground for a viable movie industry”

Alain Bejjani

He also revealed that MAF, as the leading cinema operator in the Kingdom, is considering plans to get more involved in the film-production side of the movie industry, and is in discussions with Saudi producers.

“What’s important is that people come up with great ideas. We’re helping lay the ground for a viable movie industry,” he said.

Another part of Vision 2030 is to increase employment opportunities for Saudis in the private sector, and MAF’s plan to increase the proportion of Saudis employed in its Carrefour chain is a further example.

Stores in Madinah and Al-Jouf in the northwest already have 100 percent Saudi workforces, and Bejjani said the scheme will be rolled out across the rest of its 18-strong chain.

“It requires a big commitment in training, but Carrefour believes in a culture of merit. It will take more effort and it will have a cost, but you have to be serious about the plans to make any difference,” he added.

Bejjani was at Davos for bilateral meetings, and to take part in panel discussions on subjects ranging from the strategic outlook for the Middle East to the “experience economy,” in which consumers pay for unique leisure experiences rather than physical goods.

He backed calls by Saudi policymakers for closer integration and trade relations between the UAE and the Kingdom, a structure that he hoped could spread to the rest of the Middle East.

“I believe the region needs more frictionless trade — more harmonization of norms in business,” he said.

“Trade flows, mobility, payments and free movement of people are all areas where we could benefit from closer integration.”

But he stopped short of calling for a common currency, partly because the fact that many regional currencies are pegged to the US dollar means they are already closely connected.

“Maybe ideally we’d have a common currency, but that’s quite a sophisticated thing and there are complications to that,” he said.

The Middle East would benefit greatly from greater economic integration, and could rival big trading blocs such as the EU, he added.

“If we want to really drive growth in the Arab world, we have to have scale. The total market of the region is 500 million people, but the individual economies are comparatively small,” he said.

“The reason American startups are so successful, for example, is that they can do business across the whole country.”

Bejjani called for a reduction in regulation in the Middle East, both within and between economies.

“The Arab market can do better by doing less. There are historic reasons for the regulation and some legacy issues, but the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the UAE is a fantastic model,” he said.

MAF is behind some of the biggest retail, leisure and tourism ventures in the UAE, and Bejjani said the Emirati economy is “very strong.”

He added: “There have been challenges driven by negative consumer sentiment, but these have been acknowledged by everyone. There’s a great commitment in Dubai and Abu Dhabi to overcome these.”

Consumer sentiment has balanced out and will move back into positive territory early this year, he said.


Music business: Is musical talent the new commodity?

Shakira (L) signed the rights of her music titles to Hipgnosis Songs Fund and in recent months Bob Dylan sold the rights to 600 of his songs to Universal Music Publishing Group (UMG) in a deal believed to be worth more than $300 million. (Shutterstock/File Photos)
Shakira (L) signed the rights of her music titles to Hipgnosis Songs Fund and in recent months Bob Dylan sold the rights to 600 of his songs to Universal Music Publishing Group (UMG) in a deal believed to be worth more than $300 million. (Shutterstock/File Photos)
Updated 46 min 13 sec ago

Music business: Is musical talent the new commodity?

Shakira (L) signed the rights of her music titles to Hipgnosis Songs Fund and in recent months Bob Dylan sold the rights to 600 of his songs to Universal Music Publishing Group (UMG) in a deal believed to be worth more than $300 million. (Shutterstock/File Photos)
  • What does this new way of doing business mean for the music industry?

BERN: Monetization of an artist’s craft has always been a tricky issue. It is also a bifurcated one: Very few top names earn big money and the vast majority just get by, if even that.

That holds true in all art forms, but particularly in the music industry. In 2017 the top 1 percent of recording artists dominated income in all categories — 78 percent of music sales, 68 percent of live performances, and 56 percent of merchandise.

Very few recording artists operate at that level. The chosen few have recently started taking control of their future earnings power by signing mega deals on their music rights. In recent months Bob Dylan sold the rights to 600 of his songs to Universal Music Publishing Group (UMG) in a deal believed to be worth more than $300 million.

Others have followed. Shakira, Neil Young, Lindsey Buckingham, Debbie Harry, and Mark Ronson signed the rights to all or part of their music titles to Hipgnosis Songs Fund. This catapulted Hipgnosis, which was founded and is run by former Elton John manager Merck Mecuriadis, into the super league when it comes to buying rights and providing upfront liquidity to the stars of the music business.

It is a win-win move for both parties allowing the artist to capitalize on their name recognition while they are on top of their game, while ideally constituting little risk for the music publishers, because they only choose musicians whose name recognition they expect to be of enduring quality.

The risk, which looks manageable, is taken by the publisher, which is different to the Bowie bonds of the late 1990s, which were self-liquidating debt instruments with a 10-year tenor that used future revenues of the recording asset as collateral.

In both cases the artist aimed to monetize future revenue streams rolling the risk of future performance onto an end-investor, which in the case of Bowie was the general public who decided to invest in the bonds and in the case of the recent transactions a music publisher taking on equity risk.

Hipgnosis, which has become a force to be reckoned with thanks to these transactions, has been doing something right for some time. It floated on the London stock exchange in 2018, immediately reaching a market cap of £1.25 billion ($1.71 billion). Its revenues for the first six months of 2020 reached £50 billion.

The deals constitute tremendous earnings power for the company — as long as the popularity of songs and artists remain, which is a portfolio risk because the company signed on several artists.

What does this new way of doing business mean for the music industry? It turns a few names into a sought-after bankable commodity, leaving the rest of the pack behind with no negating, and very little, earnings power.

This phenomenon always existed but was exacerbated when the importance of streaming services for distributing music rose, because Apple, Amazon, and Spotify markedly tilted the earnings power in favor of the publishers rather than the artists.

Taylor Swift fought against that trend in 2018, when her condition to sign on with UMG was that the publisher shared the proceeds of the sale of its Spotify stake with all the artists. This was remarkable, because Swift did not just optimize her own earnings but allowed the company’s whole stable of artists to share in the windfall.

For the smaller artists, earning money has not become any easier since then. It also had its pitfalls for the superstars. The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, with its restrictions on live performances, has taken a further toll on the industry.

In that sense the recent deals allow the artists to take their mind off new earnings structures, as the industry is dealing with the vagaries of a pandemic while new forms of disseminating music evolve. The superstars can now focus on their craft — or whatever else takes their fancy.

The question remains, what this means for the great masses of lesser-known or unknown artists and how they can earn a living? Most great names have started small. Will this new way of financing the top 1 percent help or hinder smaller artists to develop into the next Shakira or Neil Diamond while they struggle to keep body and soul together lacking any bargaining power?

The new deals are great for the top 1 percent of artists and for the publishers. These deals are a real win-win for stars and publishers. They are big business with a capital B.

  • Cornelia Meyer is a Ph.D.-level economist with 30 years of experience in investment banking and industry. She is chairperson and CEO of business consultancy Meyer Resources. Twitter: @MeyerResources