INTERVIEW: Middle East Rolls-Royce chief Cesar Habib prepares for push into Saudi Arabia

INTERVIEW: Middle East Rolls-Royce chief Cesar Habib prepares for push into Saudi Arabia
Cesar Habib, Rolls-Royce’s regional director for the Middle East and Africa, is preparing for a push into Saudi Arabia. (Illustration: Luis Grañena)
Updated 08 April 2019

INTERVIEW: Middle East Rolls-Royce chief Cesar Habib prepares for push into Saudi Arabia

INTERVIEW: Middle East Rolls-Royce chief Cesar Habib prepares for push into Saudi Arabia
  • Habib describes Middle East's love affair with ‘car for kings and presidents’
  • The Cullinan — named after the largest diamond ever found — is Rolls-Royce’s latest super-luxury marque

DUBAI: The Middle East’s love affair with Rolls-Royce Motor Cars dates back more than 100 years, to the famous motto of Lawrence of Arabia that “a Rolls in the desert was above jewels,” as the wartime hero helped to promote the cause of Arab independence by deploying several armored cars made by the legendary British manufacturer.
Cesar Habib, Rolls-Royce’s regional director for the Middle East and Africa, has a modern version of that saying — “effortless everywhere” — and he applies it especially to the current jewel in the Rolls crown, the Cullinan.
“I remember when we had the first customer events here in the region, I put the customers into the car, and I said one thing I want to know: Did you experience the ‘effortless everywhere?’ And they came back and told me, Cesar, you were spot on,” he said.
The Cullinan — named after the largest diamond ever found — is Rolls-Royce’s latest super-luxury marque, selling for about SR2 million ($533,000, depending on the amount of bespoke work that goes into the model).
It is aimed at the upmarket SUV sector everywhere in the world, but particularly in the Middle East, where it simply ticks all the boxes for the wealthy regional car-lover — a big, luxurious, all-terrain vehicle that tells the world you, the owner, are a person of substance, demanding attention and respect.
“I believe it’s not just here (in the Middle East) but all over the world,” Habib said. “Everyone says they have got the best product on earth, the most exclusive product on earth and the most bespoke product on earth. They know it in Europe, but I think here in the Middle East it’s even more so, because they are really proud to own a Rolls-Royce. Anybody here who can afford one tries to buy one.”
The Rolls-Royce was the car of choice for rulers, princes and sheikhs who suddenly found themselves with huge levels of disposable income after the oil boom took off, and there are stories in the motor trade of mythical fleets of the vehicles sitting gleaming in palaces throughout the Arabian Gulf.
“It’s a car for kings and presidents,” Habib added.

This is what amazes me about bespoke — the interaction with the customer, making  just his or her car.

Cesar Habib


Some countries, it is said, will not allow expats to buy Rolls-Royce cars because they are reserved as a mark of royalty; in other places, new Rolls models are held for rulers and royalty first, and only released to the public when the rulers have had their fill.
Habib would not comment on those rumors, but he is sure of the allure of the Rolls-Royce brand. “Everybody knows that when someone buys a Rolls-Royce they want to make a statement about themselves,” he said.
Arab customers make that statement increasingly frequently. The showroom in Abu Dhabi was for several years the best-selling Rolls dealership in the world, and even though it has now been overtaken by a Chinese dealership, the Middle East helped Rolls to the best-ever year in its history in 2018, in terms of vehicles sold.
Rolls-Royce does not provide a breakdown of the number of cars sold in individual markets, but Habib said: “Saudi is a very important market and I think there is room to grow the brand there. How? By investing in the brand further and by being more prominently present in the market.”
In a reference to the transformation underway in the Kingdom as part of the Vision 2030 strategy, he added: “I think all the changes that are going on will play into our hands because we can go and show the brand as it is. We can do more events and invite more people. Previously, we held back a bit. We had conversations with Mohammed Yousuf Naghi (the long-standing dealer in Saudi Arabia) and we both agreed that we would take it to the next level.”
Habib detects some subtle differences in the Saudi market. “There is an increased level of expression among those in Jeddah, for example. They really get creative when selecting a Rolls-Royce — and it is very much a reflection of their more expressive personalities in how they have the car designed.”
The “expression” can reach some extraordinary heights in the Middle East market for Rolls-Royce. After some time working in the “bespoke” part of the Rolls-Royce business — the division that aims to give customers the exact car they want — Habib has a pretty good eye for regional taste.
Unusual color combinations are common, as are the idiosyncratic features discerning customers demand, such as Arabic calligraphy on the bodywork and interior.
“One customer, a collector, said he wanted a car where he could incorporate birthday features for his kids. I want my children to come into the car and look for their birthdays. So, we put a star constellation in the starlight roofing headliner, and we embroidered astrological signs into the door pockets, and in the folding tables as binary codes,” he said.
“Another gentleman wanted to give his wife a Rolls-Royce ‘love story’ for their wedding anniversary, and he designed it with us — a car with flowers inside. Behind each car there is a story,” he said.
Colors of bodywork are just as flamboyant. Cherry pink fuchsia, bright yellow, turquoise outside matching the same shade on the interior upholstery, have all featured in cars Habib has helped customers design. “You can’t argue colors, you can’t argue taste. That’s what I had to learn very quickly,” he said.
“This is what amazes me about bespoke — the interaction with the customer, making just his or her car. I don’t think you find this level of attention or service with any other manufacturer,” he added.

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BIO

BORN 

•1967 Tripoli, Lebanon

EDUCATION

•German School Lebanon

•University of Passau, Germany, diploma in business administration

CAREER

•Parts consultant, BMW, Germany

•Executive in after-sales, dealer and business development, BMW Dubai

•Executive for BMW in Iran

•After-sales marketing, Dubai BMW

•Global ownership services, Rolls-Royce, Goodwood, UK

•Bespoke, Dubai

•Regional director for Middle East and Africa, Rolls-Royce

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There has also been a shift in car driving patterns in the Kingdom, which could accelerate as more women get behind the wheel. The bigger Rolls-Royce models, such as the Phantom and the Ghost, have traditionally been seen as chauffeur-driven cars, but this is no longer strictly the case.
“They could be chauffeur-driven, but it depends on the situation. We find many owners want to drive themselves, but if they go out for an evening, for a function, they have their drivers. People enjoy driving our cars because, despite the fact they are big cars, they are effortless to drive,” Habib said.
The Wraith and Dawn — a coupe and a convertible — do not really lend themselves to chauffeur driving, and Habib sees a big potential market among wealthy women for those models.
And, of course, there is the Cullinan, heading the marketing drive this year, although apparently not much intense marketing was required.
“It has had an extremely positive reception. We had an order bank of nine months before anybody had even seen the car. We gave some people sneak previews, but even from (the information that) came into the press, people said they wanted that car,” he added.
The other essential part of the brand appeal of Rolls-Royce is its Britishness, despite the fact that since 2003 it has been owned by the German manufacturer BMW. “Everyone who thinks Rolls-Royce thinks Britain, they don’t think Germany — the British heritage of that brand, which we really nurture and maintain, it’s very important to keep the heritage of the brand.”
Most of the car’s styling and design is carried out in Goodwood in the UK, the home of Rolls-Royce for many years, while some technology and engineering come from Germany. That would continue, Habib stressed, even if there was a damaging Brexit separation of Britain from the EU.
“I don’t want to be political, but with Brexit we were always very firm in saying that whatever happens we are staying in Goodwood because we are a British brand,” he said.
Habib takes it as a compliment that other sectors of the luxury goods market use the brand name to define the exclusivity of their products — the “Rolls-Royce of watches” or the “Rolls-Royce of boats” — but he is also aware that those sectors provide some of the main competition for the company’s upmarket products.
“The challenge that we have is that we operate in the segment of ultra-high net-worth individuals. We are in the ultra-luxury segment, like some of the watchmakers, jewelry brands, leather goods manufacturers, private jet manufacturers, yacht builders, and the rest. We are in a different environment, competing with non-car manufacturers,” he said.
Habib sees the key part of his job as being as “customer- centric” as possible, and given his background in the bespoke business and ownership services, that is the part of the business he gets most satisfaction from, even expressing some regret he had less time to do this since getting the top regional job for Middle East and Africa last year.
“What I love to do is to talk and configure the car with each and every customer. This I love to do. Each and every customer is special and has their own story. If I had the time, I would like to sit with each of our customers and talk them through it. It’s very rewarding, almost artistic,” he said.
With his German-Lebanese heritage, Habib thinks he is uniquely equipped to carry on guiding customers in the region. “People tell me you are the right mix of Levant and German thinking — accuracy, attention to detail, and disciplined — but also understanding the culture in this region,” he said.


Global stocks, US yields recoup some losses

Global stocks, US yields recoup some losses
Updated 22 June 2021

Global stocks, US yields recoup some losses

Global stocks, US yields recoup some losses
  • Investors still digesting last week’s surprise hawkish shift by the US Federal Reserve

WASHINGTON: US stocks were higher on Monday and global stocks advanced in choppy trade after hitting a four-week low earlier in the session, with investors still digesting last week’s surprise hawkish shift by the US Federal Reserve.

The US dollar retreated from Friday’s 10-week high. Yields on 10-year Treasuries turned higher after sliding overnight to a four-month low of 1.354 percent. But the benchmark note was still trading well below its recent mid-point range of about 1.6 percent after traders reacted to Federal Reserve expectations for a rate hike.

Shares of banks, energy firms and other companies that tend to be sensitive to the economy’s fluctuations were higher, recovering some losses after have fallen sharply since the Fed’s meeting on Wednesday, when the central bank caught investors off guard by anticipating two quarter-percentage-point rate increases in 2023.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 1.45 percent, the S&P 500 gained 1 percent and the Nasdaq Composite added 0.2 percent.

“Bulls are attempting to regroup this morning after last Friday’s plunge,” Paul Hickey of Bespoke Investment Group said in a market note.

Stocks in Asia took their cue from Wall Street’s falls on Friday but European shares bucked the trend, with the pan-European STOXX 600 index up 0.6 percent.

“The situation in reality is actually pretty good — the Fed is stabilizing inflation,” said Sebastien Galy, senior macro strategist at Nordea Asset Management in Luxembourg. “Cyclical sectors may have overshot the market in the short term and so you may have a bit of pressure on the sector.”

Galy noted the “interesting part” of the correction was that it lagged as traders digested the news.

MSCI’s All Country World Index, which tracks shares across 49 countries, was up 0.5 percent after hitting its lowest since May 24.

Earlier in Asia, Japan’s Nikkei led declines with an over 3 percent drop and dipped below 28,000 for the first time in a month, while MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan fell 1.2 percent.

The US dollar index was down 0.4 percent, off Friday’s 10-week high of 92.408, following its biggest weekly advance in more than a year.

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard further fueled the sell-off on Friday by saying the shift toward faster policy tightening was a “natural” response to economic growth and particularly inflation moving quicker than anticipated as the country reopens from the coronavirus pandemic.

“We believe there is a limit to how much more hawkish the Fed can be given its inflation projections relative to the catch-up rates range,” BlackRock analysts said in a note.

“Our bottom line: We believe the Fed’s new outlook will not translate into significantly higher policy rates any time soon.”

Several Fed officials have speaking duties this week, including Chair Jerome Powell, who testifies before Congress on Tuesday. 

The euro was up 0.46 percent to $1.1915. Sterling recovered some ground, to trade 0.9 percent higher after sliding to its lowest since April 16.

Commodity-linked currencies have also suffered, with the Australian dollar hovering above a six-month low at $0.7495.

A stronger greenback has pressured cryptocurrencies, too, with Bitcoin falling 7.7 percent, while smaller rival Ether lost 11 percent.

In commodities, gold rebounded 1.0 percent to $1,781.41 an ounce on Monday, looking to snap a six-day losing streak, but remained near the lowest since early May.

Copper continued to fall on Monday, hitting its lowest level since mid-April after moves by China to rein in commodities price rallies and signals from the US Federal Reserve it will tighten monetary policy sooner than expected. 

Benchmark copper on the London Metal Exchange (LME) was down 0.8 percent at $9,070 a ton in official trading, after touching $9,011.

Crude oil rose, underpinned by strong demand during the summer driving season and a pause in talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal that could indicate a delay in resumption of supplies from the OPEC producer. Brent crude futures rose to $74.48 a barrel, up 1.32 percent on the day, as Intermediate (WTI) crude rose 1.9 percent to $73.


Startup of the Week: The Graze Board; Bringing together foods of every color and flavor

Startup of the Week: The Graze Board; Bringing together foods of every color and flavor
Updated 22 June 2021

Startup of the Week: The Graze Board; Bringing together foods of every color and flavor

Startup of the Week: The Graze Board; Bringing together foods of every color and flavor

JEDDAH: The Graze Board, established in 2019, is the first company in Jeddah offering cheese platters and charcuterie boards, presenting fresh, top-quality food in an artistic way.

It was founded by Heba Abed and her 15-year-old daughter Joory Khudary. Abed describes the family business as a “luxury catering brand.”

She said: “All employees of The Graze Board are either family or close friends. We keep the circle small so that we keep the secrets of The Graze Board a mystery.” The offerings are a combination of savory and sweet, with cheese, bread, vegetables and fruits. The boards look like a multi-color palette, with a variety of vibrant foods.

The business started with a tradition where Abed’s family members would gather together each week and bring cheese boards to share.

“We discussed that we should start it as a business. The Graze Board believes that family and friends cherish the moment they spend together eating meals in the dining room,” Abed said.

The family puts love and effort into each board, she said: “We choose the finest kinds of cheese, for instance. We also use the freshest bread we can find. The Graze Board creates a unique art piece from simple ingredients in each board.”

Many of the The Graze Board’s clients are repeat customers, too. “We have gained many loyal customers,” Abed said.

But the business did face some initial challenges, as the idea of cheese platters was fresh to the Kingdom and not many people understood the concept at first. “The biggest challenge was how to convince and attract customers to see, try, love and re-order our boards,” Abed added.

The Graze Board operates as a delivery service to clients, but Abed said that the company has ambitious plans to open a physical branch and spread across the Kingdom.


Wa’ed boosts investment in digital mapping startup

Wa’ed boosts investment in digital mapping startup
Updated 21 June 2021

Wa’ed boosts investment in digital mapping startup

Wa’ed boosts investment in digital mapping startup
  • Online applications for all Saudi-based entrepreneurs opened on Wednesday last week

RIYADH: Wa’ed, the entrepreneurship arm of Saudi Aramco, has boosted its investment in a digital mapping and indoor navigation startup in a bid to help it expand globally.

Alkhobar-based NearMotion provides mobile navigation tools for airports, hospitals, shopping malls, museums, theme parks and event stadiums, allowing users to get real-time information and services. This will be Wa’ed’s second investment in the company, having previously backed it in 2016.

Some of the startup’s clients include Johns Hopkins Aramco Healthcare in Dhahran, Dallah Hospital in Riyadh and MediClinic Middle East in Dubai.

The company also won a SR1.2 million ($320,000) contract for digital mapping services at the Saudi Ministry of Education’s 200,000 square-meter headquarters in Riyadh.

“We initially invested in NearMotion because its technology was unique and game-changing, and its success in the [Gulf Cooperation Council] has shown this,” Wassim Basrawi, managing director of Wa’ed, said in a statement. “With this second investment, we aim to help globalize this exciting Saudi success story.”

Wa’ed was established by Saudi Aramco in 2011 to offer loan financing activities to entrepreneurs, while its Wa’ed Ventures venture capital arm oversees a $200 million investment fund and a portfolio of more than 30 Saudi-based companies.

Wa’ed last week launched its first roadshow event to unearth and fund the next generation of Saudi entrepreneurs. With up to SR100 million at its disposal, Wa’ed is planning to hand out loans and venture capital investments to commercially feasible ventures that would fill existing gaps in the Kingdom’s economy.

The roadshow will visit Jubail, Yanbu, Riyadh, Jeddah, Makkah and Madinah. Online applications for all Saudi-based entrepreneurs opened on Wednesday last week.

“Seventy out of over 100 startups we supported were the first of their kind and received their first-ever investment from us, and this is what we are targeting now: Distinguished and not yet supported startups and ideas,” Basrawi said.


Saudi Ports appoints Omar Hariri as CEO

The Saudi Ports Authority (Mawani) board of directors has appointed Omar bin Talal Hariri as CEO. (SPA/File Photo)
The Saudi Ports Authority (Mawani) board of directors has appointed Omar bin Talal Hariri as CEO. (SPA/File Photo)
Updated 21 June 2021

Saudi Ports appoints Omar Hariri as CEO

The Saudi Ports Authority (Mawani) board of directors has appointed Omar bin Talal Hariri as CEO. (SPA/File Photo)
  • Hariri was Saudi Airlines Cargo and the Saudi Logistics Company “SAL” CEO, since 2018

RIYADH: The Saudi Ports Authority (Mawani) board of directors has appointed Omar bin Talal Hariri as CEO, effective early July 2021.

This appointment culminates 18 years of experience, which he started in 2004, as the new CEO proved his competency through the number of leadership positions he held in the transport and logistics sectors, Mawani said in a filing today, Monday.

Prior to this, Hariri was Saudi Airlines Cargo and the Saudi Logistics Company “SAL” CEO, since 2018. He led the two companies towards transformation by developing infrastructure, introducing the latest digital programs, modernizing systems and raising the Saudization rates to 95 percent, among other changes.

He also worked on developing and implementing the group's strategy in line with the Kingdom's Vision 2030.

Hariri held the position of CEO in several companies.

He is also a member of boards of directors and committees, in the International Air Transport Association Consulting (IATA Consulting), the Logistics Committee of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, and others.

He also chairs the Board of Directors of the SkyTeam Cargo Alliance.


Apartment living, e-commerce centers the key trends as Saudi real estate rebounds from 2020

Skyscrapers stand in the King Abdullah financial district in Riyadh. (Getty Images/File Photo)
Skyscrapers stand in the King Abdullah financial district in Riyadh. (Getty Images/File Photo)
Updated 21 June 2021

Apartment living, e-commerce centers the key trends as Saudi real estate rebounds from 2020

Skyscrapers stand in the King Abdullah financial district in Riyadh. (Getty Images/File Photo)
  • CBRE report believed physical offices are here to stay, will get boost from Riyadh Strategy 2030 HQ announcement

RIYADH: The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the Saudi property market in many ways, with a number of trends emerging, such as a focus on apartment living, the growth of e-commerce impacting the warehouse and retail sector and the reopening of international movement spurring a rebound in the hospitality sector.

In its new report, real estate consultancy firm CBRE observed that in the residential sector there has been “increased demand witnessed across major markets for smaller residential typologies, with increased focus on community living environment. Developers are responding by introducing a greater proportion of apartments and townhouses within their mega projects.”

As part of its Vision 2030 program, the government is aiming to increase homeownership in the Kingdom to 70 percent, up from about 47 percent in 2017. One of the ways it is doing this is through the launch of Roshn, which is owned by the Public Investment Fund (PIF). Roshn is planning to start off-plan sales at its flagship project in Riyadh later this year, with the handover of the first homes to tenants likely in early 2022.

“Our communities are entirely inclusive, with homes to suit all tastes and budgets. Our aim is to provide a modern, aspirational living experience while giving residents the freedom to interpret what this means to them in their own unique way. Our communities have been designed to inspire a strong sense of neighborly spirit and genuine connection between residents,” Roshn’s Group CEO David Grover told Arab News.

CBRE said that millennials were emerging as a key consumer class for residential units and demand is high for “digitally enabled homes.”

Within the office sector, the report believed that the recent announcement of the Riyadh Strategy 2030, which aims to attract hundreds of companies to set up their headquarters in the Saudi capital, will benefit developers building office space. While the pandemic saw workers staying at home, CBRE believed that “physical offices are here to stay” but developers may need to move away from traditional models and offer more flexible spaces to accommodate hybrid working plans.

Within the retail sector, the surge in e-commerce in 2020 has led to the development of more fulfilment sectors, warehouses and collection points. “Rapid growth of online shopping is likely to result in more omni-channel retail, however, preserving the ‘physical experience’ will be a critical component of these omnichannel strategies, particularly in the KSA,” the CBRE report observed.

This was echoed by Ahmad BinDawood, CEO of BinDawood Holding, one of the Kingdom’s biggest supermarket operators, who told Arab News in May that while the company had seen a spike in online sales, he believed consumers still prefer to come to the stores to buy their produce.

“The primary way that the customer prefers to shop is actually visiting the stores, not through online. Online shopping is still going to be good for the future but so far we see that the customer prefers to shop in stores to have that experiential element when they come,” he said.

However, other retailers are adopting a more hybrid model. Dubai’s Majid Al Futtaim operates 21 Carrefour stores across nine Saudi cities and is aiming to double its store network by 2025. It saw online sales in the Kingdom rise by 285 percent last year, therefore, alongside the store network expansion, it is also adding fulfilment centers and boosting door-to-door delivery.

Hani Weiss, CEO of Majid Al Futtaim Retail, told Arab News: “This included opening a large online fulfilment center in Riyadh and activating nine of our customer stores to also fulfil online orders. The opening of our automated fulfilment center in Jeddah is the latest in Majid Al Futtaim’s digital transformation of its Carrefour operations.”

The 9,000 square meter center in Riyadh is Majid Al Futtaim’s largest for its online Carrefour business and operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, handling up to 5,000 orders a day.

Within the hotel sector, CBRE believed the recovery may take more time as borders only reopened on May 17. While there was little impact on the guest experience, CBRE believed that hoteliers did have to reduce costs and salaries, but these were coming back. Jochem-Jan Sleiffer, president of Hilton Middle East, Africa and Turkey, told Arab News that while the company is aiming to increase its presence in the Kingdom from 15 properties to 56 by 2025, the last year was tough. The company postponed some investment deals to preserve cash and it did make some layoffs, but it is now back rehiring staff at an accelerated rate.