SPIEF DIARY: Back in the USSR — a surreal tour of the St. Petersburg forum

The Beatles in their pomp around the time that they recorded ‘Back in the USSR’. (Reuters)
Updated 07 June 2019

SPIEF DIARY: Back in the USSR — a surreal tour of the St. Petersburg forum

  • I found myself humming ‘Back in the USSR’ by the Beatles as I ambled through The Expoforum, my mind a jumble of Cyrillic letters
  • There was a media industry corner (not to be confused with the media center), where TASS, Gazeta, Sputnik news and RT nestled closely together as if for mutual support

ST. PETERSBURG: The Expoforum on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, where the city’s International Economic Forum is being held, is cavernous.
Walking the main thoroughfare from hall D1, where many of the big set pieces take place, to H, where the media center is located, was exhausting, but the journey could be profitable. I watched local Russian journalists, who have obviously “done” the forum before, time their trip so that they fell into the slipstream of one of the VIPs attending the event, shoving a microphone in their face and firing off a question or two. Sometimes, it worked.
That central artery links the exhibition halls and maze of meeting rooms that spin off the forum center, and where much of the real bilateral business is done. It can be confusing at first finding your way around this warren of rooms and corridors, but again — watch the Russians. They know all the short cuts.
(I never made it to halls A to C, by the way, because it would have required a bus or taxi trip).
The exhibition halls themselves are like a journey through the lands of the former Soviet Union, from Minsk in the west to Vladivostok in the east. I found myself humming “Back in the USSR” by the Beatles as I ambled through, my mind a jumble of Cyrillic letters.
There were some familiar places. Moscow and St. Petersburg had stands like small towns, with a real Moscow metro train on show at the capital’s stand.
Others — like Sverdlovsk, Kaluga and Krasnodar — I could take a fair stab at on a map, though the Siberian Federal District threw up some questions, and the Udmurt Republic, Dobrograd, and Penza could just as easily have been on the moon for all my knowledge of them.
Some of them may actually have been corporate names, rather than places. For example, Cherkizovo sounded like a village from a Tolstoy novel, but turned out to be Russia’s No. 1 meat producer.
The further you went through the halls, the more surreal it became. One stand had a lit-up map of shipping routes just south of the North Pole, almost like a bus schedule, though they cannot all be open yet, unless global warming has had an even more dramatic effect there than we thought.
Hidden behind a stand devoted to the “International Year of the Periodic Table” was one labeled “Invest in the Leningrad Region.” I thought that didn’t exist any more?
The halls were separated by courtyards, where exhibitors crammed their wares. Mercedes, for example, had a big indoor stand, and an even bigger one outside, with lots of glittering cars to play with.
It was located some way from the stand of a Middle East airline (which will remain nameless), sitting all alone, totally isolated from its neighbors.
There was a media industry corner (not to be confused with the media center), where TASS, Gazeta, Sputnik news and RT nestled closely together as if for mutual support.
“Question more” was the RT slogan, but the nice woman on duty couldn’t answer when I asked if there was a Pravda or Izvestia stand anywhere. Probably my accent.
Bloomberg, in contrast, was away from media colleagues in the main corridor, next door to the Russian Direct Investment Fund — obviously a symbiotic relationship.
Most gobsmacking of all was the Kalashnikov stand, where you could pose for photographs with some of the legendary firm’s deadly, though unloaded, products.
After all that mind scrambling, it was a relief to get back to the familiarity of the two Saudi stands — Aramco and SABIC. No flashy gimmicks, no air hostesses, just familiar corporate branding and sound messaging: “Where energy is opportunity” and “Chemistry that matters.” Warm, comforting words in St. Petersburg.

  • Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. Twitter: @frankkanedubai


Automechanika Riyadh opens, featuring leading global suppliers

Updated 25 February 2020

Automechanika Riyadh opens, featuring leading global suppliers

  • Saudi auto deals grew 40 percent last year with influx of female buyers

RIYADH: Leading names in the global auto services industry are out in force at Automechanika Riyadh — which opened on Monday at Al Faisaliah Hotel — vying to increase their share of a growing market expected to reach a value of $10.15 billion by 2023.

Automechanika Riyadh is the regional arm of the world’s largest trade fair, congress and event organizer, Messe Frankfurt, which has licensed the Automechanika brand to event organizer Al Harithy Company for Exhibitions (ACE) Group.

Mansour Abdullah Al-Shathri, vice chairman of the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce, inaugurated the trade event, which will run from Feb. 24-26.

It was revealed that Saudi auto deals grew approximately 40 percent last year, with female buyers accounting for between 10-15 percent of sales after the landmark decision to allow women to drive in the Kingdom for the first time.  

“International suppliers are stepping up their marketing for the resurgence in Saudi’s market, and this impacts the entire supply chain,” said Mahmut Gazi Bilikozen, show director for Automechanika Riyadh.

“While there is growth potential in the market, it is becoming a more competitive landscape and one which will also have to contend with evolving customer preferences. The conditions are ripe for new business relationships for those wishing to succeed in this transformative environment,” he added.

Zahoor Siddique, vice president of ACE, said: “Future vehicles will become more complex and challenging for the aftermarket industry. It is therefore imperative for manufacturers, local garages, technicians and mechanics to upskill and remain above the curve. 

 “Automechanika Riyadh is one such platform that can enable us to share and learn what the industry needs to unleash its potential.”

Two major US players — disc pad producer Giant Manufacturing and United Motors Mopar, the Kingdom’s sole distributor of Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Fiat cars — forecast a bullish market over the next few years.

Giant’s vice president, Eli Youssian, said he believed car sales in the Kingdom would grow by 9 percent annually until 2025, while United Motors District CEO Hassan Elshamarani expected another three million female drivers to be on the Kingdom’s roads by the end of the year.

Both Giant and United Motors launched new products at the show, with the former rolling out its new German-engineered Euro Premium Metallic Disc brake pads, and the latter introducing its Magneti Marelli spare parts.

The high potential of the new-look Saudi automotive landscape has also struck a major chord with South Korean suppliers.

The show’s Korean pavilion is hosting new-to-market entrants and existing suppliers all looking for business partners. With products from wiper blades to filters and air-conditioning parts to brake pads, the Korean contingent was positive about the Kingdom’s prospects.

One exhibitor, D Only Automotive, is looking to ring fence 10 percent of the Saudi brake market. “With more vehicles on the road, demand for brakes will increase, (so) we believe this is possible,” said President Jeon JaeWon.

Global research and analytics firm Aranca — Automechanika’s knowledge partner — has forecast that Saudi Arabia’s automotive spare parts and service market will grow at approximately 6 percent over the next five years to reach a value of $10.15 billion by 2023.

“The spare parts and service market for passenger cars alone is expected to eclipse $6.9 billion by 2023,” said Vishal Sanghavi, Aranca’s automotive practice head.