Arab Luxury World 2019: Industry leaders tackle high-end retail’s regional sticking points

Updated 15 June 2019

Arab Luxury World 2019: Industry leaders tackle high-end retail’s regional sticking points

DUBAI: The Arab Luxury World 2019 forum kicked off in Dubai on Wednesday and, over the course of two days, will gather together leading business leaders from luxury labels across the world.

New technologies, generational change in consumer behavior and the overhauling of business models are reshaping the world of luxury. Industry experts have gathered to discuss how to move forward and ensure businesses adapt to the changing environment.

Arab News was on hand to find out more as experts gathered in various panels throughout the day to answer the key questions facing the luxury retail industry in the region. Read on for a diary of our day at the Arab Luxury World 2019 forum.

Is the luxury retail industry diverse enough?

“Diversity,” “inclusion,” and “empowerment” are buzz words that have been doing the rounds in the retail industry around the world, and it’s starting to be heard more and more in the Middle East.

While governments in the region are working to ensure diversity in the luxury retail industry, companies are also doing their bit to ensure they cast a wider net when it comes to their target audience.

Panelists gathered to discuss how much of an impact this had on the region and on premium luxury businesses.

Moderated by Candice D’Cruz, vice president of luxury brand marketing in the Middle East and Africa for Marriott International, the group agreed that Dubai was a melting pot that informed brands attempt at diversifying their marketing campaigns and workforces.

However, Alexandre Schmiedt, Vacheron Constantin’s regional brand director, went on to stress that “the rest of the region is different,” adding that it was “more localized” than the likes of hyper-multi-cultural Dubai.

Schmiedt further warned that there was an extreme “lack of diversity in the workforce of the luxury industry” in the region, and used Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as prime examples of markets ripe for growth, with little national representation in the workforces of luxury brands that wished to capitalize on those markets.

The brand director stressed the need to bring on board Saudi nationals as the “industry is run by expats,” adding that even if those expats were Arab nationals, the need for Gulf representation was still strong.

Quentin Douce, business director at media consultancy Ykone, added praise for the likes of MAC Cosmetics, which he said successfully tapped into the local market by working with local influencers to create products specifically for the region.

The make-up company has been known to work with regional style stars, including Kuwaiti blogger Ahood Alenezi, to create limited-edition products.

“We need this to be inclusive,” he said.

But what are the benefits of a more diverse workforce?

A live poll conducted with the audience before the panel discussion kicked off showed that participants believed employee creativity and company reputation were the most important factors when it comes to a diversified workforce.

For her part, Chantal Khoueiry, chief culture officer of Value Retail, reminded the audience that “diversity is a mindset,” pushing back against those who believed it was simply an HR goal.

Is there a talent gap in the Middle East, and what can we do about it?

Next up was a panel discussion addressing the supposed talent gap in the region, with speakers tackling such issues as skills gaps within organizations, improving technical skills, hiring qualified individuals and training them.

Employees with in-demand skills and talents are notoriously difficult to find anywhere in the world, and the issue is magnified in the Middle East where some countries experience a “brain drain” of qualified talent.

However, panelists offered up a refreshing take on what it means to be qualified, with many of those taking part opting to choose a broader definition of the term beyond the traditional dependence on university qualifications.

“For me, it doesn’t matter whether you graduated from Harvard, as long you are passionate and have the required skills,” David Balfour, co-founder of creative experience agency LightBlue, told the audience.

Panelists also stressed the importance of training employees, which allows organizations to optimize resources that they already have. 

According to the speakers, investing in the existing workforce will foster a better working environment, with Zeina El-Dana, founder and CEO of Z7 Communication, saying that should be one of the most important goals of any business. 

“Our goal is to have a friendly environment and we always make sure the people we hire fit culturally to our working team,” she said.

What is the relationship between art and luxury retail in the Middle East?

Rounding out the day, panelists convened in the final discussion to shed light on the explosion of the art scene in the region, with moderator Myrna Ayad, who runs her own art advisory, posing questions about collaborations between luxury brands and artists and what it means for the two industries.

She kicked things off by spotlighting the 2013 collaboration between Louis Vuitton and Tunisian calligraffiti artist eL Seed, who famously designed a range of scarves for the French fashion house, but added in a later conversation with Arab News that such collaborations should not be “one-hit” wonders.

“Say I’m a luxury brand and you’re an aspiring artist, I would like to see that we court you, we commission you and we try to further your career. So, you’re forever in our safekeeping … we kind of incubate you. I would like to see that,” she said.

Adding her own two cents, Vilma Jurkute, of Dubai-based arts hub Alserkal Avenue, spoke about Burberry’s 2017 exhibition in the space, which featured a curated collection of coveted hand-made capes, as a prime example of the world of luxury retail and art colliding for the better.

She added that more collaborations were vital to ensure brand loyalty in the region, before Saudi Arabia-based designer Hatem Alakeel jumped in to say it is essential that international luxury brands have an understanding of local culture.

“If someone is wearing the shammagh wrong (in an advertising campaign), we can see through it in two minutes,” he told the audience,

The discussion reflected the wider mood at this year’s Arab Luxury World forum that luxury brands from the Western world need to do more to identify with Middle East-based consumers.

“Brands need to localize!” Ayad exclaimed at one point in the conversation.

“How do brands do it? Either you have a person within your team who is fluent as far as the local culture … or you find someone to help explain it to you. You need someone who speaks that language to help you understand what is faux pas, what’s in favor. I think brands should invest in that kind of person, she told Arab News later on in the day.

Women in Egypt’s restive Sinai makes Bedouin face masks

Updated 04 June 2020

Women in Egypt’s restive Sinai makes Bedouin face masks

CAIRO: In El-Arish, the provincial capital of Egypt’s North Sinai, a group of women sew colourful Bedouin designs on masks to combat coronavirus, as an insurgency simmers in their restive region.

Egypt’s toll from the COVID-19 pandemic has reached over 28,600 cases, including more than 1,000 deaths, while North Sinai itself remains the bloody scene of a long-running Islamist insurgency.

“I learnt how to embroider when I was a young girl watching my mother,” homemaker Naglaa Mohammed, 36, told AFP on a landline from El-Arish, as mobile phone links are often disrupted.

Naglaa Mohammed lives in El-Arish. (AFP)

A versatile embroiderer, she also beads garments and crafts rings and bracelets.

Now with the pandemic, she has been designing face masks showcasing her Bedouin heritage.

Bedouins are nomadic tribes who traditionally inhabit desert areas throughout the Arab world, from North Africa to Iraq. Many have now integrated into a more urban lifestyle.

Egypt’s Bedouin textile tradition of tatriz – weaving and beading rich geometric and abstract designs on garments, cushions and purses – has been passed down from generation to generation for centuries.

It has survived in the Sinai Peninsula, whose north has been plagued by years of militant activity and terror attacks spearheaded by a local affiliate of the Islamic State (IS) group.

Security forces have been locked in a battle to quell an insurgency in the Sinai that intensified after the military’s 2013 ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

In February 2018, authorities launched a nationwide operation against militants, focusing on North Sinai.

The beading process takes about two days for each mask, Gharib said. (AFP)

Around 970 suspected militants have since been killed in the region along with dozens of security personnel, according to official figures.

Local and international media are banned from entering heavily militarised North Sinai.

But for Amany Gharib, who founded the El-Fayrouz Association in El-Arish in 2010, the violence has not dissuaded her from keeping Bedouin heritage alive while at the same time empowering local women.

She now employs around 550 women like Mohammed – many of them casually or part-time – as part of a textiles workshop.

“The masks are composed of two layers – one inner layer directly on the face which is disinfected, and the colourful, beaded one outside,” Gharib explained to AFP.

All the women take the necessary precautions while working, including wearing gloves and masks while using sewing machines.

The finished products are washed, packed and shipped off to distribution centres in Cairo, where they are sold online in partnership with Jumia – Africa’s e-commerce giant – for about 40 pounds ($2.50) each.

The beading process takes about two days for each mask, Gharib said.

The finished products are washed, packed and shipped off to distribution centres in Cairo. (AFP)

Amid the volatile security situation, Mohammed has been able to eke out a meagre living with her embroidery skills.

“We work and are given our dues depending on the orders we get... with the masks it has been a new challenge we've tackled,” she said.

Dire economic conditions in Egypt have been even tougher for women of the Sinai since the pandemic began.

“Times are really tough for the women but we have adjusted,” Gharib said.

And while militant attacks on security checkpoints have continued, Gharib expressed confidence in the army.

“We feel a sense of security and stability with the military presence. We trust them,” she said.

The region witnessed the deadliest terror attack in Egypt’s modern history when militants killed more than 300 worshippers in a mosque in November 2017.

Gharib said that in North Sinai’s tight-knit community, each family knew someone who had been killed in an attack.

“Anyone of us who is killed, we consider them a martyr,” she said.

“We are in a war with terror... but the people have learnt to live with it.”