INTERVIEW: Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea project to set ‘new global standards in sustainability’, says CEO

Illustration by Luis Grañena
Updated 20 October 2019

INTERVIEW: Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea project to set ‘new global standards in sustainability’, says CEO

  • John Pagano tells of his plans to help save world’s corals by developing ‘amazing land’ on Saudi Arabia’s western shores
  • “What really caught my attention was the passion and enthusiasm of young Saudis for Vision 2030," says Red Sea Development Co's CEO

DUBAI: John Pagano has been involved in mega-projects around the world, but “none of them will have the impact this will have on Saudi Arabia,” he said.

“This” is the Red Sea Development Company, of which he is CEO. Along with the plan to build a futuristic metropolis at NEOM in the northwest of the Kingdom, and the Qiddiya leisure resort near Riyadh, it is one of the headline initiatives of the Vision 2030 strategy to diversify away from oil dependency.

The Red Sea project is special, Pagano said. Not only because Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman fell in love with the area as a youth and was a frequent visitor, and not only because of the stunning natural beauty of the 28,000 square kilometer region of lagoons, archipelagos, canyons and volcanic geology between the two small towns of Al-Wajh and Umluj on the western coast.

Canadian-born Pagano told of how he was “sold” on the idea of running the Red Sea project when Saudi Arabia lured him out of a youthful retirement that mainly involved flying airplanes. “What really caught my attention was the passion and enthusiasm of young Saudis for Vision 2030. It was really quite intoxicating. I thought it could be quite a lot of fun to be part of the transformation of a country,” he said.

Opening up the tourism and leisure industries is a major part of the transformation. At the moment, the Kingdom derives between 3 and 4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) from this sector, most of it religious tourism from Hajj and Umrah pilgrims. Globally, tourism represents 10 percent of GDP and accounts for 10 per cent of the world’s workforce.

The Red Sea project will eventually inject SR22 billion ($5.8 billion) into the Saudi Arabian economy and lead to the creation of 70,00 jobs directly and indirectly in the Kingdom’s workforce, Pagano said.

“You have this huge opportunity to contribute and help the diversification process by developing tourism and a tourism sector which to a large extent does not really exist,” he said.

The project is certainly tourism, but with a big difference. Definitely out are the package holidays and Costa-style beach frolics. It will not be “Club Med on the Red,” in the words of one of his aides. “We are not seeking to be Dubai,” Pagano said.


BIO

BORN - Toronto, 1959

EDUCATION - BSc in mechanical engineering, University of Toronto

CAREER

  • Managing director, Canary Wharf Contractors, London
  • President, Baha Mar Development Company, Bahamas
  • Managing director, Canary Wharf Group, London
  • Principal, Old Fort Capital Investments, London
  • CEO, Red Sea Development Company

“It will be a luxury tourism destination that sets new global standards in sustainability,” Pagano said. “The idea is not to build as much on it as possible, and make as much money as we can. The idea is to protect it for generations to come.”

Luxury tourism is the fastest-growing segment of the global market, and high-rolling tourists are willing to pay top dollar for one-of-a-kind experiences. Exclusivity will be set by limiting the number of visitors. Of the 90 islands in the region, only 22 are going to be developed, and annual visits will be capped at one million in 2030, when completion is scheduled.

Nine islands are deemed to be so crucial to the ecology that they will not be built on at all, and access will be carefully controlled. One, Al-Waqqadi island, looked like the perfect tourism destination, but was discovered to be the breeding ground for the rare hawksbill sea turtle. “In the end, we said we’re not going to develop it. It shows you can balance development and conservation,” Pagano said.

If you want to get him really excited, ask about coral. “The rest of the coral reef systems around the world are dying, but this one — the fourth largest in the world — is thriving. We’re trying to figure out why. We’re working very closely with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and experimenting with coral growing, trying to understand the unique DNA of coral found in this part of the world.

“If you look at it, the Red Sea has warmer sea temperatures and higher salinity values, yet the coral thrives. We’re trying to work out why, and to the extent we solve that mystery, the ambition would be to export that to the rest of the world — help save the Great Barrier Reef or severely damaged Caribbean coral,” he said.




The Red Sea project is home to a number of endangered species, including the hawksbill sea turtle. (Courtesy: Red Sea Project website)

Sustainability is being built into the project’s structure. It will be 100 per cent carbon neutral and powered by renewable energy via solar and wind power, and will make use of advanced technology to solve the storage problems that have so far proved to be obstacles to renewable energy. “The technology is available but nobody has ever done it on this scale before,” he said, pointing to plans to use solar power to make ice by day and use it for cooling at night. There are even plans for “artificial trees” to aid the carbon-capture process.

Pagano is working on another project with KAUST — “Brains for brine” — that seeks to address the problem of excess salination of sea water resulting from the desalination processes widely used in the Kingdom.

But building what will eventually be 8,000 hotel rooms, an airport, a small town for the 10,000 workers on the project, on the coast of one of the busiest maritime navigation channels in the world, presents its own environmental challenges.

He was speaking the week after an Iranian tanker had leaked oil into the Red Sea, but said that commercial sea lanes were far away from the project, and big vessels could not enter the shallow lagoon system anyway.

On-site construction will be kept to a minimum by the use of prefabricated units built elsewhere in the Kingdom and then shipped to the Red Sea for assembly and installation on the islands. He will have to have 3,000 hotel keys by 2022, when phase one of the project is complete and ready to welcome the first of 300,000 annual visitors.

The technology is available, but nobody has ever done it on this scale.

Those guests are estimated to come roughly 50 percent from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, and 50 percent from the rest of the world, with a big proportion from Europe and the experience-seeking markets of Asia.

A big draw of the Red Sea region is that all-year temperatures and humidity are lower than other parts of the region, notably the Arabian Gulf. “It’s much more like a southern European climate,” he said, allowing for year-round business.

Pagano promises visitors “a constellation of experiences,” but what kind of resort will they arrive at? “We had plans for a special visa-on-arrival procedure just for us, but of course we don’t need that now that there is a Kingdom-wide tourist visa,” he said.

When the tourists get there, the resort will feel different from the rest of Saudi Arabia. It will be treated as other “special economic zones” in the Kingdom, with more relaxed social norms and an environment attractive to international visitors, he said.

“There are currently no plans to serve alcohol, but that is not our call, it’s a broader issue. But even without alcohol, there are a potential 1.5 billion tourists in the world Muslim demographic,” he said.




The Red Sea Project is designed to enhance the natural environment for future generations. (Courtesy: Red Sea Project website)

A transformational project of such ambition obviously does not come cheap, and Pagano admits to “many billions of dollars” in total construction and development costs. So far, the bills have been met by the Public Investment Fund, which has committed all the equity capital.

But Pagano is now in the market for “conventional senior debt” in a package that could reach SR10 billion ($2.6 billion). With the big infrastructure project — bridges, roads, a new airport — currently under way and contracts being announced at increasing pace — a fresh batch are promised during the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh later this month — those funds are needed, he said, and could be in place early next year.

“Plus, we are talking to a lot of investors and looking at the possibility of getting them into the project,” he said. French hotel group Accor is already involved, and he expects most of the leading global hospitality brands to play some part in it too. Contracts to build and operate the utilities on the development are currently out to tender to a number of consortia.

It is all part of the transformation under way in the Kingdom that appears to be unstoppable. By 2030, Saudi Arabia is aiming to attract 100 million visitors a year, with the elite heading to the Red Sea area to sample the “amazing piece of land” that Pagano is developing.

“It’s ambitious, but feasible. It’s starting from a low base and the vision is unprecedented,” he said.


INTERVIEW: All eyes on Starzplay as lockdown reaps rewards

Updated 05 July 2020

INTERVIEW: All eyes on Starzplay as lockdown reaps rewards

  • CEO Mazen Sheikh sees business soar as Saudi viewers turn to streaming services

Mazen Sheikh has had a good lockdown.

The founder and CEO of Starzplay, the Middle East’s leading entertainment streaming channel, saw his business soar as curfews, social distancing and travel restrictions left people with little to do apart from slump in front of a TV and binge watch for hours on end.

“I think when the whole situation was unfolding, we were trying to think which way is up and which was down, both on a personal level and also as a company — what it means for our subscribers. It was nerve-wracking in the beginning,” Mazen Sheikh told Arab News.

In the region, it was Starzplay subscribers chose to watch, rather than Netflix or other streaming services, in English and in Arabic.

“What we benefited from, of course, was all the people staying home, but one of the things that worked in our favor was that we are an organization based and headquartered here, and we were able to adapt and localize our services much faster than anyone else,” he said.

“In Saudi Arabia, you can sign up for Starzplay via STC, Mobily or any of the other services. You can sign up with your mobile phone number. Netflix came to this region with a very US-centric mindset, thinking that everyone had a credit card and that having a credit card is a norm in the world. In fact, the reality is different, especially in Saudi. Not everyone has a credit card,” he added.

“So, through one bill where you pay your landline and your broadband, you can also have access to Starzplay on the same bill. You can just download onto your smart TV,” he added.

Starzplay has been in business for five years, and while it is probably not as well known as Netflix, it has been making big inroads into the region, especially Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom accounts for 40 percent of total revenue, while almost half of all consumption in the Middle East and North Africa region comes from Saudi viewers.

And what have they been watching during the long weeks of lockdown? 

Lots of “Vikings,” “The Office” and Turkish-made romantic soap “Jusoor Wal Jamila.” 

Saudis on average watched more than 18 hours of Starzplay in May, compared with less than 12 a year before.


BIO

BORN: Islamabad 1970.

EDUCATION

  • Schooling in Dubai, UAE.
  • Oklahoma State University, US.
  • University of Kansas, MBA.

CAREER

  • Various executive roles in media and communications, US.
  • Chief sales and operations officer, OSN, Dubai.
  • CEO and founder, Starzplay.

“The beauty is that everyone has a mobile phone. We were there in the market with the right product, the right content, but also the right distribution so the masses can actually sign up for our service. It really benefited us.

“It was not just that we were a streaming service. The whole category benefited from the lockdown, but we were the only one in the market that had this kind of distribution and payment arrangements. We were the only one available to the masses,” Sheikh said.

It is not just the distribution platform that is different from Netflix. Starzplay takes a distinct stance on content, too, as Sheikh explained.

“Our industry is evolving in a simple and predictable way. What is happening is that the more Netflix has gone into its own originals, the more studios see them as a competitor. So studios have been pulling their content away from Netflix.

“Until now, with what comes out of Hollywood and the UK, 95 percent of English-language content was produced by seven or eight studios. In the UK it’s the likes of the BBC and ITV, while in the US it’s Warner, Disney, Sony, Showtime, CBS, all the major studios,” he said.

“So, the way the industry is evolving is that if you want Netflix originals, you go to Netflix, if you want anything else you go to Starzplay,” he said.

Sheikh reeled off an impressive list of top shows on his platform. “Big Bang Theory,” “Billions,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Britannia” are among them, while younger viewers soak up “The Flash,” “Supergirl” and other DC titles made by Warner Studios.

Starzplay has also made its first foray into original content, tailored for a Middle East audience, with the series “Baghdad Central.”

“Data is the new oil, they say, and ‘Baghdad Central’ was the result of our experience over five years of consumption history, with billions and billions of minutes consumed. So based on what people were consuming in our key markets and with those insights, we produced our first original,” Sheikh said.

“Baghdad Central” was launched in March with a big name Hollywood actor — Corey Stoll from the award-winning series “House of Cards” — as well as top British and Arab actors.

“We wanted to bring a show to the region that combined the best of the three. It was shot in Morocco in partnership with UK and US producers,” he explained.

That kind of content has pulled in the viewers during lockdown. The figures show Starzplay hit a peak of 6.5 million daily minutes of consumption in Saudi Arabia in the middle of April, compared with about 2 million before the pandemic lockdowns.

Existing viewers are also watching more. The average Saudi spent 28 minutes daily in front of a Starzplay show before the lockdown. That more than doubled to one hour as movement outside the home was restricted.

“To put that into perspective, it took us five years to go from zero to 2 million minutes a day, and it took us six weeks to go from 2 million to 6.5 million. We did more consumption growth in six weeks than we did in the first five years,” Sheikh said.

He is reluctant to forecast how many of these consumers will stay with Starzplay as the lockdowns are eased around the world and the region. 

“I’m expecting some churn, so it’s tough to predict what the base will look like later in the year. We saw tremendous growth, but as the lockdown eases I think we’ll see some churn on those subscribers,” he said.

But even as the lockdown are eased significantly in the region, consumers are not going back to pre-pandemic levels. There is likely to be a permanent shift in demand for Starzplay in the “new normal” environment.

“Unlike Netflix, one of the challenges we had in the region is that the brand awareness and content awareness of our service was comparatively low. One of the things that has happened is that because of increasing demand and awareness, people got to find out about Starzplay. People experienced that and connected the content to our brand.

“That is going to be an enduring and lasting benefit for our company. You cannot unlearn it. I’m expecting some churn in high sign-ups and reduced consumption volumes, but the lasting benefit we’re hoping for is the brand awareness and content awareness that was created,” he said.

That kind of growth is likely to accelerate Starzplay’s evolution from a privately funded startup to a listed public company. It has raised $125 million over its five years, from some pretty impressive investors, including US media giant Lionsgate, the big financial firm State Street Global Advisers, and Nordic investment firm SEQ, which backed Starzplay from the beginning.

With profitability just around the corner, Sheikh does not see the need for further funding, especially as investment sources have dried up during the uncertainty of the pandemic period.

“During COVID times, when consumption and new subscribers were going through the roof, the flip side was that we realized that capital markets were going to be out for 2020. Lucky for us, we are well capitalized, and we are not in a situation where we need to use funds. This is not a good time to be out there raising money,” he said.

“The goal is to serve our customers and also create shareholder value. There are multiple ways of doing that. One is that you generate cash and shareholders benefit from cash dividends. That’s the traditional model. The more high-growth model that is more applicable to companies like us is shareholders push for more growth and expansion to increase the enterprise value of the company,” he said.

Sheikh has set his medium-term sights on a public listing. “In the long run the goal is to continue to grow the business, and in the next three to five years to get into a position where we can list the company on the London Stock Exchange.

“We haven’t absolutely decided that, as it’s so far out. I’d say what we’re looking to do is list ourselves, and if not in London, then other markets, local or London. That’s the ambition, to look to IPO on London or other markets. We’re not there yet. We’re still two to three years away from a decision, but that’s our ambition,” he said.