EXCLUSIVE: Emirati tycoon Khalaf Al-Habtoor plans multimillion-dollar Saudi leisure project

Khalaf Al-Habtoor
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Updated 19 January 2020

EXCLUSIVE: Emirati tycoon Khalaf Al-Habtoor plans multimillion-dollar Saudi leisure project

  • In an exclusive interview, the Al-Habtoor boss reveals his views on the Kingdom, the UAE economy, Trump and Iran

A word often used to describe Khalaf Al-Habtoor — founder and chairman of Al-Habtoor Group, and one of the Middle East’s most venerable business leaders — is “forthright.”

His tweets, TV broadcasts and public statements all display a quality of candid outspokenness rare in senior business leadership in the Arab world.

In the course of an early morning conversation at his headquarters in Dubai last week, he was forthright on a host of subjects, ranging from ambitious expansion plans in Saudi Arabia to the challenges faced by the UAE economy and the global geopolitical scene.

Al-Habtoor is not a man given to diffidence, though he said he would not be sharing his views with the “global elite” preparing to travel to the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos next week. “We leave that for the really big people. It’s really entertainment rather than anything else,” he joked.

Entertainment and leisure have been the mainstays of the Al-Habtoor business empire, which is as old as the UAE itself and one of the country’s best-known brands, with interests in construction, real estate, motor distribution and education.

The group has hotel operations in Europe and the US, but the chairman is now looking at Saudi Arabia as a major avenue for expansion, with a multimillion-dollar investment project planned for the Kingdom. The opportunities are mind-boggling, he told Arab News.

“I call Saudi Arabia a continent rather than a country. It has history before Moses and Abraham,” he said.

“We’re seeing now on TV something we’ve never seen before — we see green fields, we see skiing, we see sun and desert. You can’t believe this is the Arabian Peninsula,” he added.

“That makes it very attractive to every tourist or investor because they have variety, because you’re not restricted to one area or sector where you want to build something. You have a choice as to what you can do.”

Al-Habtoor has chosen — in partnership with the Saudi tourism authorities — to back a huge leisure and recreation project outside Riyadh.

It will draw on the successful Habtoor City development in his native Dubai but on a much bigger scale: Up to 7 million square meters of hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail and residential facilities, and — imagine it — lakes and beaches. “You’ll ask me now where does the beach come from in Riyadh. We’ll create it,” he said.

The project is still at the planning stage and subject to final approval from all parties.

It will borrow some of the elements from the successful Habtoor City development in Dubai, notably a Saudi version of the spectacular theatrical production La Perle. But it will not be a straightforward copy of the Dubai attraction, nor indeed of the Dubai development strategy.

“In Dubai, we don’t have oil. If we were dependent on oil, we wouldn’t be like this now. Saudi Arabia has a bigger population — 30 million people, 90 percent of them Saudi, who want to enjoy their lives and their history,” he said.

Born:

• Dubai, UAE.

Education:

• Al-Shaab School, Bur Dubai.

Career:

• Founder and chairman, Al-Habtoor Group.

“We in the rest of the Gulf haven’t seen this history, and I personally would like to go and see this history and see Riyadh, the Eastern Province and the Red Sea.”

Al-Habtoor believes that the Kingdom can use the lessons of Dubai’s development, especially in creating a more liberal social and cultural environment in what is generally regarded as a more conservative country.

“The word ‘conservative’ needs some explanation. The people of Saudi and the UAE are from the same background, the same family. We’re related. When they visit us, they see that,” he said.

“The original people of the UAE are conservative by background, too, but they also enjoy going to restaurants, to the movies, to the theater. They want to go everywhere. They want to be free,” he added, while allowing that there are limitations to freedom.

“Freedom doesn’t mean you should abuse your country, your people or the authorities. You have to protect your culture by educating other people.”

On the question of whether alcohol could ever be served in Saudi Arabia as it is in Habtoor’s UAE establishments, he replied:  “To be honest, I can’t comment on that because I don’t know what their plan is for that.

“But everything is changing, everything is possible,” he added.

The Vision 2030 “masterplan” is changing perceptions of the Kingdom, he said. “It really is an excellent strategy. Everything is clear and transparent. There is a huge future for Saudi Arabia as far as investment and visitors and tourists are concerned.”

Al-Habtoor Group has interests in many sectors of the UAE economy, and from this position the chairman is well qualified to give an authoritative opinion on the challenges facing the country as it prepares for the Expo 2020 business exhibition.

The most pressing worry for economic analysts has been the oversupply of residential and hotel developments, and rising prices that some believe are forcing expatriate workers out of the UAE.

“Well, 2018 wasn’t a very good year, and 2019 was also very slow in the beginning, but by the end of the fourth quarter you could see the signs of improvement in the market. You could see it in retail, things were moving. In the land department, people were buying and selling land and real estate,” he said.

In his car-leasing business, in real estate, luxury cars and his education business, he saw signs that the UAE economy was picking up again. “Definitely. I can see improvement,” he said.

But the volume cars business was lagging, reflecting different spending patterns by expats who often now choose to rent a car long term rather than buy. The rising cost of living was also a big factor, he said.

“Everything is becoming more expensive. The only cheap thing in the country is hotel rooms — they’re among the cheapest in the world,” he added.

“There are too many hotel rooms and residential developments, and it’s not recommended that we should build more.”

The UAE government has taken some measures to limit supply of real estate and hotel projects, which Al-Habtoor thinks is a good thing.

But the introduction of VAT was, in his view, a damaging economic mistake that should be rectified immediately.

“I think it should be cancelled, and also all the money taken should be refunded. The idea of VAT is wrong in my country for the time being. Maybe in the future,” he said.

He would prefer to see the cancellation of sales tax and the scrapping of government fees for services such as visas and business licenses, replaced by a standard rate of income tax.

“I’d recommended they stop all the fees and VAT and let them take from income, like Britain, for example,” he said.

In international affairs, his opinion of US President Donald Trump has wavered between condemnation of his policy to ban travel from some Muslim countries, to warm approval of his current policy toward the Middle East.

Now Al-Habtoor seems overwhelmingly positive on Trump and would like to see him re-elected.

“I said that we need a businessman rather than a politician to lead the world. But whatever he said in the past I think it was just to get elected, and a lot of his supporters didn’t know about us, the Arabs,” Al-Habtoor said.

“They don’t know whether we were terrorists or good people. There are a lot of naive people in the US.”

In particular, he is a firm supporter of Trump’s recent policy toward Iran, though he feels that US sanctions could be better focused.

“If Trump wants to make (Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali) Khamenei and his gangs starve to death, he can do that. So I can’t understand why he isn’t doing that,” Al-Habtoor said.

“There are sanctions, but he’s not killing the rich people. They still eat caviar and the best steaks while the poor people are starving.”

On the US killing of Qassem Soleimani, Al-Habtoor is in complete agreement that it was the right thing to do, but hinted that he believed there was Iranian collusion in the attack.

“It should’ve happened a long time ago. He was the biggest criminal on earth. I think maybe the Iranians wanted him gone, too, otherwise how could the Americans have tracked him? But what happened is good, it doesn’t matter who did it,” Al-Habtoor said.

He is adamant that there should be no further escalation in regional tensions, but believes the next big threat will come from Hezbollah, Iran’s ally in Lebanon.

“I think Hezbollah is more powerful than Iran, and I think (Hezbollah leader) Hassan Nasrallah is the biggest threat to peace in the region,” Al-Habtoor said with forthright finality.


INTERVIEW: ‘We were built for times like this’, Johnson & Johnson exec Marzena Kulis says of company’s role in fighting pandemics

Updated 20 September 2020

INTERVIEW: ‘We were built for times like this’, Johnson & Johnson exec Marzena Kulis says of company’s role in fighting pandemics

  • 134-year firm searches for a vaccine while tackling other regional medical issues

Being a senior executive at a medical company during the most serious health care crisis for a century puts you at the sharp end of events, as Marzena Kulis, managing director of the medical products business of Johnson & Johnson in the Middle East, is well aware.

“We were built for the times like this. We are a company with a 134-year legacy.

“We lived through the previous pandemics of smallpox and Spanish flu, and through the financial crises, through world wars, and our business has expanded and grown,” she told Arab News.

“But it would be wrong to say that what happened in the past few months had no impact on the local, regional and global businesses,” she added.

J&J, a multibillion-dollar giant of the global health care industry, has been in the region for more than 40 years, operating via the three pillars of its business — medical devices, pharmaceuticals and consumer products.

But there is no doubt that the company’s profile has been lifted during the pandemic through its work on a potential vaccine. J&J is one of several international companies working flat out to develop a treatment since virtually the first outbreak earlier this year. 

Kulis, an economist by training who has spent almost her entire career in the health care sector, has seen that at first hand in recent months.

“I think our teams globally have been working tirelessly, without a break really, on finding the solutions and, as of now, we are saying that large quantities of the vaccine will be available in the first quarter of 2021,” she said.

“In September, we are planning to begin phase three trials on humans, which will be on a large number of the populations chosen for the trials, but we still believe that it will be early 2021 when we will be able to deliver the vaccine,” she added. Some health experts have criticized the tendency toward “vaccine nationalism” by some countries, eager to be first with a treatment in an international race, or to keep supplies of the medicine for their own people, rather than spreading it equably around the world.

“We are open to discussion with everyone,” Kulis said, pointing to agreements J&J has signed with the US and European authorities on vaccine collaboration, as well as with international organizations such as the GAVI immunization agency supported by many countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia.

J&J also signed up for the “We Stand with Science” campaign to uphold the integrity of the medical scientific process in vaccine development and global regulatory standards.

Kulis is aware of the pressure to produce a vaccine “cure,” but believes safety is paramount. “Although we all would like it to be available tomorrow, the process has to take its time to ensure there are high ethical standards and scientific principles,” she said.

Meanwhile, while the world waits for a vaccine, Kulis has a business to run in the Middle East. The medical devices business in the region includes surgical equipment, and orthopedics and cardiovascular procedures — all affected by the heightened focus on COVID-19 treatments during the pandemic.

In particular, some elective surgeries have been pushed to the back of the queue by patients understandably anxious to protect their health during the pandemic. Lockdowns and economic pressure have also had an effect.


BIO

Born: Krakow, Poland

Education

  • Master’s, Krakow Economic Academy
  • MBA, Stockholm University

Career

  • HD operations officer, World Bank 
  • General manager for Pfizer, Poland and Baltic states
  • Managing director, Johnson & Johnson, Middle East

“The UAE has restored or reopened some surgeries, but Saudi Arabia is still taking a bit more time reopening for elective surgeries, with the exception of some parts of the country. So, obviously, that has an impact,” Kulis said.

The financials of the business were better than expected in the second quarter, although still some way off what they would have been without the virus. One real positive is that the J&J global supply chain has remained intact, she said.

Kulis’ job gives her a unique insight into the medical problems of the region, and one issue stands out, she says — obesity and its associated complications. J&J sees the extent of the problem in its bariatrics specialism, which deals with the causes, prevention and treatment of obesity.

“This region is leading the obesity prevalence in the world and we provide medical solution for that as well,” she said, pointing out that three of the top five most obese countries in the world in terms of obesity incidence as a proportion of the population are from the Middle East.

Oncological and gynecological surgery is also a growing part of her division in Saudi Arabia. 

In orthopedics, Kulis said with a hint of humor, “the world has been walking on our knees and our hips for decades.” But there is also an important link to obesity, too, she said, because overweight people are likely to face greater mobility challenges.

“Sooner or later, as a consequence of obesity, people require joint replacement or some other orthopedic intervention,” she said.

The third segment of the medical devices unit is also affected by obesity problems. The cardiovascular and stroke speciality focuses on remedies for heart arrythmia and stroke management.

“We’re still raising the awareness of availability of the surgical treatment for those two. It’s especially important to show that stroke is not a death or disability sentence but can be treated. People can be brought to mobility and quality of life,” Kulis said.

J&J sees as another increasing problem for Saudi Arabia — the treatment of traumatic injuries from traffic accidents.

“It’s really prevalent and a strong focus in Saudi Arabia. The treatment of road accident trauma is part of our orthopedic business. Road accidents are an important part of our work in the Kingdom,” she said.

Overall, the health benefits of Saudi Arabia’s young demographic is, to some extent, outweighed by obesity and other lifestyle issues, she said.

The Kingdom is a focus for expansion for J&J. It opened a headquarters office in Riyadh in 2017, and also has bases in Jeddah and Dammam, serving as a base not only for the medical devices business but also the consumer and pharmaceuticals units. There are about 180 employees in the Kingdom, of whom roughly 40 percent are citizens.

“We have made a conscious effort to ensure we can build up local capacity and help the local population to work with us,” she said. J&J has a local Saudi partner, takes part in official programs to promote health and lifestyle issues within the Kingdom, and has a joint flagship program with the Prince Sultan Humanitarian City Hospital. 

The health sector has been earmarked for greater private sector participation in the Vision 2030 plans to diversify the Kingdom away from the government-dominated energy sector, and J&J is keen to take advantage of any opportunities in that respect.

“We are always exploring the option for enhancement of the business and definitely Saudi is our priority market. 

We haven’t been in any discussions regarding takeover or merger activity so far, but if there are opportunities, we will put it forward to our senior management. We are looking at any opportunity to strengthen our footprint in Saudi Arabia,” she said.

Including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Kulis’s responsibilities at J&J cover the medial needs of 500 million people in 16 countries stretching from Pakistan to Egypt. But she is keen not to lose sight of the importance of individual cases within the many thousands of patients that benefit from J&J products and procedures every year.

“What keeps me up at night is this question — how can we grow the scale of the business so that we can help more patients get treatment at the right time?

“We all know the stories of people and the families who don’t get care on time, or who wait too long for treatment. I want to shape my organization so that we can share the same dream of preventing that,” she said.