INTERVIEW: Coronavirus pandemic a turning point in business history, says leading Saudi executive

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Updated 16 May 2020

INTERVIEW: Coronavirus pandemic a turning point in business history, says leading Saudi executive

  • Sabic CEO, B20 KSA chairman Yousef Al-Benyan shares what ‘new normal’ might look like

DUBAI: Yousef Al-Benyan is one of the leading captains of Saudi Arabian industry. As vice president and chief executive officer of the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation, he has been instrumental in leading the Kingdom’s drive into petrochemicals, which has put the country in the top echelons of the global chemicals industry.

For the past year, he has been involved in the biggest corporate deal in the Kingdom's history — the multi-billion-dollar acquisition of Sabic by Saudi Aramco. The deal — expected to be completed soon — paved the way for the listing of the world’s biggest oil company on the Tadawul stock exchange in the largest initial public offering in history last December.

Such roles at the head of Saudi business and industry, along with his global experience and familiarity, have made him the natural appointee as chairman of the Business Twenty (B20). The B20 is the G20 unit responsible for the global business community and is involved in the private corporate-sector preparations for the summit of government leaders scheduled to take place in Riyadh later this year.

Al-Benyan spoke to Arab News about the ambitions and challenges of the global business community at this time of unprecedented turmoil brought on by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, which has transformed the landscape beyond recognition in the space of a few months.

“COVID-19 represents a turning point in business history, the creation of a new normal,” Al-Benyan said.

“Globally, we are seeing businesses respond to the pandemic in a wide variety of ways, ranging from complete shutdowns, to downsizing and lay-offs, to transforming their business models to contribute to resolving the health crisis. We are collectively witnessing the rise of a new normal,” he added.

Recently, he announced the B20 COVID-19 Initiative, which taps into the expertise of the global business community in an effort to mitigate the effects of the economic crisis caused the pandemic.

“We have worked with our taskforces and action councils to call for a global coordinated response, and we will be issuing an interim report that aims to address economic recovery but also prepare for future crises,” he said.

The policy recommendations from those studies will be presented to the G20 presidency ahead of the November summit.

“We are looking across several sectors and into issues that impact the global business community and that require strong government partnership and collaboration.

“From improving digital infrastructure, to reducing carbon emissions, to strengthening global trade and helping close the gender gap in businesses, we are focused on turning today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities,” he said.

In the pandemic era, the deliberations of the B20 have been conducted in dramatically changed format. Instead of face-to-face meetings, Al-Benyan has chaired a series of virtual gatherings of business leaders from his headquarters in Riyadh.

“We have already either hosted or participated in a number of virtual meetings and events that have been successful in bringing together some of the best minds in global business. At times like these, we must be able to demonstrate action through collaboration, and our inability to sit in the same room should not limit the potential of businesses,” he said.

“With gatherings and travel restrictions in place, our experience with conducting virtual meetings on digital platforms is a reminder of the importance of strengthening our global digital infrastructure as we press on to achieve business continuity. The health crisis has served to highlight the importance of digital technologies in containing the pandemic as well as minimizing the social and economic impact,” Al Benyan added.


BIO

BORN: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

EDUCATION:

  • Bachelor’s degree in economics
  • Master’s degree in industrial management

CAREER:

  • (Sabic since 1987)
  • Business development executive
  • Corporate communications
  • Operations manager, Stamford, Connecticut, US
  • Commercial manager for the Americas, Houston, Texas, US
  • General manager, SABIC Asia
  • Vice president of Corporate Finance and Chief Financial Officer.
  • Current: Vice chairman and chief executive officer.

The pandemic crisis has shaken the global economy to its core, and for Saudi Arabia the effect has been magnified by the steep fall in oil prices as a result of wholesale lockdowns of economic activity around the world. The Kingdom has responded with a series of economic, financial and health measures that some analysts believe amount to a watershed moment in its development.

“The initial short-term outlook for the global economy looks challenging, with both growth estimates and consumer confidence dropping as a result of the virus. With lessons learned from the MERS outbreak back in 2012, the Saudi government has moved fast and taken the necessary actions, extending much-needed support to the business community during this outbreak.

“Addressing the pandemic head-on, the government has announced a series of multi-billion-riyal financial assistance programs to extend a lifeline to the private sector, which has been negatively impacted by the virus,” Al-Benyan said, speaking before the recent increase in value-added tax and reduction in the cost of living allowances, which were announced last week.

“We believe this crisis will lead our economic transformation as Saudi Arabia continues to diversify its economy. The government has already mobilized its resources to future-proof its economy, investing in the private sector to support jobs and industries,” Al-Benyan said. 

“Our efforts will hopefully be a signal to the world that we can emerge out of this crisis stronger than before with robust economies and fundamentals in place. B20 Saudi Arabia will continue to work with the G20 to accelerate collaboration and encourage solutions and innovation to chart a path forward for recovery and sustained growth,” he added.

“We understand that business continuity is vital and so are the health and safety of employees. Business are monitoring the situation closely and pursuing measures that work simultaneously with the government’s directives and regulations. It is important to note that in many cases, resuming business will be in an entirely new normal,” Al-Benyan said.

Like many business leaders, he is reluctant to put a date on when the new normal will begin — when business and the economy will re-open.

Whatever shape the new normal takes, Al-Benyan and the rest of the B20 team have a full agenda for the rest of the year leading up to the summit. That build-up comes at a time of increasing tensions within the international community, with the stand-off between the US and China moving into an apparently more confrontational phase under the impact of the pandemic. 

Al-Benyan believes that leaders should learn from the global response from business.

“We have seen businesses around the globe mobilize on a massive scale, and we call upon political leaders to take similar action, as it is only through global cooperation that we can contain the potential human and economic toll of COVID-19. As B20 Saudi Arabia, we will make relentless efforts to ensure the business community’s voice is heard.

“We have a busy few months ahead as we work on finalizing our action-oriented and impactful policy recommendations for each taskforce and action council. Once finalized and agreed upon, the recommendations will be delivered in an official communiqué to the G20 leaders during the annual B20 summit in October in Riyadh,” he said.

The B20 is in the process of developing specific recommendations on business recovery and preparation for future crises, with a report expected to be delivered to the presidency next month.

One big question on Al-Benyan’s mind, which also concerns virtually everyone on the G20 team in the Kingdom, is whether the summit in November will go ahead as a physical event. Saudi Arabia has already hosted a virtual meeting of the G20 leaders, which was regarded as a success, as well as a crucial meeting of energy ministers from the leading countries credited with helping ease strains in global oil markets.

But a physical G20 summit would be a milestone for the Kingdom — the first time it has been held in an Arab country — and an opportunity to showcase the reforms under way for the past few years. Will it go ahead?

“Like every citizen of Saudi Arabia, we look forward to hosting a physical event and welcoming global leaders to the Kingdom. That said, any decision depends on external factors and a situation that continues to evolve. While we prepare for every eventuality, we will be following government guidelines and global best practices, discussing with all member states and stakeholders before deciding on the final event format,” Al-Banyan said.


INTERVIEW: Abeer Al-Fouti sees Alwaleed delivering global response to COVID-19 pandemic

Updated 11 July 2020

INTERVIEW: Abeer Al-Fouti sees Alwaleed delivering global response to COVID-19 pandemic

  • Abeer Al-Fouti explains how the philanthropic world has come together in the COVID-19 era

DUBAI: Charity begins at home, they say, but in the era of the world pandemic such a domestic-focused approach is neither desirable nor effective.

That is why several global philanthropic organisations, and big name donors, have come to the fore in the course of the COVID-19 crisis to offer financial, practical and logistics support to those people in the world whose governments do not have the means to extend assistance to their entire population.

Perhaps the best known is Bill Gates, the American entrepreneur who has pledged to give away his entire multi-billion dollar fortune to beat the virus. Other eminent entrepreneurs have also given billions in the attempt to find an elusive vaccine or effective treatment.

But Saudi Arabia has its own famous philanthropist in the shape of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the Kingdom Holding magnate, who has for many years been dispensing charity via his organization Alwaleed Philanthropies.

Abeer Al-Fouti runs the global side of that enterprise and is convinced that only a global approach will work in the face of the biggest health challenge for nearly a century.

“The simple message is that actually COVID-19, despite all the challenges, whether economic, or emotional or health or luck, has one important lesson that we have all learned, or should learn: That we are one world, we are one.

“If you think selfishly, it is going to come back and haunt you anyway. So this is the time when we all need to come together and think we are one. Otherwise, we are all going to go down together,” she told Arab News.


As one of the ambitious young women coming to prominence as part of the Vision 2030 strategy of female empowerment, she obviously takes great pride in her work.

“This year we’re celebrating 40 years of our existence. If I can summarize it in numbers, we’ve been working for four decades in six continents, serving 200 countries with 355 global partners. We’ve finished 1,000 projects and spent over $4 billion, and we reached one billion beneficiaries across the world. That’s our latest update. And it’s all run by 10 Saudi females from Riyadh,” she said.

Alwaleed Philanthropies plays a major role in charitable giving within the Kingdom, supporting organizations and individuals across the spectrum of community development, health, education and empowerment. But Al-Fouti’s responsibilities are more global.

“I believe philanthropy pays a major role in filling the gap, with a regional platform bringing the government and private sector together, and focusing on those who maybe the system does not serve or does not cover. This is why His Royal Highness called us together, to do our research and then to explain who we think we should support,” she said.


“We decided to focus on those that were most vulnerable in the Arab world, in the Middle East and Africa,” she said.

Fighting the pandemic has been the main focus for the organization since the virus broke on the world earlier this year. In April, Alwaleed Philanthropies gave an extra $20 million to provide medical and economic help to poorer countries during the pandemic, bringing its total COVID-19 support to $30 million, on top of its usual budget.

“In these times of unprecedented crisis it is more important now than ever that we pull our resources together in the battle against COVID-19. With many developed nations struggling to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, we must spare a thought for the developing countries of Africa and the less fortunate countries in the Middle East,” Prince Alwaleed said then.

“I’m sure you know it’s in the DNA of our culture and our religion — giving and charity. Everyone is required to give as part of the culture,’ Al-Fouti added. Alwaleed’s work runs alongside an equally generous program of charitable initiatives funded by the government of Saudi Arabia for projects both within the Kingdom itself and the rest of the world.


Maintaining the international partnerships that have been cultivated over the decades is a vital part of her work. The Gates Foundation, Gavi, the vaccination organisation, the World Health Organization and the United Nations are important allies in the global sphere.

“We have criteria for selection, and mainly we want to work with partners that are credible and share common values, and those which have long-term impact, in addition to other criteria. We have a detailed list of criteria and we tick those which have compatibility, reliability and credibility. We have to ensure that the money we give will reach those in need,” she said.

Another important ally is the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, ISESCO, which has partnered with Alwaleed on many regional projects.

“We support initiatives in 200 countries, regardless of gender, race or religion — as long as they have shared values,” she explained.

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BIO

Born: Alkhobar, Saudi Arabia

Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in health and hospital administration, King Saud University

Career: Various roles in government and private sector in human development, management and public relations

- CEO Al-Khair

- Partner, RVCC property development

- Co-founder, Smile Productions

- Executive manager, Global initiatives, Alwaleed Philanthropies

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Those initiatives fall into four main categories. Community development involves work on essential infrastructure — housing projects, employment initiatives and educational opportunities to help achieve the UN’s sustainable development goals.

Second comes empowerment initiatives for women and young people. In partnership with international institutions such as the UN, Alwaleed works to enhance opportunities for underprivileged women across the Middle East and Africa and to advance the interests of the big youthful demographic in the region. “We want people to become self-sufficient and empowered, Al-Fouti said.

For example, Alwaleed was a leading partner in the Turquoise Mountain project in Afghanistan, which sought to revive traditional craft industries in the war-ravaged country, providing employment for thousands of women and young people and helping to restore traditional buildings for use as medical and educational facilities.

Next comes disaster relief, again often in conjunction with UN organizations. Alwaleed played an active role in helping Albania to recover from the recent earthquake there, for example.

Finally, there is what Al-Fouti regards as her “favourite” work — the initiatives to “bridge cultures” through educational and cultural activities in several countries. Alwaleed is involved in projects in the Louvre in Paris and with Berlin Museum to explain Islamic culture to Europeans.

“We believe the best way for people to understand each other is through art and culture. We’re planning to work this year with all our educational centres, and with the Louvre and Berlin, to see how we can revisit this strategy and see how we can have more impactful projects in terms of bringing people together,” she said.

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READ MORE: Alwaleed Philanthropies, ICESCO MoU to help 10 African countries

Prince Alwaleed pledges $30m to fight pandemic

How Louvre-Saudi Islamic cultural ties are promoting peace and tolerance

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But the reaction to the pandemic has understandably taken up a lot of the organization’s time this year.

“We decide to get in and minimize or control the spread of the virus by strengthening local capabilities, for example through or work with ISESCO. In Africa they asked us to provide them with masks and with alcohol cleaning products. We decided that we were also going to go in and create or scale up factories, get jobs going and make the initiative available and sustainable, and this is what we are doing,” Al-Fouti said.

Through the collaboration with Gavi, Alwaleed has been able to bring medical relief to remote areas in the region. One of the repercussions of the pandemic has been that other essential medical projects, such as polio vaccination or routine immunization for children, have been scaled back drastically, partly because of travel restrictions but also because of the pressure on funds.

“In some places when people were being asked to stay at home, some didn’t have a home to go to. They were asked to wash their hands and they didn’t have water. That’s why we invested in areas where we thought there is a gap,” Al-Fouti explained.

So, those 10 women in Riyadh have the support and back-up of hundreds of partners around the world, with a global perspective in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

“We have partners and embedded collaborative relationships that we consider to be an extension of our team. So we are not alone. There is a saying ‘work smart, not hard.’ But we work hard as well. In fact, we really do work hard,” she said.