How the coronavirus pandemic is reshaping GCC e-commerce

How the coronavirus pandemic is reshaping GCC e-commerce
Motorbikes belonging to a delivery company are picture lined up in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, on April 16, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 12 August 2020

How the coronavirus pandemic is reshaping GCC e-commerce

How the coronavirus pandemic is reshaping GCC e-commerce
  • More than 90 percent of consumers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia have shifted their purchases online, survey shows
  • Retail outlets are under pressure to expand their online presence — and e-commerce players to step up their game

DUBAI: The e-commerce industry in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is witnessing a major transformation in consumer behavior on account of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, studies suggest.

The closure of shopping malls and stores as part of lockdowns imposed to curb the spread of the virus since March — restrictions that are now slowly being lifted to varying degrees across the region — has compelled a large segment of the consumer population to shop online.

This shift in consumer behavior is most particularly visible in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, according to research by Ernst & Young (EY). A survey conducted in the first week of May found that 92 percent of consumers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia had changed their shopping habits, with 52 percent terming the change “significant.”

Another 58 percent of consumers said they were uncomfortable going to a mall, while 33 percent said they were uncomfortable going to a grocery store.

Ravi Kapoor, who leads Advisory for Consumer Products and Retail in the MENA region for EY, told Arab News that the reluctance to shop physically indicates that many customers are turning to e-commerce for their purchasing needs.

The restrictions on movement and closing of public spaces also drastically reduced footfall for many brick-and-mortar retailers, according to Kapoor.




A foreign laborer rides a bicylce past the warehouse of US package delivery firm UPS in the Gulf emirate of Dubai. (AFP/File Photo)

“For those without a supporting online presence, it meant sales and revenue came to a standstill during these periods or were significantly affected,” Kapoor said, adding that online shopping was likely to continue during traditionally busy periods, despite the easing of restrictions.

Hani Weiss, chief executive officer of Majid Al-Futtaim Retail, describes the region’s rise in e-commerce during the pandemic as “exponential.” For example, he said, online grocery orders on Carrefour’s platform in Saudi Arabia have seen an 800 percent jump.

Weiss says the pandemic crisis has “changed the e-commerce landscape.”

Depending on how prepared online retailers were to meet the new demand, the pandemic — the first in over five decades — is either a windfall or a setback.

Businesses without existing e-commerce capabilities, or the means to develop and activate their online presence, bore the brunt of the region’s rapid shift to online shopping, while retailers who met the challenge effectively, and in time, were able to “weather the storm successfully”, said Weiss.

Majid Al-Futtaim Retail accelerated the launch of their marketplace online platform and expanded their network of fulfilment centers and dark stores (retail outlets that cater exclusively for the online market), as well as their last-mile delivery capacity with new transport partnerships to meet increased online orders.




The e-commerce industry in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is witnessing a major transformation in consumer behavior. (Shutterstock)

“We have witnessed a 400 percent growth in the number of orders placed (in the retail sector) and a 300 percent growth in online sales between March-May 2020 versus (the same period in) 2019,” said Weiss.

For Carrefour, a hypermarket chain that operates in 38 countries across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, it was crucial to adapt to customers’ changing needs.

“We are now using advanced analytics to monitor stock levels and identify categories where additional stock is required,” Weiss said, adding that online shopping accounted for a large proportion of total sales during the pandemic, resulting in an expansion in user base and growth in “basket size per order.”




The pandemic is not only pushing traditional retail outlets to expand their online presence, it is re-energizing dominant online platforms to step up the supply of in-demand essential products. (Shutterstock)

The pandemic is not only pushing traditional retail outlets to expand their online presence, it is re-energizing dominant online platforms to step up the supply of in-demand essential products.

Amazon is one example of how a leading player is rising to the challenge.

“Our job is to focus on serving customers who need important products, ensuring that our employees remain safe, and supporting our communities. This crisis is much bigger than any one company,” Ronaldo Mouchawar, vice president of Amazon MENA and co-founder of SOUQ.com, told Arab News.




As consumers adjusted to a new way of living, e-retailers across the region initially witnessed “erratic” purchasing of essential items. (Shutterstock)

Similarly, Dubai-based property developer Emaar has set-up a simulated Dubai Mall on the e-commerce platform noon.com for customers to shop virtually at many of the center’s well-known stores.

As consumers adjusted to a new way of living, e-retailers across the region initially witnessed “erratic” purchasing of essential items. On the Amazon Middle East website, the first few weeks of the pandemic brought a sharp increase in the demand for groceries, personal care items and medical supplies, said Mouchawar.

Sales of multi-purpose home cleaning products increased by 490 percent, liquid soap by 1,000 percent, packaged foods by 380 percent and electronics by over 220 percent, said Weiss.




A moped is driven past the FedEx US parcel delivery firm's regional hub at Dubai airport. (AFP/File Photo)

Gym equipment saw a 600 percent increase in sales, as people sought to pursue fitness at home.

Sprii.com, an online marketplace for mothers and children, witnessed a rise in shoppers looking for essentials, as well as toys and homeschooling activities. Sarah Jones, the company’s founder and CEO, believes that with the digital marketplace becoming a bigger player, customers are also becoming more “savvy”, looking for the best deals and quality products.

The overnight shift in consumer behavior has also set off the trend of bulk buying, according to ITCAN, an e-commerce performance marketing company with operations in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

FASTFACTS

THE NUMBERS

- 800% Carrefour in KSA has reported rise in online grocery orders.

- 92% UAE and KSA consumers notice change in shopping habits.

- 58% Consumers uncomfortable going to a shopping mall.

- 33% Consumers uncomfortable going to a grocery store.

“It is safe to assume that COVID-19 has irreversibly changed the way businesses function,” said Saudi entrepreneur Mansour Al-Thani, CEO and co-founder of ITCAN.

He believes the trend of online grocery shopping is here to stay.

This shift is forcing businesses to review their priorities and strategies to stay in the running. 




Ugandan Mullika Indy, an employee of CAFU, the first fuel delivery service in the region, service, refills a car using a mini tanker outside a client's house in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, on April 16, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

“Liquidity and cash flow management are among the major challenges faced by the Middle East’s retail sector,” said Al-Thani.

“For e-commerce businesses, the challenges include maintaining delivery services and ensuring customer needs are fully met.”

Another challenge for e-commerce businesses, according to Fajer Al-Pachachi, ICT manager at Bahrain Economic Development Board, is whether global supply chain, transport and logistics can remain seamless if many ports, factories and airports stay closed around the world.




UPS officials at a news conference discussed the decision by the World Expo 2020 Dubai to use UPS to handle the logistics operations for the event. (AFP/File Photo)

“The connectivity of the GCC has mitigated this somewhat for the region,” Al-Pachachi said, noting that Bahrain has long served as the regional manufacturing and distribution hub for several global manufacturers.

“Bahrain enjoys unparalleled access to the GCC markets including its largest, Saudi Arabia, to which it is connected by the King Fahd causeway,” he said.

“While both countries were quick to work together to suspend passenger travel over the causeway, crucial transportation of commercial cargo and freight has been maintained.”

Al-Pachachi noted that in April, Bahrain launched the country’s first virtual mall, mall.bh.

“BenefitPay, one of Bahrain’s leading e-wallets, announced a 1,257 percent surge in transactions over the month of March alone. Customers can pay for both gas and donate to charity via e-wallets,” he said.

As elsewhere in the GCC bloc, Al-Pachachi said, in Bahrain too the pandemic has proved a “catalyst” for e-commerce.

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@jumana_khamis


Saudi Arabia announces launch of Soudah Development Company

Saudi Arabia announces launch of Soudah Development Company
Updated 25 February 2021

Saudi Arabia announces launch of Soudah Development Company

Saudi Arabia announces launch of Soudah Development Company
  • The company aims to attract more than two million visitors annually, and create 8,000 direct and indirect permanent jobs by 2030
  • Investment of $3 billion in tourism infrastructure and attractions to create a world-class mountain destination in the Asir region

RIYADH: Saudi crown prince and chairman of the Public Investment Fund (PIF), Mohammed bin Salman, announced on Wednesday the launch of the Soudah Development Company (SDC) in the Asir region.

The new entity, fully owned by PIF, will lead the development of a luxury mountain destination with immersive cultural experiences. It will be a celebration of natural assets empowering the local and national economies.

Launched to be a key driver of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 ambitions, SDC will infuse SR11 billion ($3 billion) into infrastructure and tourism projects, aimed at enhancing the visitor experience in Soudah and parts of Rijal Alma’a governorate.

The planned developments include 2,700 hotel rooms, 1,300 residential units, and 30 commercial and entertainment attractions.

SDC aims to develop Soudah and Rijal Alma’a into a repeat, year-long sustainable destination for residents and visitors that will contribute an estimated SR29 billion to the Kingdom’s cumulative GDP by 2030.

FASTFACT

Tourism

SDC to collaborate with the private sector to enhance tourism infrastructure with hotel, residential units and commercial and entertainment attractions by 2030.

The company also intends to partner and collaborate with the local community and private sector to build a robust and diverse network of year-long offerings across the hospitality, residential, commercial and entertainment sectors.

It aims to attract more than 2 million visitors annually, targeting adventure-seekers and culture travelers who are looking for one-off experiences. It is also forecast to create 8,000 direct and indirect permanent jobs by 2030.

“Our investment in the Asir region reflects our confidence in the character of the location, which is a rich amalgamation of identity, heritage and experience,” said Yasir Othman Al-Rumayyan, PIF governor. “Through careful and considerate development, SDC will provide yet another remarkable destination in the diverse and growing portfolio of Saudi Arabian experiences capturing the imagination of a broad range of investors and travelers.”

The fund will inject at least SR150 billion a year into the local economy and aims to grow assets under management to more than SR7 trillion by 2030.

The destination adds another dimension to Saudi Arabia’s ambitious tourism goals, and complements those destinations created on the Red Sea coast and around the capital city of Riyadh.

Preserving the environmental integrity of the destination will be a priority for the SDC, and the development will follow a rigorous regulatory framework and urban planning code.


PIF makes billions on its investment in Lucid Motors

PIF put $1 billion into Lucid in 2018, giving it a majority stake in the California-based company when it was at the early stages of designing advanced luxury electric cars. (Supplied)
PIF put $1 billion into Lucid in 2018, giving it a majority stake in the California-based company when it was at the early stages of designing advanced luxury electric cars. (Supplied)
Updated 24 February 2021

PIF makes billions on its investment in Lucid Motors

PIF put $1 billion into Lucid in 2018, giving it a majority stake in the California-based company when it was at the early stages of designing advanced luxury electric cars. (Supplied)
  • Saudi stake in Californian electric vehicle maker is proving a profitable step

DUBAI: The Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia’s premier investing institution, has seen a multi-billion dollar increase in the value of its investment in Lucid Motors, the fast-growing Californian electric vehicle manufacturer, as a result of recent transactions.

PIF put $1 billion into Lucid in 2018, giving it a majority stake in the California-based company when it was at the early stages of designing advanced luxury electric cars. With the first model, the Air, unveiled and set for first delivery this year, that stake is now worth a lot more.

In a complex financial transaction recently unveiled in the US, Lucid will merge with a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC — a company specifically designed to get an initial public offering (IPO) and a valuation on a stock market.

The SPAC involved with Lucid is Churchill Capital Corp IV, a creation of investment banker Michael Klein, who is well known for his investment advisory work in the Kingdom, including the record-breaking IPO of Saudi Aramco in 2019.

The SPAC deal gives Lucid a formal valuation of $24bn, and the PIF remains the majority investor in the new set-up.

The Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia’s premier investing institution, has seen a multi-billion dollar increase in the value of its investment in Lucid Motors. (Supplied)

The PIF declined to give a detailed breakdown of the value of its investment, but the documents published in the SPAC transaction show it at around $15bn - and will possibly be worth a lot more once vehicles start being sold.

Shares in Churchill gyrated wildly in the days before the deal with Lucid was formally announced but settled well above the value at which PIF and other big investors bought into the company.

The influential Lex column of the Financial Times said: “The biggest winner is Lucid’s largest current shareholder, Saudi Arabia’s PIF.”

Peter Rawlinson, the chief executive of Lucid who formerly worked at rival electric car company Tesla, told journalists: “I think that the valuation is a reflection of our technology.”

Electric vehicles have been one of the big investment themes of the past year, with Tesla — the market leader — soaring to a market capitalization of $670bn, bigger than all the traditional car manufacturers combined and making its founder, Elon Musk, one of the richest men in the world.

Peter Rawlinson, the chief executive of Lucid Motors. (Supplied)

Rawlinson is unfazed by Tesla’s size or reputation. Last year, in the run up to the launch of the Air, he told Arab News: “We’ve got the best car in the world, but I’m more excited to know that we have technology that can cascade down to more affordable models for the man in the street. That’s what is going to change the world.”

For the PIF, the investment in Lucid is a demonstration of the value of its approach of taking strategic stakes in foreign companies. Last year, it spent $10bn buying US and European equities when they slumped in value after the pandemic crash, which it later sold when markets recovered.

There could also be an industrial benefit from the PIF-Lucid relationship. There has been increasing speculation that Rawlinson will choose Saudi Arabia as the first location for a manufacturing facility, with a site near Jeddah mentioned as a possible production plant.

Rawlinson said of PIF: “They put their faith in us, that’s why we’re here today thriving.”

The deal with Churchill will give Lucid the capital it needs to go into full-scale production of the Air from a new production facility in Arizona, and to move plans forward for an electric SUV.


IMF chief warns pandemic leaving some countries behind

IMF chief warns pandemic leaving some countries behind
Updated 24 February 2021

IMF chief warns pandemic leaving some countries behind

IMF chief warns pandemic leaving some countries behind

WASHINGTON: The crisis caused by the pandemic is leaving many economies lagging behind, increasing the plight of the poor, a problem made worse by “uneven” access to vaccines, IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva said Wednesday.
In a message to the Group of 20 meeting on Friday Georgieva urged governments to increase vaccine distribution, ensuring Covid-19 is brought under control.
“The economic arguments for coordinated action are overwhelming,” she said in a blog post.
“Faster progress in ending the health crisis could raise global income cumulatively by $9 trillion over 2020-25. That would benefit all countries.”
She said that should include financing for vaccinations, reallocation of excess supply to countries with a shortage, and scaling up of production.
The global pandemic death toll is approaching 2.5 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, and the shutdowns forced to control infections have devastated economies.
And while vaccine rollouts are raising hopes for a recovery this year, the IMF forecasts job losses in the G20 alone to total more than 25 million this year.
By the end of 2022, emerging market and developing nations — excluding China — will see per capital incomes 22 percent below pre-crisis levels, compared to just 13 percent lower for advanced economies, which will throw millions more into extreme poverty, Georgieva warned.
“That is why we need much stronger international collaboration to accelerate the vaccine rollout in poorer countries,” she said.
G20 finance ministers and central bank chiefs led by Rome will meet by videoconference to discuss the state of the recovery and how best to attack the problem.
The Washington-based crisis lender estimated more than half of the world’s 110 emerging and developing countries will see their incomes fall further behind advanced economies through the end of next year.
And the virus-driven economic crisis also will widen income gaps within developing nations, especially as millions of children are still facing disruptions to education.
“Allowing them to become a lost generation would be an unforgiveable mistake. It would also deepen the long-term economic scars of the crisis,” she warned.


Pfizer eyes investment, recruitment, R&D in Kingdom

Pfizer eyes investment, recruitment, R&D in Kingdom
Updated 24 February 2021

Pfizer eyes investment, recruitment, R&D in Kingdom

Pfizer eyes investment, recruitment, R&D in Kingdom
  • Pharma giant transforming its Saudi operations amid COVID-19 vaccine rollout

RIYADH: Pfizer is one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies and has been operating in Saudi Arabia for six decades, but many people in the Kingdom will have come to know the brand only as a result of its work developing a coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine.

Patrick van der Loo, regional president for Africa and the Middle East, has worked at the company for 20 years and, in December, was appointed to lead the distribution of the vaccine across a challenging and wide-ranging group of countries.

“Saudi Arabia and the GCC kicked off their COVID-19 vaccination drive with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in December as some of the first countries globally to do so. The allocation of doses and implementation plan within a country is a decision for local governments based on relevant health authority guidance,” he told Arab News.

“Pfizer and BioNTech are working relentlessly to supply the world with 2 billion BNT162b2 vaccine doses by the end of 2021. Our Belgium facility’s upscaling work included process improvements to our manufacturing lines, expanding our manufacturing facility with a new production unit, and increasing batch sizes to optimize efficiency,” he added.

Operating in the region for 60 years and with a workforce of 460 employees, Pfizer has a long partnership with the Kingdom. In October 2011, it signed an agreement with the-then Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) — now called Ministry of Investment — to set up its first-ever manufacturing plant in the GCC in King Abdullah Economic City.

In 2016, SAGIA issued a “trading license” to Pfizer, the first multinational pharmaceutical company awarded such a permit. The license gave Pfizer “100 percent foreign ownership” of its legal entity in Saudi Arabia, with the ability to import, export and trade in wholesale and retail products, equipment and instruments, he said.

Construction of the new manufacturing and packaging facility was completed in 2017 and Pfizer is planning to expand further in coming years, as the Kingdom moves closer to realizing its Vision 2030 goals to diversify away from hydrocarbons and increase local production.

“Pfizer is an active player in Saudi Arabia, and is in a continuous dialogue with multiple authorities to explore new opportunities, including investments, to support its vision and objectives,” van der Loo said.

Arriving in the region at a critical time, van der Loo said he is relishing the challenge ahead.

“While this region is new to me, I will gladly welcome new challenges and devote my energy to finding solutions focused on patient outcomes. Working in the region is also offering me the opportunity to get involved in the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine distribution across a wide range of countries, and it is gratifying to be part of something of this scale,” he said.

Patrick van der Loo, regional president for Africa and the Middle East, has worked at the company for 20 years. (Supplied)

According to Reuters, Pfizer is aiming to produce 2 billion COVID-19 vaccines this year, earnings it around $15 billion, or about a quarter of its sales.

While COVID-19 may be his immediate priority, van der Loo is also leading the transformation of Pfizer’s wider portfolio of products across Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East region.

“Pfizer is shifting from a diversified company with a consumer health portfolio and comprehensive portfolio of legacy brands to a more science-focused biopharmaceutical powerhouse. In KSA and the Gulf, we aim to ensure the early introduction of breakthroughs — sometimes some of the earliest in the world, which truly demonstrates the innovative eagerness of specific markets in the Middle East,” he said.

There are currently multiple clinical trial protocols — phase two and three — under review, and some have reached the final stages of development and approval in oncology, vaccine, public health and gene therapy.

“We are also very proud of our collaboration with multiple Saudi research centers to access clinical trials and innovative treatments in the medical field. The trial of gene therapy in Duchenne’s disease at King Faisal Specialty Hospital and Research Center is a milestone,” he said.

Pfizer is also providing training and development opportunities for multiple Saudi entities operating in the healthcare, training and education sectors, as part of the National Transformation Program.

Looking ahead to 2021, van der Loo said Pfizer will have “several product launches in oncology, among other areas, to reach new patients with critical breakthrough treatments and prevention tools.”


Saudi Arabia sees 227% surge in wealthy individuals in last 5 years

Saudi Arabia sees 227% surge in wealthy individuals in last 5 years
Updated 24 February 2021

Saudi Arabia sees 227% surge in wealthy individuals in last 5 years

Saudi Arabia sees 227% surge in wealthy individuals in last 5 years
  • Saudi Arabia bucked Mideast trend, with number of people with over $30m growing in 2020

RIYADH: The number of ultra-high-net-worth individuals (UHNWIs) — those with $30 million or more — in Saudi Arabia surged 227 percent over the last five years, the fastest growth rate in the world.

According to The Wealth Report by real estate consultancy firm Knight Frank, the number of UHNWIs worldwide will increase by 27 percent in the next five years to 663,483, with the number of millionaires growing by 41 percent.

The report predicts that the number of UHNWIs in the Middle East will rise by 24.6 percent by 2025, with the region expected to remain the fourth-largest wealth hub in the world.

“The pandemic has impacted the fortunes of many in the Middle East, and the Middle Eastern HNWIs and UHNWIs were not spared, with the total number of each decreasing by 11.3 percent and 10.1 percent in 2020 respectively,” said Taimur Khan, head of research at Knight Frank Middle East.

“However, this decline was not uniform across all countries. In Saudi Arabia over this period, the number of UHNWIs increased by 9.6 percent, the 10th fastest growth rate globally. In fact, its UHNW population has grown by 227 percent over the last five years, the fastest growth rate globally over this period,” he added.

“As the region continues its various economic diversification programs, we expect that there will continue to be significant growth in the number of UHNWIs and billionaires residing in the region.”

According to a survey conducted by Knight Frank of private bankers and wealth advisers, half said their clients’ wealth had increased in 2020.

In the Middle East, 67 percent of respondents said their clients’ wealth either remained the same or increased. Sixty-nine percent said they expect their clients’ total wealth to increase in 2021.

The reports found that Asia is likely to see the largest rise in the number of UHNWIs, with growth of 39 percent, led by Indonesia (67 percent) and India (63 percent).

“The US is, and will remain, the world’s dominant wealth hub over our forecast period, but Asia will see the fastest growth in UHNWIs over the next five years. By 2025, Asia will host 24 percent of all UHNWIs, up from 17 percent a decade earlier,” said Liam Bailey, global head of research at Knight Frank.

“The region is already home to more billionaires than any other. China is the key to this phenomenon, with 246 percent forecast growth in very wealthy residents in the decade to 2025.”