INTERVIEW: For Richard Attias, the man behind Saudi Arabia’s ‘Davos in the Desert’, no mission is impossible

INTERVIEW: For Richard Attias, the man behind Saudi Arabia’s ‘Davos in the Desert’, no mission is impossible
Illustration by Luis Grañena
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Updated 09 August 2020

INTERVIEW: For Richard Attias, the man behind Saudi Arabia’s ‘Davos in the Desert’, no mission is impossible

INTERVIEW: For Richard Attias, the man behind Saudi Arabia’s ‘Davos in the Desert’, no mission is impossible
  • More than 70 international speakers have confirmed their attendance at the forum in Riyadh from Oct. 28-29

These are undoubtedly challenging times, but Richard Attias, the man behind Saudi Arabia’s “Davos in the desert,” is up for the task: Organizing this year’s Future Investment Initiative (FII) in the time of coronavirus.

The FII will go ahead this year on Oct. 28-29 despite the challenge of having thousands of attendees in one place during a pandemic. 

“As of today, it is physical,” the founder of global communications advisory firm Richard Attias & Associates told Arab News in an exclusive interview, from Paris. “I think virtual events are OK, but it’s not, to be honest, the best way to definitely do business together. It is not the best way to talk about big investments. You cannot make deals of billions of dollars and investment of billions of dollars just through virtual conversation.”

More than 70 international speakers have confirmed their attendance at the forum in Riyadh from Oct. 28-29, and more than 1,200 international delegates have registered for it. “This shows you, number one, the optimism that people want to have. People want to be back together. It’s very important,” Attias said. 

“People are quite frustrated to be obliged to be locked down or to not travel anymore. I think we want to be a live community and not just the virtual community in our society. I really hope and wish beyond the business that we’ll be 100 percent physical. And I hope that by the end of October we will not be facing more challenges in terms of health.”

But even if that’s the case, Attias is no stranger to risk management. “We have amazing risk management plans,” Attias said. “We predict all the different possibilities in terms of logistics. We have a fantastic team dealing on everything related to security, to health care, and of course, to transportation, accommodation. We have plans for everything.”

“Even when the time is good, you need always to think about Plan B, Plan C and even Plan D. This is part of our job. So, we are ready to go anytime. And we love being sometimes called like the Mission Impossible people or the Mission Impossible team, not to be too pretentious.” 

With the success of the previous three FII events, the non-profit FII Institute was created a few months ago by royal decree, and Attias is its CEO. “It helped us to be more and more in touch with different stakeholders and different global CEOs,” he explained. “And I only hear very positive feedback. The business community is looking in a very positive way to the Kingdom and definitely the Chinese, Americans, Europeans, and even Africans want to come to the Kingdom and to see what they can do in the Kingdom and with the Kingdom,” he said.

One of the reasons FII was created in Riyadh was to bring Saudi Arabia into the global conversation as a key player in the global economy, situated between the emerging economies of Eastern Africa, West Asia and the Silk Road. “If you look at how the economy is shifting today between West and East, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is very well located,” Attias said.



BIO


BORN: Fes, Morocco, 1959.

EDUCATION

  • Institut national des sciences appliquées de Toulouse.
  • Masters in mathematics and physics, Paris University.

CAREER

  • Chairman, Publicis Events Worldwide.
  • Chairman, the Advisory Board of the Center on Capitalism and Society. 

  • Founder, The New York Forum.

  • Founder, Richard Attias & Associates.


Attias said key global players in the financial field know that it is important to have a good understanding of public-private partnerships, where and how you should invest to have an impact, and how to help young entrepreneurs. “This is why FII was created. And it was created under the vision of his royal highness, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. I’ll be very frank, you know, it was his vision. And in total modesty, I brought my little expertise and experience on how to create great platforms which could have a positive impact.”

Sanabil Investments, a subsidiary of the Public Investment Fund (PIF), acquired 49 percent of RAA last year, Attias explained, “to build together a champion, not only in the Kingdom, not only in the region, but a company who could become a global champion in the field of strategy, communication and events. This is how things were born.” 

Attias spoke to Arab News about the mission of the evolving partnership. “First of all, our vision is to empower governments and I would say corporations, to really build their influence and to have to drive their impact. This is our vision. Our vision is really to support these governments and cooperation on that.”

Accelerating external growth is on his agenda, but it takes time to train and recruit teams. “We have now a great team in Saudi Arabia with more than 20 permanent staff that is growing,” Attias said. “This is something that we were achieving only in the past few months, during the COVID-19. And I’m very happy to have my colleague Rakan Tarabzoni as a CEO of Richard Attias & Associates Saudi Arabia, and under his leadership we will be growing definitely in the Kingdom.” 

While Attias has a civil engineering background, he was drawn into the field of communications 30 years ago by following his passion: Bringing people together face-to-face to solve conflicts. “I decided, instead of building bridges as a senior engineer, to build bridges between people and to build bridges between countries and to build bridges between public and private sectors,” Attias said. “And this is something you can do when you are in the field of communication strategy and creating platforms and being a catalyst.”

Attias saw potential in Saudi Arabia 20 years ago, long before FII. “I’m not in Saudi Arabia by coincidence,” he said. “In fact, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia chose our company almost 20 years ago, when I was wearing my older hat as the founder and the CEO of Publicis Events Worldwide. It was the first time that SAGIA (the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority) was considering to organize and to host an international business conference, the Global Competitiveness Forum (GCF), which I started in Riyadh years ago.”

Through eight editions of the GCF, he discovered not only the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia but also its main asset: Its people and their vibrancy. “You know, at that time I was not calling that the vibrant society, but when I read the Vision 2030, I fully understand why this vibrant society was mentioned because it is what you are, full of young talents, very smart, very well educated and very open to the world.”

This is what pushed him to encourage his team at RAA to find opportunities in Saudi Arabia: “Because you have the audience, you have the good infrastructures, you have the right people and the right skills. And now you have a fantastic vision, which is his majesty’s vision and his royal highness the crown prince’s vision. The question now is to implement and to implement quickly because time is flying and to implement correctly with the right teams and the right people.”

Saudi Arabia has golden opportunities to offer through Vision 2030, Attias said. 

“It’s a land full of intelligence and it’s a land full of energy. In fact, it is a kingdom of energy. We always talk about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, about the kingdom of oil, the kingdom of energy, with a big E the energy of the people, the energy of the teams and the energy of the Saudi society. To be honest, this is what is inspiring and what is exciting and what is making all our teams very happy to be as often as possible in the Kingdom to produce what we have to produce.”

Despite all the major reforms, progress and advances Saudi Arabia has made during the past few years, the Kingdom has received some negative press and been the targets of some boycotts, but Attias has other thoughts. “You should look at the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a land of opportunity for investment and as a land of opportunity for being the catalyst of great projects where multiple joint ventures could happen.”

He added: “I would like to remind the businessmen that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is hosting the G20 this year, the first time that an Arab country will host the G20. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will host B20 by definition, which is the group of businessmen from the 20 countries.” 

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the company continues to thrive thanks to the shareholders, and Attias is confident about the future. 

“The world will be having still a lot of opportunities, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will be one of these driving countries in this industry,” he said.


International companies to invest in Egyptian green hydrogen projects, says minister

International companies to invest in Egyptian green hydrogen projects, says minister
Updated 17 June 2021

International companies to invest in Egyptian green hydrogen projects, says minister

International companies to invest in Egyptian green hydrogen projects, says minister
  • Egypt has signed MOU for 1GW green hydrogen project
  • Other EU companies set to partner with Egypt's private sector

RIYADH: International companies are interested in investing in green hydrogen production in Egypt, according to Minister of Electricity and Renewable Energy Mohamed Shaker.

“There are companies from the European Union that will enter into partnerships with the Egyptian private sector,” he said.

The Egyptian government has signed an MoU with Siemens for the first project to produce green hydrogen with a capacity of 1 megawatt, doubling to 2 megawatts over five years, he said.

“Green hydrogen will be the world’s fuel in the next few years, and I see that Egypt started early in this field,” he added.

Work is currently underway to develop and formulate a strategy for the hydrogen industry in Egypt through a ministerial committee in which the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources participates as a main member, according to previous statements by the Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Tarek El Molla.

Egypt is planning to invest up to $4 billion in a project to generate green hydrogen gas through water electrolysis, Shaker said this week.

The project is currently in the feasibility studies stage, in consultation with the Sovereign Fund of Egypt and a group of concerned ministries, and will be presented next week, he said.

The United States is planning to increase funding to Egypt to help it convert to solar energy and move away from fossil fuels, US special envoy for climate John Kerry said in Cairo on Wednesday.

Egypt is planning to double the state’s funding for green projects to 30 percent of its overall investment plan during the fiscal year 2021/2022 and to raise it to 50 percent by 2024/2025.


Aramco completes issuance of international trust certificates for $6bn sukuk

Aramco completes issuance of international trust certificates for $6bn sukuk
Updated 17 June 2021

Aramco completes issuance of international trust certificates for $6bn sukuk

Aramco completes issuance of international trust certificates for $6bn sukuk
  • Launched on June 9, sale was Aramco’s first dollar-denominated sukuk.

RIYADH: Saudi Aramco said it completed issuing trust certificates for $6 billion of sukuk.
Aramco issued 30,000 sukuk with a par value of $200,000 each, it said in a filing to the Tadawul stock exchange.
“The outcome demonstrates further evidence of Aramco’s unique value proposition, which is underwritten by its operational and financial resilience,” said Aramco CEO and President Amin Nasser.
The securities were issued in three tranches, with the three-year notes paying 0.946 percent, 5-year notes at 2.602 percent and 10-year bonds 2.694 percent.
The sale, launched on June 9, was Aramco’s first dollar-denominated sukuk.
Aramco’s debut $12 billion bond deal in 2019 was followed by an $8 billion, five-part transaction in November last year, both used to fund its dividend.
The sale attracted orders exceeding $60 billion and added 100 new investors across the globe, Aramco said.


Lebanese banks swallow at least $250m in UN aid

Lebanese banks swallow at least $250m in UN aid
Updated 17 June 2021

Lebanese banks swallow at least $250m in UN aid

Lebanese banks swallow at least $250m in UN aid
  • Officials from donor countries confirmed that banks swallowed between a third and half of all direct U.N. cash aid in Lebanon
  • An internal assessment in February estimated that up to half the UN assistance programme's value was absorbed by Lebanese banks

BEIRUT: At least $250 million in UN humanitarian aid intended for refugees and poor communities in Lebanon has been lost to banks selling the local currency at highly unfavorable rates, a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation has found.
The losses — described in an internal United Nations document as “staggering” and confirmed by multiple sources — come as Lebanon grapples with its worst ever economic crisis, with more than half the population living under the poverty line, according to the World Bank.
They stem from a plunge in the value of the Lebanese pound since the economy began to collapse in late 2019, sending prices soaring and forcing many Lebanese into poverty.
The unfavorable exchange rates offered by Lebanese banks have hit Syrian and Palestinian refugees and poor Lebanese particularly hard as they are able to buy far less with the cash handouts they receive from the UN
Pre-crisis, refugees and poor Lebanese received a monthly payout of $27, equal to about 40,500 Lebanese pounds, from the World Food Programme (WFP).
That has now risen to about 100,000 Lebanese pounds per person, but its real value is a fraction of what it was before — about $7 at the current rate.
“The buying power used to be very good, we could get an acceptable food basket,” said Abu Ahmad Saybaa, a Syrian refugee who runs a Facebook page that highlights the challenges faced by refugees in Lebanon.
“But now (the handouts) can’t get us more than a gallon of cooking oil. There’s a huge difference in purchasing power,” said the father of five, who has lived in a refugee camp in Lebanon’s rugged northeast since 2014.
“It’s weighing on all of our health — mental and physical.”
An aid official and two diplomats from donor countries confirmed that between a third and half of all direct UN cash aid in Lebanon had been swallowed up by banks since the outset of the crisis in 2019. All spoke on condition of anonymity.
During 2020 and the first four months of 2021, banks exchanged dollars for UN agencies at rates on average 40 percent lower than the market rate, the aid official said.
Lebanon maintains an official exchange rate of about 1,500 pounds to the dollar, but since the crisis has only been able to apply that rate to a handful of essential goods.
All other imports have to be bought at much higher exchange rates, resulting in soaring prices.
Most of the losses came from a 2020 UN assistance program worth about $400 million that provides around 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon with monthly funds for food, education, transport, and winter weather-proofing of shelters.
Lebanon is home to over 1 million Syrian refugees, nine in 10 of whom live in extreme poverty, according to UN data.
The country received at least $1.5 billion in humanitarian aid in 2020.
An internal UN assessment in February estimated that up to half the program’s value was absorbed by Lebanese banks used by the UN to convert donated US dollars.
The document, seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, said that by July 2020 a “staggering 50 percent” of contributions were being lost through currency conversion.
The Association of Banks in Lebanon (ABL), which represents the country’s commercial banks, denied using aid to raise capital.
It said the UN could have distributed in dollars, or negotiated a better rate with Lebanon’s central bank.
A central bank spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the rates provided to humanitarian organizations
The $400 million UN program, known as LOUISE, receives funding from the United States, the European Commission, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands and France among others, according to its website.
It comprises the WFP, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
The Thomson Reuters Foundation compared the rates at which the banks converted US dollars in 2020 and 2021 with the concurrent market exchange rates to calculate the amount of aid lost.
The losses amounted to about $200 million in 2019 and 2020 and at least $40 million so far in 2021.
The figures are in line with the UN internal assessment and were independently verified by an aid official.
A UNICEF spokesperson said the agency was “very concerned that recipients receive the full value of cash transfers” and had recently renegotiated to obtain a rate close to the market rate.
It is also testing disbursement in dollars for some programs, the spokesperson said.
Banque Libano-Francaise (BLF), which was contracted by LOUISE agencies to give out aid, declined to comment on the unfavorable conversion rates, saying it was bound by a confidentiality agreement with them.
It also said the agencies could have distributed the money directly in dollars.
WFP funding of monthly cash assistance to 105,000 vulnerable Lebanese people, worth some $23 million last year, used the same unfavorable exchange rates, a WFP spokesperson said, meaning up to half of funds were lost to banks.
The WFP and UNHCR referred the Thomson Reuters Foundation to the UN humanitarian coordinator’s office, which declined to comment on the reasons for the massive losses.
A spokesperson for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) said between a third and half of the aid it distributed since October 2020 – up to $7 million — was lost through currency conversion. The agency has repeatedly warned of funding shortfalls.
The documented losses from the LOUISE, WFP and UNRWA programs amount to at least $250 million since October 2019.
Following pressure by the UN agencies, the discrepancies between the average market exchange rate and the rate offered by the banks have shrunk, but not disappeared.
Confronted with a financial system keen on sucking in as many dollars as possible, donors and UN agencies have struggled to develop a cohesive approach that maintains the full value of aid.
In May, a top World Bank official said Lebanon had agreed to disburse the aid from a $246 million World Bank loan to poor Lebanese directly in dollars, but the payouts have been delayed.
Dollarization of aid, which was recommended in the February internal assessment and lobbied for by donor countries and independent analysts, would keep the full value of the donations for beneficiaries regardless of fluctuations in currency rates.
But Lebanese authorities have resisted efforts to dollarize aid inflows as they seek to maintain control over one of the few remaining sources of hard currency.
Meanwhile, donor nations have grown increasingly impatient and fearful of reputational damage tied to the millions in taxpayer money absorbed by banks.
“We’ve been more than ready to invest in helping people, but we need a credible counterpart that’s not going to pocket money that we are ultimately accountable for at home,” said one Western diplomat on condition of anonymity.
Jad Chaaban, a professor of economics at the American University of Beirut, said international organizations operating in Lebanon often walked a tight line between making compromises in a difficult political environment and holding to standards of accountability.
“In this case, it’s unacceptable and there must be much higher standards. We effectively see the same dynamics as contractors or crony businessmen siphoning off money that they received to build a school or infrastructure project,” Chaaban said.
“Right now, every cent counts for Lebanon.”


Saudi B2B platform Sary facilitated $267m of purchases in two years, CEO says

Saudi B2B platform Sary facilitated $267m of purchases in two years, CEO says
Updated 17 June 2021

Saudi B2B platform Sary facilitated $267m of purchases in two years, CEO says

Saudi B2B platform Sary facilitated $267m of purchases in two years, CEO says
  • Sary facilitates 60,000 shipments per month
  • Startup raised $30.5 million in Series B funding in May

RIYADH: Saudi-based B2B platform Sary enabled SR1 billion ($266.6 million) of purchases for more than 30,000 SMEs in the past two years, Co-Founder and CEO Mohammed Aldossary told Al Arabiya on Thursday.

“Sary works on facilitating more than 60,000 shipments every month,” he added.

The company has multiplied its market share 10 times in 2020 compared to 2019, he said. The company’s current share of the public market is less than 1 percent, but it constitutes 80 percent in the modern wholesale market for the e-commerce business sector in the Kingdom, he said.

The company aims to expand in the Kingdom and the Middle East and expects to reach profitability in 2022, Aldossary said. Sary also plans to extend its business to categories beyond the consumer goods that it currently focuses on, he said.

Sary is a B2B marketplace that connects small businesses with wholesalers and brands in one place to procure supply efficiently, according to the company’s website.

It raised $30.5 million in Series B funding in May, leading Saudi Arabia’s total of $46.6 million and the MENA region’s $110 million, according to data from the Wamda entrepreneurship platform.


French tourism seeks new boost with Disneyland reopening

French tourism seeks new boost with Disneyland reopening
Updated 17 June 2021

French tourism seeks new boost with Disneyland reopening

French tourism seeks new boost with Disneyland reopening
  • Europe’s most frequented theme park in Marne-la-Vallee, east of the French capital, opened its doors on Thursday after nearly eight months of closure

PARIS: France’s tourism sector is taking a further step toward normality with the reopening of Disneyland Paris, two weeks after the country reopened its borders to vaccinated visitors from across the world.
Europe’s most frequented theme park in Marne-la-Vallee, east of the French capital, opened its doors on Thursday after nearly eight months of closure.
A crowd of smiling visitors was welcomed by Disney characters dancing to the sound of joyful music.
“Amazing,” said Debbie Tater. The Delaware resident traveled from the United States to visit her family, including her daughter and two granddaughters, who live in France and whom she hadn’t seen for a year and a half.
“Happiest place on earth,” she said, with tears in her eyes.
“We couldn’t miss the reopening,” said Elodie Piedfort, from Haute-Loire region in central France. “Because I’m a nurse it’s been a very difficult year and being here, together with my son, is great. And the reopening, moving on is great as well.”
Visitors must wear masks inside the park and other measures are in place, including a cap on visitor numbers to ensure distancing.
Pauline Baudouin, a Disney fan from Angouleme in western France, said: “We were missing the magic, because it was already a complicated period and we needed to recharge our batteries in this magical world.”
Prime Minister Jean Castex said Wednesday that France is returning to “a form of normal life again,” as he announced that people won’t have to wear masks outdoors any more, except in crowded places.
The government confirmed children can remove masks in school playgrounds — yet they remain compulsory in class for those aged 6 and above.
The 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew will be lifted on Sunday.
On Thursday, Health Minister Olivier Veran said night clubs will be able to reopen in July under strict regulations — a first since the France’s initial lockdown in March last year,
The French tourist industry hopes to rebound over the summer as the country welcomes foreign visitors again — on condition they have received one of the four EU-approved vaccines. Travelers are banned from 16 countries, including India, South Africa and Brazil, that are wrestling with virus surges and worrisome variants.
France started gradually reopening its economy last month. Monuments and museums, including major sites like the Louvre and Versailles, are open, as well as hotels, cafes and restaurants.
Tourists will still have to wait for the Eiffel Tower, set to reopen on July 16 after major renovation work.
The government said the easing of restrictions is due to a drop in daily infections and to a vaccination campaign that has seen more than 59 percent of France’s adult population receive at least one shot. The country opened this week vaccination to those aged 12 to 18.
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