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
Short Url
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.


Saudi builder Binladin appoints turnaround specialists to senior team

Saudi builder Binladin appoints turnaround specialists to senior team
Updated 11 April 2021

Saudi builder Binladin appoints turnaround specialists to senior team

Saudi builder Binladin appoints turnaround specialists to senior team
  • The regional construction sector has been hit hard by the weakening of oil prices since 2014

RIYADH: Binladin International Holding Group (BIHG), the parent company of Saudi Arabia’s biggest builder, has hired two senior executives with a background in corporate turnarounds.
Balaji Prasad has been named group chief financial officer and Roberto Liuzza has been hired as group chief organization excellence officer.
Prasad has a background in debt restructuring, corporate turnaround, business transformation and complex fundraising. He was previously CFO of Abu Dhabi-listed developer Manazel.
Liuzza has also worked on a number of complex turnarounds across various industries, the company said in a statement on Sunday.
The regional construction sector has been hit hard by the weakening of oil prices since 2014 and the associated decline in the real estate sector which has plunged some of the industry’s biggest names into financial distress.
BIHG made a number of other senior appointments over the last year, including Ahmed Al-Sanie as group managing director; Abdulrahman Bajunaid as CEO of real estate; and Samer Khawashki as CEO of investments over the past year.
Established in March 2019, BIHG oversees and manages the affairs of units across its portfolio, including SBG – Saudi Arabia’s largest construction company and one of the world’s largest contractors.

 


Gulf hotels target staycationers with Ramadan price cuts as prices tumble

Gulf hotels target staycationers with Ramadan price cuts as prices tumble
Updated 11 April 2021

Gulf hotels target staycationers with Ramadan price cuts as prices tumble

Gulf hotels target staycationers with Ramadan price cuts as prices tumble
  • Ramadan deals are likely to push prices down further for many in the coming weeks

DUBAI: After one of the toughest years for the hotel industry in living memory, Gulf hoteliers are eyeing Ramadan as a springboard for recovery.
With international travel still severely limited, hotels are looking to attract so-called staycationers with deep discounts and deals during the holy month.

Prices are already historically low in many Gulf cities. The average daily room rate (ADR) at Dubai hotels was $145.90 in the first two months of 2021, down 13 percent from a year earlier, according to data provider STR. In Riyadh they were 11 percent lower at $151.40. Muscat experienced the biggest drop with a 52.5 percent slump to $75.10.

Ramadan deals are likely to push prices down further for many in the coming weeks. The holy month offers a further opportunity for Gulf hotels as families look to take some time off following a challenging year.
Hoteliers, including Raffles and Jumeirah in Dubai, W Abu Dhabi at Yas Island and Hilton Doha the Pearl in Qatar are all offering Ramadan staycation deals, especially for residents.
Wyndham is offering guests 15 to 25 percent off the best available rate when they stay three or more nights and book direct for stays between April 01 and Sept. 30.Accor is also offering discounts of up to 30 percent for stays through May 11.
Other traditional sources of Ramadan revenue will not be available to hotels. Only pilgrims who have been vaccinated or have already recovered from COVID-19 will be allowed to visit Makkah during Ramadan this year, while large gatherings for iftar meals will be limited throughout the region.
“The staycation market is a very useful means of filling demand when borders are closed and has been used with success right around the world,” Simon Allison, CEO of HOFTEL and organizer of this year’s GIOHIS summit in November, told Arab News. “In the end, as the domestic market is relatively limited it is almost inevitable that it will need to be offered discounts.”
However, with room rates already very low, hotels are looking at ways of attracting guests without pushing their margins into the red, such as resort credits.
For instance, Jebel Ali Beach Hotel Dubai is offering between 200 dirhams ($54.46) and 400 dirhams of credit redeemable toward food and beverages for guests booking more expensive rooms, and is only valid for UAE residents. IHG Hotels & Resorts has a staycation deal with free breakfast and dinner at its InterContinental, voco, Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn properties in Saudi Arabia through Sept. 30.
“There’s no doubt that resort hotels and markets are performing much better than business ones,” said Kostas Nikolaidis, an executive at STR. “There’s also a significant difference between a domestic and an international stay. The length of stay, booking window as well as ancillary spending (F&B etc.) is different between an international and a domestic traveler.Hotels have tried to adjust in order to maximize their revenues in various ways.”Discounts are likely to extend way beyond Ramadan into the summer. The Saudi government announced in November 2020 that it would reopen domestic tourism this summer after 80 percent of citizens surveyed said they would rather holiday at home this year.
“Hotels focused on cost-cutting last year, which was inevitable,” said Allison. “Now they are working on staffing up again and getting the best people from a large available labor pool; focusing on sales and marketing strategies and means to differentiate their offering as travel gradually returns.”


Dubai’s non-oil trade tops $321.8 billion in 2020

Dubai’s non-oil trade tops $321.8 billion in 2020
Updated 11 April 2021

Dubai’s non-oil trade tops $321.8 billion in 2020

Dubai’s non-oil trade tops $321.8 billion in 2020
  • Total trade volume went down to 100 million tons, from 109 million tons in 2019
  • Exports rose eight percent to $45.47 billion while imports reached $186.8 billion

DUBAI: Dubai’s non-oil foreign trade reached $321.8 billion (1.185 trillion dirhams) in 2020, 13.5 percent lower than the previous year as the coronavirus pandemic weighed on activity.
Total trade volume dropped to 100 million tons, from 109 million tons in 2019, although shipments received a 6 percent boost in the second half of the year, the Dubai Media Office reported.
Exports rose eight percent to $45.47 billion while imports reached $186.8 billion, and re-exports totaled $89.58 billion.
“The exceptional growth performance of Dubai’s external trade sector reflects the emirate’s impressive resilience and its ability to recover and grow amidst international crises,” Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, crown prince of Dubai and chairman of Dubai Executive Council, said in a statement.
“We were able to quickly renew our momentum of growth and reestablish our global leadership in various sectors.”
He added that the city has set an example for the world in dealing with both the economic and health repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. He further said that Dubai was quickly able to re-establish its global leadership in multiple sectors.
Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem, chairman and CEO of Dubai Ports World, meanwhile said: “With the gradual opening of borders, Dubai’s trade volumes started recovering and growing quickly in the second half of 2020.”
“This rebound is now spurring greater growth in 2021. The resumption of trade with Qatar, the start of trade engagement with Israel, the positive spin-offs from hosting EXPO 2020 and the launch of the Dubai 2040 Urban Master Plan will all contribute to accelerating the emirate’s growth momentum.”
China maintained its position as Dubai’s largest trading partner in 2020 with $38.66 billion worth of transactions, followed by India with $24.2 billion and the US with $16.6 billion.


PIF’s Noon signs partnerships with Abu Dhabi’s Man City FC

PIF’s Noon signs partnerships with Abu Dhabi’s Man City FC
Updated 11 April 2021

PIF’s Noon signs partnerships with Abu Dhabi’s Man City FC

PIF’s Noon signs partnerships with Abu Dhabi’s Man City FC
  • It will see Noon become the official online sales partner for Manchester City in the Middle East

DUBAI: Noon, an online platform backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) and Dubai businessman Mohamed Alabbar, said it had signed a partnership with Manchester City, the English football club owned by Abu Dhabi.
It will see Noon become the official online sales partner for Manchester City in the Middle East.
Stephan Cieplik, a senior vice president at the club said: “The team has impressed us with their ambition, innovation, and passion for the local communities and businesses they serve in the Middle East.”
Noon was launched in the UAE and Saudi Arabia in December 2017 and in Egypt in February 2019. With an initial investment of $1 billion and working from headquarters in Riyadh, Noon said in 2016 that it aims to expand online sales in the region from 2 percent of the total retail market ($3 billion), to 15 percent ($70 billion) within a decade.
Manchester City is an English Premier League club initially founded in 1880. The club was bought by Abu Dhabi United Group (ABUG) in 2008 for a reported £210 million ($287 million) and is now owned by the City Football Group, which is majority owned by ABUG.


Masdar-led consortium starts construction of solar project in Jeddah

Masdar-led consortium starts construction of solar project in Jeddah
Updated 11 April 2021

Masdar-led consortium starts construction of solar project in Jeddah

Masdar-led consortium starts construction of solar project in Jeddah
  • The plant is locared in Third Jeddah Industrial City, 50 kilometers southeast of Jeddah

DUBAI: A consortium led by Abu Dhabi’s Masdar has started construction of a solar power plant in Jeddah, after reaching financial close on the project.

The consortium, which includes France’s EDF Renewables and Saudi Arabia-based Nesma Company, announced it will start construction of the 300-megawatt utility-scale plant that will begin operation next year.

The plant is locared in Third Jeddah Industrial City, 50 kilometers southeast of Jeddah.

“Saudi Arabia is fast developing into a global renewable energy player, and Masdar will continue to work closely with the Saudi government and our partners here to help the Kingdom achieve its clean energy transition,” Masdar chief Mohamed Jameel Al-Ramahi said in a statement.

The Kingdom’s Renewable Energy Project Development Office awarded the consortium the project after it had submitted the most competitive bid of SR60.9 ($16.2) per megawatt hour, the companies said.

The new plant forms part of Saudi Arabia’s clean energy strategy, where it wants to diversify its power mix and aims to generate 50 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman earlier signed seven power purchase agreements for new solar plants in Saudi Arabia following the inauguration of the Sakaka plant.