INTERVIEW: Amaala — the ‘audacious’ Red Sea Riviera project

INTERVIEW: Amaala — the ‘audacious’ Red Sea Riviera project
Illustration by Luis Grañena
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Updated 27 September 2020

INTERVIEW: Amaala — the ‘audacious’ Red Sea Riviera project

INTERVIEW: Amaala — the ‘audacious’ Red Sea Riviera project
  • CEO Nick Naples talks about the elite sustainable resort on the Saudi Arabia’s western coast

DUBAI: The giga-projects that are a hallmark of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 reform plan for economic diversification are going full-steam ahead, despite the disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic and forecasts from skeptics, and none more so than the plan to build the “Red Sea Riviera” on the Kingdom’s western coast.

“We are on track and broke ground earlier this summer,” Nick Naples, the CEO of Amaala, the company in charge of the ambitious project, told Arab News. The word “amaala” means “hope’ in Arabic, but the thinking behind the master plan represents more than just tentative aspiration.

“It is audacious, yet achievable,” he said, with phase one scheduled to be rolled out by 2024. “I am fortunate enough to be at the helm of an incredible project that will be groundbreaking in the areas of sustainability, wellness and philanthropy. I am working with professionals from around the world and have the privilege of seeing young Saudi talent grow and develop into the country’s leaders of tomorrow.

“However, with the pace of activity right now, there are simply not enough hours in the day for me to take a minute to enjoy and appreciate the great work being done.”

He is well-qualified to oversee the project, with three decades of experience in the luxury hospitality and leisure industry under his belt. 

He has worked for some of the best-known names in these sectors including Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons and Caesars Entertainment. He has been involved in mega-projects in the US and Macau, and delivered multibillion- dollar resort developments around the world.

Amaala is probably more ambitious than any of them. For one thing it is located in Saudi Arabia, which has only recently begun to market its historical, cultural and natural attractions to an international audience.

Second, it is unfolding at a time when discerning travelers want more than sun, sea and sand from their vacation. They want luxury and comfort on a grand scale, but also distinctive experiences and activities, and they want it all in an environmentally sound context. Amaala is planned as a standard-setter for sustainable tourism.

These challenges were foreseen from the beginning of the Amaala project in 2017, but the final hurdle surfaced earlier this year. The development is taking place in the middle of the biggest health and economic crisis for a century, when governments have been cutting back on spending to deal with the new realities of post-pandemic life.

Naples takes a realistic view. “These are challenging times and, as the world unites to fight the spread of COVID-19, we are seeing a growing impact on economies across the world. At Amaala, we are aware of the current operating environment and remain steadfast in our commitment to deliver a luxury destination that will be a disruptor in the sector.”


BIO

BORN: US.

EDUCATION: Master’s degree, Cornell University, New York.

CAREER

  • Resorts projects executive, Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons.
  • CEO, Integrated Resorts International, US, China, Vietnam.
  • Hotel projects executive, Caesars Entertainment Corp.
  • COO, Macau Studio City.
  • CEO, Amaala.

In some ways, the timing of the pandemic was fortunate. “As we are in the early stages of development, our plans were not scuttled by the pandemic and we were able to progress as planned, while working remotely,” he said, at the same time allowing that the cancellation of some key events in the international calendar, like Arabian Travel Market, the Future Investment Initiative and the Monaco Yacht Show, affected his ability to market Amaala to potential partners and investors. “We are evolving to meet our needs,” Naples said.

Like the other big initiatives of Vision 2030, Amaala is managed and funded by the Public Investment Fund, the Kingdom’s fast-growing sovereign wealth investor, which has shown no sign of slowing down even during the financial and economic stresses of the pandemic.

The master plan envisages the creation of three “communities” on more than 4,000 square kilometers of land and marine environment on the Red Sea coast, roughly mid-way between the gigantic NEOM development to the north and the port city of Jeddah further south. It is close to the historic site of AlUla, also the center for a major tourism and cultural project.

Amaala’s three interconnected projects offer different visitor experiences.

Triple Bay will be a holistic wellness retreat with state-of-the-art medical facilities, as well as world-class sports infrastructure.

The Coastal Development will create an arts and cultural center, with a museum of contemporary art, a film festival venue, performing arts venues, and a biennale park.

The Island, the third development, will be an exclusive enclave where residents and visitors can relax in intimate resorts with first-class recreational and leisure facilities.

The three developments “will be distinct in purpose as well as design, but will be bound together by an innovative approach with sustainability at its core,” Naples said.

Foster & Partners has been appointed executive architects for the development, while other global design experts, like US design firm HKS and Denniston, led by award-winning Jean-Michel Gathy, are on board for specific facets of the master plan. All have sound sustainability credentials.

“Sustainability has never been undertaken and embraced on a project of this scale before. Existing properties’ sustainability aspirations largely involve playing catch-up to balance offsets but, over time, Amaala will meet these standards from the ground up, creating a coastal oasis that elevates the role of responsible tourism globally,” he added.

Amaala is located within the Mohammed bin Salman Natural Reserve, an area of outstanding natural and historic riches. It is the project’s mission to act as custodians of those assets, Naples said. Only 5 percent of the total area will actually be developed, with the rest earmarked for conservation and preservation.

The development includes plans for world-class yachting facilities as well as other marine leisure activities, but has also made firm commitments on coral reef management and species protection, including enforcing protected areas and combating plastic pollution.

The Amaala Marine Life Institute will have research and development facilities to study ocean conservation initiatives and apply them to the rest of the Kingdom’s coastline and to the world’s seas.

“Design and development will be carried out according to the highest global standards and we will be working with partners to meet the highest levels of sustainability throughout the design, build, and operation phases. Partnerships with international conservation foundations is testament to our steadfast commitment to the preservation of the local biosphere, especially the marine environment.” Naples said.

Who will travel to this elite development, especially in what some luxury experts have called the age of “post-opulence” in the wake of the pandemic?

“The concept of luxury tourism is evolving. Today’s most discerning global citizens are driven to discover personal experiences unlike any other — immersive, authentic, and realized through a journey of self-discovery. Our aim is to bring to life the desires and ambitions of a community obsessed with shaping and living transformative moments that will safeguard the planet’s natural resources,” Naples said.

“Amaala will be a disruptor in its sector and will redefine the ultra-luxury resort experience and the tourism experience in its entirety. It will set the standards for personalized service, with each guest crafting their own journey through the pillars that tie Amaala together.” 

Its own airport — initially open for private jets and charters but ultimately a commercial facility that can also serve other attractions nearby on the Red Sea coast — will bring international visitors direct to the development. Some of the other mega-projects are believed to be considering special visa and administrative arrangements within their boundaries.

Naples is in no doubt about the challenges of tourism in the Kingdom. 

“We need to build a robust tourism infrastructure within a short period of time and present the same level of excellence and expertise that global travelers are used to in key destinations around the world,” he said.

There is a domestic challenge too. “We also need to attract more Saudi nationals to the tourism sector by creating opportunities for growth and development. This will mean attracting the best experts from around the world and having them mentor the next generation of Saudi tourism experts,” he said.

Naples underlined the “audacious” nature of the Amaala project, but is at ease with its long-term viability. 

“We are confident the stunning natural environment, combined with unique culture and innovative experiences, will appeal to our guests. We will awaken the world’s imagination through unrivaled quality, sustainability, and community,” he said.


Saudi Arabia aims to help SMEs expand their export potential

Saudi Arabia aims to help SMEs expand their export potential
Updated 22 April 2021

Saudi Arabia aims to help SMEs expand their export potential

Saudi Arabia aims to help SMEs expand their export potential
  • Saudi bank offers 17 credit solutions to small exporters to help them expand their operations worldwide

RIYADH: The Saudi Export-Import (EXIM) Bank has approved nearly SR8 billion ($2.13 billion) in lending to non-oil exporters since it was launched early last year, helping them to distribute their goods to more than 45 countries around the world.

The lender was established as part of the government’s Vision 2030 goal to raise the share of exports in the non-oil economy from 16 percent at present to 50 percent by the end of the decade.

“We at Saudi EXIM are mandated to serve all Saudi-based exporters of non-oil content, be it goods, services or intermediate value-added products, irrespective of their enterprise size. We do so by ensuring that our role complements that of commercial lenders instead of eroding it or competing with it,” Dr. Naif Al-Shammari, acting CEO of Saudi EXIM, said in an interview with Arab News.

“We pay special attention to small and medium enterprises given the limited access they have to commercial funds. This extends even to those that do not have an export track record, provided that they have valid on-hand orders from the export market,” Al-Shammari said. 

Dr. Naif Al-Shammari, acting CEO of Saudi EXIM

To boost the performance of exporters in the non-oil sector, the Saudi EXIM Bank offers 17 different credit solution products, which were developed in accordance with best international practices and based on the needs of Saudi-based exporters and their foreign clients, Al-Shammari said.

Meshari Alrajih, an assistant professor of marketing at the King Saud University, said small and medium-sized exporters can benefit from the new “Made in Saudi” program, which offers several solutions to promote the development of local products. There are many forms of support that can be used, such as fee exemptions for starting industrial enterprises of up to five employees, he explained. He pointed to other programs related to Vision 2030 that can help small and medium enterprises (SMEs), including the National Industrial Development and Logistics Program, the Local Content and Government Procurement Authority and the Industrial Development Fund.

FASTFACTS

• The Saudi Export-Import Bank has approved nearly $2.13 billion in lending to non-oil exporters since it was launched early last year.

• It provides export financing, guarantees and export credit insurance services with competitive advantages.

To become one of the companies helping to achieve the targets set by the Vision 2030 program, Alrajih said, entrepreneurs should contact the relevant authorities with experience in this area, such as the Saudi Exports Development Authority and the chambers of commerce. He also recommended that small companies participate in international exhibitions and conferences, to build up their overseas networks.

Alrajih urges SMEs to market their products outside the Kingdom through a number of channels such as the Ministry of Investment, which has overseas offices specializing in helping such companies.

Design and branding consultant Fawaz Al-Otaibi said the “Made in Saudi” initiative comes at a critical time. “During the past years, many Saudis have received their education in the most prestigious universities in the world and studied design, branding, industrial design and other specializations,” he said, adding that this new skillset among young Saudis will lead to “a significant transformation within a short period.”

As Saudi SMEs become more experienced at marketing their products to a wider global audience, agencies such as the Saudi EXIM Bank will be on hand to help them to finance the logistics needed to become exporters, helping the government to achieve its ambitious Vision 2030 targets.


New partnership aims to boost Saudi Arabia’s electric vehicle sector

New partnership aims to boost Saudi Arabia’s electric vehicle sector
Updated 22 April 2021

New partnership aims to boost Saudi Arabia’s electric vehicle sector

New partnership aims to boost Saudi Arabia’s electric vehicle sector
  • The Kingdom has been taking serious steps to boost its EV sector, a fundamental part of its Vision 2030 program

JEDDAH: Schneider Electric Saudi Arabia and GREENER by IHCC have signed a partnership agreement to develop e-mobility infrastructure in the Kingdom’s nascent and fast-growing electric vehicle (EV) sector.

Schneider, a French energy management and automation solutions company, and GREENER, a sustainability and energy efficiency services provider, will work on a strategy to boost the number of EV charging facilities in the Kingdom.

GREENER is part of IHCC, a Jeddah-based turnkey solutions provider specializing in healthcare, education and mixed-use projects.

Schneider is already a leader in this area thanks to its EVLink range of charging solutions installed throughout the Kingdom.

“GREENER by IHCC sees the potential for electric vehicle infrastructure, and we’re delighted that we can partner with them to help Saudi Arabia build a world-class network of chargers that will power this transition,” said Mohamed Shaheen, Schneider’s cluster president for the Kingdom and Yemen.

This partnership is in line with the recently announced Saudi Green and Middle East Green initiatives, which aim to reduce carbon emissions, combat pollution and land degradation, and preserve nature.

The Kingdom has been taking serious steps to boost its EV sector, a fundamental part of its Vision 2030 program.

In 2020, commercial imports of EVs and their charging stations were allowed in Saudi Arabia under specific procedures.

A committee has been created — headed by the Energy Ministry, in coordination with government and private agencies and research centers — which aims to study all aspects related to establishing infrastructure for EVs.

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) is an anchor investor for US-based EV manufacturer Lucid Motors.

The sovereign wealth fund announced its first investment of $1 billion in Lucid in September 2018.

The investment was made to “provide the necessary funding to commercially launch Lucid’s first electric vehicle, the Lucid Air, in 2020,” the PIF said.

Lucid is scouting out locations for retail sales outlets in the Kingdom, and aims to get them up and running by the end of 2021 or early 2022, CEO Peter Rawlinson told Arab News earlier this year.


Britain’s driverless car ambitions hit speed bump

Britain’s driverless car ambitions hit speed bump
Updated 22 April 2021

Britain’s driverless car ambitions hit speed bump

Britain’s driverless car ambitions hit speed bump
  • Insurers worry over drivers misunderstanding limits of technology

LONDON: Britain’s goal to be a leader in adopting self-driving cars could backfire unless automakers and government regulators spell out the current limitations of the technology, insurance companies warn.

Insurers are key players in the shift to automated driving, with some investing in a technology they believe will slash accidents and deaths, and save them billions in payouts.

But they are worried drivers might equate today’s lower levels of automation with fully self-driving vehicles, potentially causing more accidents in the short term and permanently damaging public confidence in the technology. “What you describe things as is incredibly important, so people don’t use them inappropriately,” said David Williams, managing director of underwriting at AXA Insurance, whose parent AXA SA made €17 billion in revenues from property and casualty insurance, including motor insurance, in 2020.

“I genuinely believe the world will be a safer place with autonomous vehicles and I really don’t want that derailed.”

In what would be a world first, Britain is considering regulating the use of Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS) on its roads, possibly even on motorways at speeds of up to 70 miles (113 km) per hour. It is also deciding whether to describe them to the general public as “automated” systems.

It is that one word — automated — that has stirred controversy and put the country at the center of a global debate about self-driving terminology at a sensitive moment in its evolution.

The technology is evolving rapidly and there is no consensus on how to deploy it or what to call some features. Regulations in the Americas, Europe and Asia lag far behind technical developments and issues over accident liability are unresolved.

ALKS use sensors and software to keep cars within a lane, accelerating and braking without driver input. Some experts say ALKS should be called “assisted-driving technology” to avoid potentially misleading consumers into believing they can let their attention wander at the wheel.

The dangers of drivers apparently misunderstanding the limits of technology has already become an issue in the US, where regulators have been looking into about 20 crashes involving Tesla’s driver assistance tools, such as its “Autopilot” system — a “Level 2” technology that requires the driver’s constant attention.

Britain’s Thatcham Research said it had tested cars with the technologies underpinning ALKS and found they cannot swerve out of lane to avoid obstacles, see pedestrians emerging from cars at roadside, or read road signs. The car can alert the driver to resume control, but with a potentially fatal lag at high speeds.

Britain’s Transport Ministry said its primary concern was public safety and it had not decided to permit the use of ALKS at high speeds or whether to call the technology “automated.” Its decisions are expected later
this year.

The World Health Organization estimates road accidents globally kill around 1.35 million people a year.

With human error estimated to cause around 90 percent of accidents, insurers have shown considerable interest in automated driving technologies.

There is potentially a big economic boost too from embracing the new technology.

Britain’s Transport Ministry forecasts by 2035 around 40 percent of new UK cars could have self-driving capabilities, creating up to 38,000 new skilled jobs.


UAE’s Diamond Group considers fresh investment opportunities in Egypt

UAE’s Diamond Group considers fresh investment opportunities in Egypt
Updated 22 April 2021

UAE’s Diamond Group considers fresh investment opportunities in Egypt

UAE’s Diamond Group considers fresh investment opportunities in Egypt
  • The UAE company has already started its first project in the new administrative capital with investments of EGP 4 billion

CAIRO: Mohamed Abdel Wahab, CEO of the Egyptian General Authority for Investment and Free Zones (GAFI), discussed increasing investments in Egypt with Saleh Mohammed bin Nasra, owner of the Diamond Group, and Abdel Rahman Agamy, CEO of the Diamond Group and Sky Abu Dhabi Real Estate Development.

An official statement said that they presented promising investment opportunities in several sectors, and covered the facilities and measures taken by the Egyptian government to encourage foreign investment.

The meeting comes during Abdel Wahab’s tour of the Gulf region, where he is engaging with a number of major Emirati companies to discuss investment opportunities.

Nasra said the Diamond Group aimed “to contribute to the implementation of the state’s directives to achieve comprehensive urban development that accommodates the increase in population and contributes to the continued growth of the Egyptian economy.”

Agamy said that the group began taking steps to pump EGP 15 billion ($960 million) worth of investments into Egypt over the next two years. 

Despite only announcing its entry into the Egyptian market two months ago, the UAE company has already started its first project in the new administrative capital with investments of EGP 4 billion.

Agamy said that the group is studying new opportunities and praised GAFI’s efforts in attracting foreign businesses to the country.


World’s top sovereign wealth fund earns $46bn in Q1

World’s top sovereign wealth fund earns $46bn in Q1
Updated 22 April 2021

World’s top sovereign wealth fund earns $46bn in Q1

World’s top sovereign wealth fund earns $46bn in Q1
  • It invests the Norwegian state’s revenues from oil and gas production into 9,100 companies worldwide

OSLO: Norway’s $1.3 trillion sovereign wealth fund, the world’s largest, posted a first quarter profit thanks to strong stock markets, it said on Wednesday.

The fund had a 4 percent return on investment, earning 382 billion crowns ($45.7 billion) between January and March, beating its own benchmark index. “The rise of the equity market was to a great extent driven by the finance and energy sectors,” the fund’s deputy CEO Trond Grande said in a statement.

While stocks earned a return of 6.6 percent, the fixed income portfolio had a loss of 3.2 percent while unlisted real estate had a positive return of 1.4 percent.

The fund invests the Norwegian state’s revenues from oil and gas production into 9,100 companies worldwide, owning 1.4 percent of all listed shares globally, and also invests in bonds, property and green infrastructure.

The fund, which generated $123 billion in returns last year, used a previous strategy update to shift its equity exposure toward US stocks and away from Europe. Much of last year’s performance was driven by the fund’s holdings of US technology stocks.

A recent Bloomberg report quoted Grade as saying, “the fund still has room to add risk within its current investment framework.”

The fund’s mandate gives it a so-called risk budget that lets it veer 125 basis points from its benchmark. For now, it’s tended not to exceed 30-50 basis points, according to Grande.