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

INTERVIEW: Amaala — the ‘audacious’ Red Sea Riviera project
Illustration by Luis Grañena
Short Url
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.


New center to lead Saudi role in ‘4th industrial revolution’, economic minister says

New center to lead Saudi role in ‘4th industrial revolution’, economic minister says
Updated 29 July 2021

New center to lead Saudi role in ‘4th industrial revolution’, economic minister says

New center to lead Saudi role in ‘4th industrial revolution’, economic minister says
  • The Saudi minister said the new center will contribute to global discussions on the use of 4IR technology, such as 5G and artificial intelligence

DUBAI: The Saudi Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) will lead the Kingdom’s role in utilizing advanced technologies and their local and global implications, Minister of Economy and Planning Faisal bin Fadel Al-Ibrahim said.

The Saudi minister said the new center will contribute to global discussions on the use of 4IR technology, such as 5G and artificial intelligence, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has introduced new challengers to countries.

“COVID-19 intensified the need for data and evidence-based iterative policymaking supported by technology-driven and innovation-based solutions,” he said at the first Saudi 4IR forum held in Riyadh.

The Kingdom has become a global role model in deploying digital technology at peak of the health crisis, Al-Ibrahim said, enumerating Saudi efforts to manage the pandemic.

Saudi Arabia ranks 4th in the world in 5G connectivity, he added, and a robust digital infrastructure helped the Kingdom overcome challenges in the education and finance sectors.

Over 850 thousand daily classes were executed for over 6 million students in 2020, and around 2.8 billion digital payment transactions were made.

“This demonstrates Saudi`s leadership in having the most modern digital platform and world class capabilities to design local and global solutions at the technological frontier,” the minister said.

A recent report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development said the technology market could reach the value of 3.2 trillion dollars in 2025, increasing by almost 10 times from 2018 figures.

Al-Ibrahim said the Saudi economy could benefit from this by capturing a slice of the industry over the next five years.

The Kingdom is already in a good position, he explained, saying it “has its work cut out for it to move up the Global Innovation Index rankings where we plan to be among the leading pack of our G20 peers.”

“We are passionate about the objectives and vision of the Center, and look forward to working closely with its team in bringing the public and private sectors as well as the science and technology community together,” he added.


Brent crude back above $75 on US inventory draw, positive Fed outlook

Brent crude back above $75 on US inventory draw, positive Fed outlook
Updated 29 July 2021

Brent crude back above $75 on US inventory draw, positive Fed outlook

Brent crude back above $75 on US inventory draw, positive Fed outlook
  • US report showing falling oil supplies boosts market
  • Oil majors Royal Dutch Shell, Repsol post higher profits on oil gain

LONDON: Oil gained for a second day on Thursday as traders remained buoyed by yesterday’s data showing a bigger-than-expected drop in US inventories, while the Federal Reserve painted an optimistic picture of the American economy.

Brent crude gained 0.7 percent to $75.23 a barrel at 2:44 p.m. in London, set to close above the $75 mark for the first time in two weeks. US Benchmark WTI also added 0.7 percent, to $72.87.

Brent, the global benchmark, passed $75 a barrel in June for the first time in more than two years but has fallen below $69 on July 17 on concerns over the spread of the Delta coronavirus variant and an OPEC+ deal to increase production over the coming months.

Crude in storage fell to the lowest since January 2020, while distillate supplies posted the biggest decline since April, the US Energy Information Agency said in its weekly report on Wednesday. Fuel inventories fell by more than 2 million barrels.

The US economy is continuing to recover even as COVID-19 infections increase, the Federal Reserve said on Wednesday, sparking speculation as to when it will begin to taper its bond purchase program.

In a separate report from the US Commerce Department today, the economy was shown to have grown at a 6.5 percent annual pace in the second quarter, below the 8.5 percent predicted in a Reuters poll of economists, but still enough to bring the economy back to its pre-pandemic size.

“The (oil inventory) falls suggest the rise in cases of COVID-19’s Delta variant is having little impact on mobility,” ANZ analysts said in a note on Thursday.

Oil prices also benefited from a statement from Iran blaming the US for stalled progress in talks over its nuclear ambitions, potentially delaying the return of Persian crude to world markets.

Global oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell and Spain’s Repsol reported blockbuster earnings today as higher oil prices boosted returns.

Shell boosted its dividend and launched a $2 billion share buyback program on Thursday as it reported the highest second quarter profits in more than two years.

Shell Chief Financial Officer Jessica Uhl said that global fuel demand was at 90 percent to 100 percent of its pre-pandemic levels, but consumption of aviation fuel remained weak.


Spanish energy giant Repsol booked a net profit of 587 million euros ($700 million) foer the second quarter, compared to a loss of 1.9 billion euros in the same period last year.

“Demand has also increased, thanks in large part to vaccination rollout,” it said.

Repsol said revenues at its petrol stations in Spain jumped by 63 percent in the second quarter when compared to the same period last year as travel picked up following the easing of lockdowns.


Cruise Saudi, MSC Group sign new five-year agreement at Jeddah port

Cruise Saudi, MSC Group sign new five-year agreement at Jeddah port
Updated 29 July 2021

Cruise Saudi, MSC Group sign new five-year agreement at Jeddah port

Cruise Saudi, MSC Group sign new five-year agreement at Jeddah port
  • MSC Bellissima will offer cruises to Safaga for Luxor, Egypt and Aqaba for Petra, Jordan

JEDDAH: Geneva-headquartered MSC Cruises announced on Thursday it had signed a five-year agreement with Cruise Saudi for preferential berthing rights at the port of Jeddah.

The announcement was made aboard the company’s liner MSC Bellissima at a celebration to mark the opening of Jeddah’s new passenger terminal. The ship will sail 21 voyages around the Red Sea starting from July until late October.

Pierfrancesco Vago, executive chairman of MSC Cruises, said in a press statement: “This is a very special, historic day for all of us. The largest and most modern ship to operate in the Red Sea has set sail from Jeddah’s new terminal to mark a new beginning for cruising in Saudi Arabia and, more broadly, for its growing tourism industry.”

The MSC Bellissima, which came into service in 2019, will offer three-to-four-night cruises to Safaga for Luxor, Egypt and Aqaba for Petra, Jordan, before returning to the Saudi homeport in Jeddah.

The ship is equipped with a 975-seat main theater, an aquapark, a bowling alley, an F1 simulator, a kids club, a cinema and a shopping gallery with more than 200 brands.

The Public Investment Fund launched Cruise Saudi in January of this year to develop a cruise industry in the Kingdom. Mark Robinson, chief operations and commercial officer, Cruise Saudi, said in a statement on Thursday: “The creation of Cruise Saudi, tasked with launching the cruise industry in Saudi Arabia, happened just six months ago at [the Future Investment Initiative] in Riyadh."

"The remit of Cruise Saudi — to create 50,000 jobs by 2025, to facilitate the building of an additional five ports, with Jeddah as a homeport, and to welcome 1.5 million annual passenger visits by 2028 — is an ambitious one, which will play a major part in strengthening the tourism industry in Saudi Arabia,” said Robinson.


Mubadala invests $250m in US biosimulation company

Mubadala invests $250m in US biosimulation company
Updated 29 July 2021

Mubadala invests $250m in US biosimulation company

Mubadala invests $250m in US biosimulation company
  • Transaction to close on August 2
  • Mubadala is building a growing life sciences portfolio

RIYADH: Abu Dhabi sovereign investment fund Mubadala has made a $250 million investment in US biosimulation company Certara, WAM reported.

Certara uses biosimulation to and technology-enabled services to accelerate drug discovery and development. The investment aligns with Mubadala’s strategy of enabling innovation to address unmet clinical needs and drive cost efficiencies.

Mubadala and existing institutional shareholders of Certara, including a stakeholder affiliated with alternative investment company EQT, have signed an agreement through which a Mubadala affiliate will buy more than 9.61 million shares in Certara at $26 per share from the shareholders in a private transaction scheduled to close on August 2.

“We are pleased to welcome a significant new investment from Mubadala, a sovereign investor with deep expertise in life sciences that is focused on creating lasting value,” said William F. Feehery, CEO of Certara.

EQT will remain a significant shareholder in the company after the transaction.

Mubadala invested almost $500 million in European veterinary giant IVC Evidensia in nearly in May. It has an asset base of 894 billion Emirati dirhams ($243.4 billion).


Jared Kushner investment firm to open Middle East office — Reuters

Jared Kushner investment firm to open Middle East office — Reuters
Updated 29 July 2021

Jared Kushner investment firm to open Middle East office — Reuters

Jared Kushner investment firm to open Middle East office — Reuters
  • Kushner plans to open an investment office in the coming months, sources familiar with the plan said
  • Israel office will attempt to build ties with India, Gulf, North Africa
WASHINGTON: Jared Kushner, a top adviser to former President Donald Trump, plans to launch an investment firm in coming months, a move that will take him away from politics for the foreseeable future, sources familiar with the plan said on Wednesday.
Kushner, the former CEO of Kushner Companies, who served as the Republican president’s senior adviser in the White House, is in the final stages of launching an investment firm called Affinity Partners that will be headquartered in Miami.
Kushner, who is married to Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, is also looking to open an office in Israel to pursue regional investments to connect Israel’s economy and India, North Africa and the Gulf, said two people briefed on the plan, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The sources had no details about potential investors and said the firm was still in the planning phase.
Kushner has spent the last six months with his family in Miami writing a book about his White House experiences that is expected to be published early next year.
Kushner helped broker deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco in a six-month flurry last year. He also helped negotiate a new US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.
Kushner remains close with his father-in-law, the sources said, but by re-entering the private sector he is stepping away from politics for the foreseeable future.
The Republican Party has been divided over the deadly attacks on the US Capitol on Jan. 6 by Trump supporters, and Trump’s false claims that he beat Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.
Kushner and his family have been spending the summer as Trump’s next-door neighbor at Trump’s golf property in Bedminster, New Jersey.
People close to the former president say he is strongly considering another run for the Republican nomination in 2024.