Frankly Speaking: ‘The future of retail is both physical and digital – phygital’, says MAF CEO Alain Bejjani
Head of conglomerate appears on Frankly Speaking, the series of video interviews with business people and policymakers
Bejjani gives his opinion on the economies of Saudi Arabia and UAE, whose resilience is being tested by the pandemic
Updated 1 min 10 sec ago
DUBAI: Business in Saudi Arabia and the UAE is “buzzing,” Alain Bejjani, chief executive officer of the Majid Al Futtaim diversified conglomerate, told Arab News, even as the resilience of their economies is being tested by the pandemic’s unexpected twists and turns.
He gave his opinion on the state of recovery from last year’s coronavirus lockdowns on Frankly Speaking, the series of video interviews with leading business people and policymakers in the Middle East and the world.
“Saudi Arabia (has shown) great resilience during the pandemic, but actually Saudi Arabian measures (to halt the spread of the virus) were quite different from the ones that you have seen in the other markets. I’ve been there in the past few months more than three times and you (can) see that it’s buzzing. It’s coming back,” Bejjani said.
“The UAE had remarkable resilience in 2020 and now is buzzing across the board. We’ve had an excellent second half of the year, especially the third quarter and the fourth quarter that we are in, and basically things are off to a very good start in 2022.”
Business in Egypt is also on a recovery path, he said.
Bejjani has been at the helm of MAF since 2015, consolidating the group’s position as one of the leading retail, hospitality and leisure groups in the Middle East. MAF is well known by consumers throughout the region for its Carrefour supermarkets, its gigantic shopping malls and its Vox Cinemas chain.
In the course of a wide-ranging discussion, Bejjani also spoke about the way the pandemic had changed MAF, his plans to give cinema a big boost in the Middle East, and the sustainability of MAF’s businesses, which include a ski-slope in Dubai and another one — set to be the biggest in the world — in the under-construction Mall of Saudi in Riyadh.
On the pace of the post-pandemic economic recovery, Bejjani explained that there could be a financial “hit” to MAF this year, because consumption patterns had changed from online back to in-person retailing.
“So, 2021 was difficult and not 2020. Last year was a difficult year to be able to fulfill and to be able to serve the customers in the safety of their homes, and navigate through the very strict restrictions that we had to deal with because of the pandemic.
“But in 2021 when we had less restrictions or no restrictions, people could go back to stores, the actual consumption changed because people were consuming less. They were not at home anymore as much as they were,” he said.
He said that a full recovery across the board might not come until 2024, adding: “We are in multi-industries and some industries have recovered while others have not yet recovered. So, when you look at our overall results, they are affected by the ones that haven’t recovered yet.”
Elaborating on the topic, Bejjani said: “For example, the cinema business and the L&E (leisure and entertainment) business — this is a business that’s recovering slower than others and is now actually affected by supply-chain issues.
“When you look at the cinema business, this is a business that was really affected in 2021 not only by the limitations on occupancy, but also by the fact of the unavailability of movies because of production delays and all the supply-chain issues that were triggered by the pandemic.”
In Saudi Arabia, where MAF has been expanding rapidly over the past five years, growth was being spurred by the reform strategy of the Vision 2030 plan to diversify the economy, according to Bejjani.
“What’s happened in Saudi Arabia in the past five years is a blessing. Everyone was dreaming to have Saudi Arabia open up; to have Saudi Arabia come back; to actually become a vibrant and even more vibrant economy, a more inclusive economy; to get women back into the workforce and also into a role in society; to get entertainment back into the Kingdom,” he said.
MAF’s most prestigious project to date in the Kingdom is the Mall of Saudi, a $4.3 billion retail and leisure complex under construction in north Riyadh, due to open in 2025. Bejjani is confident that “mall culture” will overcome the challenges thrown up by the pandemic, but that the lockdowns will change the nature of the business in significant ways.
“This is, of course, for us a very important, substantial investment and a very strategic project. We’re doing it because we really believe in the future of retail and we really believe that the future of retail is both physical and digital. There is this new word now that’s coined, it’s called ‘phygital,’ and we are seeing that more and more.
“Malls are not only spaces where you actually transact, where you actually shop for something. It’s a place where people come together. It’s a place where people meet. It’s a place where friends and family spend time and create great moments together. Of course they shop, dine or consume entertainment, but also build bonds. This is what malls’ new roles are,” he said.
The Mall of Saudi will be home to the biggest ski-slope and snow dome in the world. Some environmentalists have questioned the building of gigantic indoor snow-park facilities in the Middle East, especially as concerns grow about climate change.
But Bejjani is adamant that the new ski center in Riyadh will comply with the strictest environmental and energy regulations, like Ski Dubai in the UAE does. “There is a lot of misconception around indoor ski slopes,” he said.
“If you look at Mall of the Emirates’ Ski Dubai or the one that you’re going to be having in our Riyadh project, these are actually LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified assets.
“It actually has been improving quite a lot. We’ve been putting a lot of technology and investment in order to make it as sustainable as possible. So, when you look at the actual slope, it is within a fridge that preserves heat and preserves cold, so minimizes the heat going out and preserves cold inside. And we have a lot of technology to make sure that we actually use the least electricity possible and generate and have the lowest possible carbon footprint.”
One part of the business set for big growth is the Vox Cinemas chain, which pursued an aggressive roll-out of new venues after the ban on cinemas in Saudi Arabia was lifted in 2018, only to be shut later by the pandemic. Bejjani says he is confident Vox can win business back from the at-home streaming services like Netflix that did so well during the lockdowns.
“People love the experience. Cinema is an experience that you share with others and there is nothing like the magic of being in a theater and people laughing together and living those emotions together,” he said.
Consumers had “maxxed out” on Netflix during the lockdown phase, he added.
One challenge MAF is planning to confront head on is the lack of new content, and specifically regional content, in the Middle East movie industry. Shutdowns in Hollywood and Bollywood studios during the pandemic meant a shortage of new material for movie-goers.
“Saudi Arabia is a fantastic market for local content, whether it’s Arabic content, whether it’s Khaliji or Egyptian content, and this is where we need and we are driving a lot of effort to make sure that we enable that local content much more,” he said.
Vox is sponsoring the forthcoming Red Sea Film Festival as a way to demonstrate its commitment to creating a regional production and distribution network to raise the level of local content in cinema.
“We have a huge market with a lot of young and not-so-young cultural-product consumers that want local content,” Bejjani said. “This is how we can contribute to the rebirth of our civilization, and the rebirth of the cultural life in our part of the world.”
Australia to introduce new laws to force media platforms to unmask online trolls
The new legislation will introduce a complaints mechanism, so that if somebody thinks they are being defamed, bullied or attacked on social media, they will be able to require the platform to take the material down
Updated 28 November 2021
MELBOURNE: Australia will introduce legislation to make social media giants provide details of users who post defamatory comments, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Sunday.
The government has been looking at the extent of the responsibility of platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, for defamatory material published on their sites and comes after the country’s highest court ruled that publishers can be held liable for public comments on online forums.
The ruling caused some news companies like CNN to deny Australians access to their Facebook pages.
“The online world should not be a wild west where bots and bigots and trolls and others are anonymously going around and can harm people,” Morrison said at a televised press briefing. “That is not what can happen in the real world, and there is no case for it to be able to be happening in the digital world.”
The new legislation will introduce a complaints mechanism, so that if somebody thinks they are being defamed, bullied or attacked on social media, they will be able to require the platform to take the material down.
If the content is not withdrawn, a court process could force a social media platform to provide details of the commenter.
“Digital platforms — these online companies — must have proper processes to enable the takedown of this content,” Morrison said.
“They have created the space and they need to make it safe, and if they won’t, we will make them (through) laws such as this.”
UK migrant deaths: Priti Patel demands BBC drop ‘dehumanizing’ language
On Wednesday, 27 people headed for the UK drowned in the English Channel near Calais after their boat sunk
Updated 27 November 2021
LONDON: UK Home Secretary Priti Patel pledged to ask the BBC and other media channels to abandon the use of the term “migrants,” claiming that the word is “dehumanizing.”
Patel made the pledge after being challenged by the Scottish National Party MP Brendan O’Hara on the BBC’s use of ‘migrants’ to describe the 27 men, women and children who died while crossing the English Channel earlier this week.
On Wednesday, 27 people headed for the UK drowned in the English Channel near Calais after their boat sunk. Those who drowned included 17 men, seven women — one of whom was pregnant — and three children.
Following the incident, O’Hara had told the House of Commons: “Last night, I tuned in to the BBC News to get the latest on this terrible disaster and I was absolutely appalled when a presenter informed me that around 30 migrants had drowned.
“Migrants don’t drown. People drown. Men, women and children drown,” he added, urging Patel to take action and ask the BBC and other news outlets to “reflect on their use of such dehumanizing language and afford these poor people the respect that they deserve.”
Patel responded positively to O’Hara’s request, and said: “Even during the Afghan operations and evacuation I heard a lot of language that quite frankly seemed to be inappropriate around people who were fleeing.
“So yes, I will,” she pledged.
Patel had previously blamed France for the deaths of the 27 people, saying that it was up to the French to take action to prevent further tragedies.
She claimed that while there was no rapid solution to the issue of people seeking to cross the English Channel, she had reiterated an offer to send more police to France.
Rights watchdog condemns assault of Afghan journalist
Ahmad Baseer Ahmadi, a presenter at privately owned broadcaster Ayna TV, was walking to his house when two unidentified men assaulted him
In October, unidentified gunmen injured journalists Abdul Khaliq Hussaini and Alireza Sharifi in separate attacks in Kabul
Updated 27 November 2021
LONDON: The Committee to Protect Journalists has condemned the violent attack on Afghani journalist Ahmad Baseer Ahmadi, who was assaulted in Kabul while on his way home.
Ahmadi, a presenter at the privately owned broadcaster Ayna TV, was walking to his house when two unidentified men assaulted him and attempted to shoot him.
The men, whose faces were covered by black handkerchiefs, reportedly shouted, “Reporter! Stop,” demanded to see his identification card and asked him where he worked.
“The Taliban has repeatedly failed to uphold its stated commitment to press freedom, as violent attacks against journalists continue and proper investigations or accountability are nowhere to be found,” said CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, Steven Butler.
“The Taliban should reverse this trend by thoroughly investigating the attack on Ahmad Baseer Ahmadi, and holding the perpetrators accountable.”
Ahmadi’s assailants reportedly demanded he unlock his phone and open his WhatsApp and Facebook accounts. When Ahmadi refused, the men beat him with pistols and proceeded to shoot at him when he asked for help.
The shots missed Ahmadi, but the men continued kicking him while he was on the ground, breaking his jaw.
Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last August, the CPJ has voiced concerns about the safety of Afghan journalists, reporters and media workers.
In October, unidentified gunmen injured journalists Abdul Khaliq Hussaini and Alireza Sharifi in separate attacks in Kabul, and Taliban members beat and detained Zahidullah Husainkhil.
Award winners revealed at prestigious Middle East PR industry gongs ceremony
88 entries shortlisted in 56 categories for 2021 Middle East Public Relations Association awards
Updated 26 November 2021
DUBAI: This year’s winners of a prestigious Middle Eastern public relations awards scheme were revealed at a recent presentation ceremony in the UAE.
More than 88 entries were shortlisted across 56 categories in the 2021 edition of the Middle East Public Relations Association awards.
The communications industry has been seriously impacted by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic with many companies and organizations cutting their advertising and marketing budgets.
And the latest MEPRA awards took into account the damage caused to the sector by the global health crisis through categories such as best creative approach and best internal communications response during COVID-19, and best social impact campaign in response to the virus outbreak.
The classes saw gold trophies awarded to APCO Worldwide for its campaign “Adapting UOWD’s Education Model in the Age of the Pandemic,” Mastercard MEA for its “Priceless Together” project, and Action Global Communications for “ADEK Back to School,” respectively.
During the awards ceremony held in Dubai on Wednesday, Red Havas bagged gold for best campaign in the Middle East with Adidas’ “Beyond the Surface,” and Hill+Knowlton Strategies took silver and bronze for its PUBG Mobile “Game on Henedy,” and Facebook Inc. “#MonthofGood” campaigns, respectively.
To mark MEPRA’s 20th anniversary this year, the awards featured a new category of people’s choice for the best Middle East campaign over the last two decades, won by Weber Shandwick MENAT and Environment Agency Abu Dhabi for the “Vote Bu Tinah!” campaign.
Special gongs on the night included the chairman’s lifetime achievement award that went to Jack Pearce of Matrix Public Relations, the small in-house team of the year accolade handed to Mastercard MENA, and the large in-house team of the year prize given to the UAE government’s media office.
Agency titles were awarded to Gambit Communications for best home-grown operation as well as small agency of the year, with Acorn Strategy being crowned large agency of the year.