Mideast's largest mall operator to expand amid vaccine hopes

The retail scene is looking up in Dubai. (AP)
The retail scene is looking up in Dubai. (AP)
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Updated 15 April 2021

Mideast's largest mall operator to expand amid vaccine hopes

Mideast's largest mall operator to expand amid vaccine hopes
  • Employs some 43,000 people regionally
  • Revenue fell 7 percent to $8.9 billion last year

DUBAI: The Middle East's largest operator of malls expects revenue and earnings to climb back to pre-pandemic levels by the end of next year and is moving full steam ahead with plans to develop its biggest mall ever.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Majid Al Futtaim CEO Alain Bejjani said business is steadily rebounding amid vaccine rollouts in some countries of the region, kicking 2021 off to a relatively strong start.
“We’re not out of the woods across the markets, but things are improving,” Bejjani said. “Going back to the pre-pandemic levels— to 2019 level— in my opinion, will happen by the end of 2022 in terms of financial results."
The company's plethora of retail and leisure holdings include the iconic Mall of the Emirates in Dubai, hundreds of VOX cinema screens and more than 350 Carrefour grocery stores in the Middle East and beyond. Named after its Emirati billionaire founder, the company's largest markets are the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but its reach extends as far as Pakistan, Kenya and Uzbekistan.
The company's projections of a rebound and its plans for expansion reflect the faster than anticipated recovery of Middle East economies from the coronavirus pandemic, though uneven vaccine distribution remains a concern.
Majid Al Futtaim, which employs some 43,000 people regionally, saw its revenue fall by 7 percent to $8.9 billion last year and earnings drop by 19 percent to around $1 billion due to coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions. The hardest-hit side of the business was its leisure and entertainment arm, where revenue fell by 49 percent to $380 million and earnings plummeted by 122 percent, resulting in losses of $25 million.
Despite last year's slump, Majid Al Futtaim plans to unveil 30 new movie theater screens this year in Saudi Arabia, is developing it’s biggest mall project ever in Riyadh, and is opening what will be the largest mall in Oman at the end of 2021.
“Every country has had their own set of challenges to deal with. The reality is the fastest recovery is the UAE... and we expect very fast recoveries in other markets like Saudi Arabia,” Bejjani said. “We have also seen Egypt being very resilient.”
The United Arab Emirates has rapidly rolled out COVID-19 vaccines, which are free of charge for citizens and residents. Saudi Arabia is also expanding its vaccination rollout and has offered all residents free coronavirus treatment since the start of the pandemic.
It's not back to business as usual just yet, though. Majid Al Futtaim— like many businesses globally— is having to adjust to new realities, including the potential imposition of so-called “digital passports." In Bahrain, for example, where Majid Al Futtaim operates 30 cinema screens, only people who've been vaccinated or recently recovered from COVID-19 will be allowed into cinemas, gyms and other select spaces soon.
Bejjani said the company is “very supportive of any measure” that gives customers the feeling of being safe.
“Whenever there is an additional regulation, that actually gives people even more certainty, I think this is a plus, whether it is the vaccine passport, whether it is something else,” he said. “At the end of the day, what’s important is that people want to go back to normal. People want to go back to consumption.”
The company's rapid growth and expansion since its inception in 1992 mirrors that of its home base of Dubai, where a frenetic construction boom has transformed it from a fishing village into one of the most talked about modern cities in the world. The company's economic rebound is also closely tied to that of Dubai's, where the International Monetary Fund expects the country's overall economy to grow this year by 3.2 percent.
At the height of the pandemic last year, Dubai imposed a 24-hour curfew and government-mandated permits were needed to leave the house. Even then, Majid Al Futtaim's Carrefour supermarkets remained busy.
Because the United Arab Emirates imports most of its produce, meat and poultry, Majid Al Futtaim’s policy of stockpiling a three months’ supply of basic goods proved crucial when nervous shoppers in Dubai rushed to stock up on goods during the first days of growing restrictions on movement.
In the wake of 2020, Bejjani said the company is in conversation with the government of the UAE to increase stockpiles of certain products up to six months. The company is also working with 6,000 local farmers to increase production of fruits and vegetables, while also supporting farmers as far away as Kenya to ensure a diversified supply of fresh food for its UAE stores. A half dozen Carrefours in the UAE began growing their own lettuce and herbs in hydroponic farms last year, Bejjani said.
The company's Carrefour business across the region saw earnings grow by 14 percent to $440 million last year, even as revenue slightly fell. That was due in part to the company's overall 188 percent increase in online sales as people moved toward grocery delivery services.
By the end of last year, the company also saw more visitors returning to its malls and cinemas.
Majid Al Futtaim’s crown jewel in Dubai is the Mall of the Emirates, home to an indoor ski slope and the world’s busiest Carrefour supermarket. A recent walk through the mall showed it's cafes, restaurants and stores teeming with visitors. Still, there were also many shuttered storefronts - evidence of the economic slowdown that had hit Arab Gulf oil exporting nations even before the pandemic.
The region's many sprawling luxury malls aren't just for shopping, though. They offer an escape for millions of people seeking respite from the long summer months. Bejjani said despite some store closures across its malls, there continues to be “big demand” in the Gulf for more entertainment and retail spaces.


Air Seychelles sets final terms in Etihad debt row

Air Seychelles sets final terms in Etihad debt row
Updated 4 min 54 sec ago

Air Seychelles sets final terms in Etihad debt row

Air Seychelles sets final terms in Etihad debt row
  • Etihad sold its stake in Air Seychelles to the government for one dollar last month

NAIROBI: State-owned Air Seychelles will not pay more than $20 million to holders of bonds worth $72 million, a government official told Reuters, even though creditors have threatened to wind the African airline up if they are not paid in full.
The standoff is the latest twist in broader efforts by creditors to recover $1.2 billion owed by Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways and airlines it partly owned when the debt was issued in 2015 and 2016, such as Air Seychelles.
At the time, Etihad owned 40 percent of Air Seychelles and it was in a consortium along with the Gulf airline and other carriers that borrowed the money through special purpose vehicle EA Partners.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck last year, Air Seychelles said it was struggling to honor its portion of the debt worth $71.5 million and it has been engaged in restructuring talks with a steering committee of creditors since July.
A senior government official from the Indian Ocean archipelago told Reuters it would not be able to offer bondholders more than $20 million to settle the debt.
“The $20 million which has been offered represents the upper limit with regards to the funding that Air Seychelles and/or the government of Seychelles can get approval for and successfully raise on the international market for settlement of the bond,” Patrick Payet, secretary of state for finance, said.
A committee of EA Partners creditors asked Air Seychelles last month to repay its debt, according to an EA Partners regulatory filing.
“Should Air Seychelles not comply ... the creditor will apply to the Supreme Court of Seychelles for an order that Air Seychelles be wound up,” the filing last month said.
The committee told Reuters this week it had rejected the $20 million offer but had not yet filed a winding-up petition to give the government a “grace period” to finalize a separate settlement with Etihad.
Etihad sold its stake in Air Seychelles to the government for one dollar last month and agreed to give it a 79 percent discount on the money it still owed the Gulf carrier, which is also about $72 million, Seychelles News Agency reported.
Creditors said it was unacceptable for Seychelles to offer financial investors a similar discount to the one it had received from Etihad, as the airline was a strategic shareholder.
Payet said that should creditors not accept the $20 million offer, the airline would have to consider other options, including insolvency and liquidation proceedings.
“It is the bondholders’ right to pursue legal options,” he said. “However, all our forecasts show in such an eventuality, the bondholders will recover significantly less than the $20 million currently on offer and it will take considerably longer to receive anything.”


KSA property market shows signs of post-virus recovery

KSA property market shows signs of post-virus recovery
Updated 19 min 20 sec ago

KSA property market shows signs of post-virus recovery

KSA property market shows signs of post-virus recovery
  • Resdiential mortgage growth supports sector
  • Retail stable despite upheaval across industry

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s real estate market has shown the first signs of a post-pandemic recovery, according to a report from broker Knight Frank.
It said that the outlook for the Kingdom’s real estate market was improving, supported by growth in residential mortgages.
Faisal Durrani, head of Middle East Research at Knight Frank, said: “Like other global economies, the pandemic has driven a widespread economic slowdown across the Kingdom. However, improved business confidence during the closing months of 2020, underpinned by economic reforms linked to Vision 2030 and the rapid response to COVID-19, has helped to drive a turnaround in performance in all main segments of the real estate market.”
In the grade A office market, rents experienced fragmented performance in the Kingdom’s three main centers, with rents in Riyadh increasing marginally by 0.5 percent to SR1,465 ($390.67) per square meter during the first quarter, while in Jeddah rents fell 2.8 percent to SR1,008 per square meter.
In Dammam, grade A office rents declined 4.3 percent to just over SR900 per square meter in the first three months of 2021.
The recent decision to exempt real estate transactions from a 15 percent value-added tax (VAT) charge has helped to boost activity in the residential market.
“The overall improvement in business confidence and market sentiment has led to a surge in residential mortgage loans, which rose by 38 percent in the 12 months to the end of February. That has, in turn, materialized in the form of a marked increase in residential transactions across the country, with Riyadh and Jeddah experiencing a 25 percent and 34 percent increase in deal numbers over the last 12 months,” Durrani said.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and retailers moving online, average vacancy rates in malls have remained stable. The market-wide vacancy rate in Riyadh increased by 1 percentage point in Q1 2021 to 16 percent.
Saudi Arabia has the world’s largest hotel construction pipeline, and the country’s supply is expected to increase by 61.1 percent over the next three years, the highest rate among the most 50 populated countries in the world, according to a report by hospitality data firm STR.
Durrani said: “The hospitality market has been somewhat of a bright spot. Despite continued weakness in Riyadh, Jeddah and the Dammam metropolitan area, these areas have experienced strong growth in both average daily room (ADR) rates, as well as revenue per available room.”
The resumption of the Umrah pilgrimage has underpinned performance in Jeddah’s hospitality market, where in the year to March 2021, ADRs grew by 18.7 percent, while occupancy decreased marginally by 2.2 percent.
Over this period, revenue per available room grew by 16.2 percent.


Saudi grocer Othaim sales dip a year on from panic buying supermarket sweep

Saudi grocer Othaim sales dip a year on from panic buying supermarket sweep
Updated 06 May 2021

Saudi grocer Othaim sales dip a year on from panic buying supermarket sweep

Saudi grocer Othaim sales dip a year on from panic buying supermarket sweep
  • VAT and school closures also hit performance
  • Global supermarket sector returns to normality

DUBAI: Saudi supermarket chain Abdullah Al Othaim Markets reported a 42 percent drop in first quarter profit, a year on from the early panic-buying days of the pandemic.
Net profit fell to SR57.7 million ($15.4 million) for the first three months of the year from almost SR100 million a year earlier, the company said in a Tadawul filing. Sales fell 11.9 percent over the same period to about SR2.1 billion.
The company said that the decline followed the “abnormal growth in retail sales as a result of high demand to buy groceries and food supplies,” following the coronavirus outbreak in the Kingdom last year. It also cited the closure of schools and an increase in value added tax as factors that weighed on its performance.
Supermarkets worldwide have benefited from a boom in grocery buying over the last year, especially at the start of the pandemic when supermarket shelves were stripped of essential items as consumers went in to panic buying mode. As restaurants and cafes closed their doors, many consumers compensated by buying more food to consume at home.
Now global supermarket chains are adjusting to the return of more normal consumer purchasing patterns as lockdowns are lifted and economies re-open.
Sainsbury’s CEO Simon Roberts said on Wednesday that that while customers shopping more normally would impact sales growth this year, the costs of the crisis would also fall.
“Like our customers, we are all looking forward to things feeling more normal over the coming months,” he said.


Saudi banks in a ‘sweet spot’ says fund manager

Saudi banks in a ‘sweet spot’ says fund manager
Updated 06 May 2021

Saudi banks in a ‘sweet spot’ says fund manager

Saudi banks in a ‘sweet spot’ says fund manager
  • Shareek program to boost corporate borrowing
  • Saudi banks well positioned with low cost of funding and deposits

DUBAI: Saudi banks are in a “sweet spot” to tap rising corporate and mortgage lending according to a top regional fund manager.
It comes after a rampant rise in the stock price of the Kingdom’s big lenders.
“I think Saudi banks in general are in a sweet spot,” Hedi Ben Mlouka, CEO and founder of FIM partners, told Bloomberg TV on Thursday. “You are seeing growth no longer coming from a low base, we are talking big numbers here that move the balance sheet and the profitability of these banks. The ‘Shareek’ program is going to spur the first growth we have seen in corporate borrowing to support all this capex,” he said.
The $2.7 trillion Shareek program was announced by the Saudi government last month and aims to provide incentives for publicly quoted companies to channel dividend payments into long-term investment in the Kingdom.
“The Saudi banks are in the best position to take advantage of that because their cost of funding and cost of deposits is low,” said Mlouka. “The Islamic banks are the best positioned from that perspective because they have the lowest cost of funding.”
Saudi banks have been among the best performers among regional publicly traded stocks in the first quarter, with the shares of Tadawul-listed lenders up by an average of 26 percent since the start of the year, according to Bloomberg data.
Saudi Arabia’s debt capital market is expected to grow as the Kingdom doubles down on its Vision 2030 goals, S&P Global Ratings said this week.
The Kingdom is banking on the increasing role of its debt and equities market in financing Vision 2030, the report said, as it seeks to attract more foreign direct investments.
“We think banks will continue to play an important role in financing Vision 2030, but foresee an increased role for the local capital market,” said S&P Global Ratings credit analyst Timucin Engin in the report published Tuesday.


Sadara first quarter profit surges on chemical prices increase, debt rejig

Sadara first quarter profit surges on chemical prices increase, debt rejig
Updated 06 May 2021

Sadara first quarter profit surges on chemical prices increase, debt rejig

Sadara first quarter profit surges on chemical prices increase, debt rejig
  • Q1 comprehensive income was SR2.04 billion vs. a loss of SR2.24 billion
  • Sadara booked a gain of SR1.05 billion on debt restructuring

DUBAI: Sadara Chemical Company reported a surge in profit in the first quarter as the price of its products increased and it booked a sizeable gain from the restructuring of its debts.
First quarter total comprehensive income rose to SR2.04 billion ($544 million) compared with a loss of SR2.24 billion in the year-earlier period and a profit of SR109 million in the fourth quarter of 2020, Sadara said in a filing to the Tadawul.
Revenue increased 80 percent year on year and 31 percent from the previous quarter to SR4.42 billion. Profit per share was SR0.44, compared with a loss of SR0.37 a year earlier.
The improved performance was attributed to “higher selling prices, continuous financial discipline, and the recognition of a modification gain of SR1.05 billion from debt re-profiling,” the company said.
Sadara, a joint venture between Saudi Aramco and Dow Chemical, joins other Tadawul-listed Saudi petrochemical producers in reporting a rebound in first-quarter profit.
The sector reported net profits of SR8.5 billion in Q1 compared with collective losses of SR3.2 billion over the same period in 2020, according to data from financial information website Argaam.
Saudi petrochemicals giant SABIC, which accounts for 57 percent of total earnings in the sector, last month reported that its Q1 profits had more than doubled to SR4.86 billion compared to the previous quarter and rebounding from a loss of SR1.05 billion in Q1 2020.
Nine petrochemical companies, including SABIC, were back in the black after reporting losses last year.
Saudi Aramco said in late March it restructured its debt financing for Sadara Chemical Company. The Saudi national oil company also said an agreement had been reached to allocate more natural gas feedstock to the joint venture, which has been building the world’s biggest chemical complex ever delivered in a single phase, in Jubail.
Sahara International Petrochemical Company (Sipchem), which had reported profit after Zakat and tax of SR451 million, said today it had delivered SR136 million in synergies in 2020, or 78 percent of its target in half the timeframe.
Saudi International Petrochemical Company completed its $2 billion merger with Sahara in May 2019. It has a goal of SR175 million of synergies by May 20222, it said in an investor presentation.