Frankly Speaking: ‘The future of retail is both physical and digital – phygital’, says MAF CEO Alain Bejjani

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Updated 29 November 2021

Frankly Speaking: ‘The future of retail is both physical and digital – phygital’, says MAF CEO Alain Bejjani

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

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.




Alain Bejjani, CEO of the Majid Al Futtaim group

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.”


READ MORE

How Majid Al Futtaim is getting to grips with the coronavirus ‘tsunami’


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.




Frank Kane hosts Frankly Speaking: Watch more episodes.

“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.”


READ MORE

Majid Al-Futtaim chief kicks off “humungous” Mall of Saudi project


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.”


Online Controversy: Israeli comedian’s viral satirical video mocking UAE normalization divides viewers

Noam Shuster-Eliassi, who speaks Arabic fluently and is a strong advocate of Palestinian rights, criticized the peace agreement between Israel and the UAE. (Facebook)
Noam Shuster-Eliassi, who speaks Arabic fluently and is a strong advocate of Palestinian rights, criticized the peace agreement between Israel and the UAE. (Facebook)
Updated 19 January 2022

Online Controversy: Israeli comedian’s viral satirical video mocking UAE normalization divides viewers

Noam Shuster-Eliassi, who speaks Arabic fluently and is a strong advocate of Palestinian rights, criticized the peace agreement between Israel and the UAE. (Facebook)
  • The song “Dubai, Dubai” was performed by Israeli comedian and activist Noam Shuster-Eliassi

LONDON: An Arabic-language satirical Israeli song criticising normalization between Israel and the UAE has gone viral in the Middle East this week, causing a stir online.

The song “Dubai, Dubai” was performed by Israeli comedian and activist Noam Shuster-Eliassi and appeared as part of a comedy sketch on the Arabic-language station Makan 33’s “Shu-Esmo” program.

Shuster-Eliassi, who speaks Arabic fluently and is a strong advocate of Palestinian rights, criticized the peace agreement between Israel and the UAE, highlighting the hypocrisy of Israel’s position on Arab countries. 

The parody song begins with the comedian introducing herself as “Haifa Wannabe,” a reference to the famous Arab singer Haifa Wehbe. 

Shuster-Eliassi then goes on to say that she’s “going to sing an original song I wrote in Arabic in celebration of the peace treaty with Dubai, but in general — it’s very important for me to send out a message of love and peace, particularly if it is found 4,000 kilometers away from here.”

The song’s lyrics include: “At the end of the tunnel there is light, and if only all of the Arabs, like those who are in Dubai who have money, would love the people of Israel and not throw us into the sea.

“There is nothing quite like Arabs who have millions, and who have forgotten the members of their people who underwent a Naqba, who have forgotten Palestine. In Dubai, they forgot the siege on Gaza, how nice would it be if only all the Arabs were from Dubai.”

The song went viral on Arab media outlets sparking a storm from supporters, particularly on social media sites. 

One user, Ahmad Ghanim, tweeted: “The song is a mix of Hebrew and Arabic, and speaks of cooperation between UAE and Israel against the Palestinians. It also speaks about how Arabs have forgotten about Palestine and the suffering of its people. We sincerely appreciate what (the singer) is doing.”

Another said: “This is the best thing I’ve seen on Twitter in a while.” 

Meanwhile, Shuster-Eliassi tweeted: “Have you ever recovered from covid for the 2nd time while causing a diplomatic incident with a viral video mocking a ‘peace’ agreement between 2 governments who were never at conflict, trade weapons anyways and ignore Palestinian human right? Don’t try this at home.” 

 


‘Building bridges’: Annahar opens Dubai bureau

Annahr Al-Arabi opened offices in Dubai. (Supplied)
Annahr Al-Arabi opened offices in Dubai. (Supplied)
Updated 19 January 2022

‘Building bridges’: Annahar opens Dubai bureau

Annahr Al-Arabi opened offices in Dubai. (Supplied)

LONDON: Lebanon’s Annahar Media Group announced on Wednesday the opening of its Dubai bureau, aimed at consolidating its longstanding presence in the Arab world.

“We’re building the bridges that we dream about between Lebanon and the Arab world and the Gulf,” Annahar CEO Nayla Tueni told Arab News. “I salute all the journalists who are fighting for survival in Lebanon.”

Lebanon’s ties with Arab Gulf states deteriorated over the course of 2021. Diplomats from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other countries were recalled following comments by Lebanon’s then-information minister in which he praised the Iran-backed Houthi militia and criticized the Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen. Before that, Lebanon’s then-foreign minister blamed Saudi Arabia for the rise of Daesh.

Deciding on launching a physical presence in Dubai after such a turbulent political year between Lebanon and the Gulf is a way to showcase how the country’s political squabbles do not represent its citizens, Tueni said.

During the opening ceremony at the Dubai Press Club, Mona Al-Marri, director general of the Government of Dubai Media Office, described the opening as a “historic moment” that “will take digital media to a whole new level in the Arab region” and “consolidates relations with the UAE.”

The announcement comes as newspapers in Lebanon struggle to keep their doors open in light of the country’s economic crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ramifications of the 2020 Beirut Port blast.

Annahar Al-Arabi, the newspaper’s latest edition that focuses on pan-Arab coverage, launched on August 4, 2020, the same day of the port explosion that left hundreds dead and thousands injured and homeless.


New podcast ‘Decision Points’ to highlight world-changing moments in time

New podcast ‘Decision Points’ to highlight world-changing moments in time
Updated 19 January 2022

New podcast ‘Decision Points’ to highlight world-changing moments in time

New podcast ‘Decision Points’ to highlight world-changing moments in time
  • Rising Giants Network’s original podcast will focus on historic political, financial, technological decisions

DUBAI; Middle East story-telling company Rising Giants Network has launched its first paid subscription-based podcast, “Decision Points.”

Hosted by commentator and voice artist, Abdullah Mansour, the show, recorded in Saudi dialect, will discuss moments in political, financial, and technological history that changed the world.

Basel Anabtawi, chief executive officer and co-founder of RGN, told Arab News: “Our goal is to highlight how one decision can alter the course of history.

“These decisions include moments such as when Mark Zuckerberg (CEO of Facebook) decided not to return to university resulting in the social media revolution; or when (former US President) Harry Truman decided to drop the atomic bomb, which ended World War II and started the arms race; or even when the (investment banking firm) Lehman Brothers decided to file for bankruptcy, which began a domino effect that resulted in the global recession.”

The show will pinpoint the moment these decisions were made followed by a deep dive into their consequences and aftermath.

“Decision Points” marks RGN’s foray into paid subscription-based podcasting under the banner of RGN Originals. Although the network has produced original shows before, such as “Beirut Blast,” the new show will be available on Apple Podcasts for 4.99 Emirati dirhams ($1.36).

With podcast listenership rapidly increasing in the region, the network has a new slate of shows ready to be released in the first quarter alone.

“We are planning seven new shows (under RGN Originals) at the moment, which would all be released this month,” Anabtawi said.

In March, RGN will also release a scripted show related to former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, “Al-Tikriti,” followed by “Al-Rasool,” “7 Bharat,” and the second season of “Hakawati” during Ramadan.

“This (“Decision Points”) is not our first scripted show, but we’ve learned from our previous efforts that what best retains an audience is gripping and riveting content,” Anabtawi added.

“Decision Points” consists of five episodes with a new episode dropping every month.


Netflix to add 25 new Korean titles in 2022

Netflix to add 25 new Korean titles in 2022
Updated 19 January 2022

Netflix to add 25 new Korean titles in 2022

Netflix to add 25 new Korean titles in 2022
  • Global viewing hours of Korean shows grow sixfold in a year

DUBAI: Streaming giant Netflix saw a sixfold increase in global viewing hours of its Korean shows compared with 2020.

“Squid Game,” the platform’s biggest show, led the way with a massive 95 percent of its viewership coming from outside South Korea.

The dystopian drama is the most-viewed Netflix show in 94 countries, with many of its viewers going on to explore more Korean content on the platform.

Two months after the release of “Squid Game,” Netflix launched another Korean show, “Hellbound,” which racked up 43.48 million viewing hours, making it the No.1 show in 34 countries and among the top 10 Netflix shows in 93 countries.

The Korean production “The Silent Sea,” which launched last year, also made it to the top spot on the weekly non-English top 10 lists for its premiere.

The popularity of these shows is also reflected in popular culture, with “Squid Game” merchandise and the striking costume of the characters becoming a Halloween favorite.

Netflix launched more than 130 South Korean titles between 2016 and 2021, and with the increasing popularity and demand for Korean content, the platform is set to launch 25 new shows this year.

These include shows such as “All of Us Are Dead,” “Juvenile Justice,” “Money Heist: Korea — Joint Economic Area,” and movies such as “Seoul Vibe,” “Love and Leashes” and “Carter.”

“We believe this is a slate that showcases more of the inventive and gripping Korean storytelling that the world has come to love,” said Don Kang, vice president of content for Korea, Netflix, in a blog post.

He added: “To do that, we will continue to invest in Korea’s creative ecosystem and, together, we will keep on showing the world that ‘Made in Korea’ means ‘Well-Made’.”


UK bans ad showing girl eating cheese while hanging upside down

UK bans ad showing girl eating cheese while hanging upside down. (Shutterstock)
UK bans ad showing girl eating cheese while hanging upside down. (Shutterstock)
Updated 19 January 2022

UK bans ad showing girl eating cheese while hanging upside down

UK bans ad showing girl eating cheese while hanging upside down. (Shutterstock)
  • Mondelez said the ad was aimed at parents, and had been shown only on programming for adults

LONDON: Britain’s advertising regulator has banned a TV ad that showed a girl eating cheese while hanging upside down, saying it could promote behavior that could lead to choking.
The ad for Dairylea cheese, a brand of US snacks giant Mondelez, had been shown on British video-on-demand services in August last year.
It featured two girls, aged six and eight, hanging upside down from a soccer goalpost, discussing where food went when you hang upside down. One of the girls then ate a piece of Dairylea cheese.
The Advertising Standards Authority said children could try to emulate the girls, and one person had complained that a three-year-old relative had eaten food while hanging upside down after seeing the ad.
Mondelez said the ad was aimed at parents, and had been shown only on programming for adults. The girls were close enough to the ground to be safe from falling, and adults supervising them could be seen in the background. However, the ASA concluded these were not sufficient factors to reduce the risk of harm.