EXCLUSIVE: Emirati tycoon Khalaf Al-Habtoor plans multimillion-dollar Saudi leisure project

Khalaf Al-Habtoor
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Updated 19 January 2020

EXCLUSIVE: Emirati tycoon Khalaf Al-Habtoor plans multimillion-dollar Saudi leisure project

  • In an exclusive interview, the Al-Habtoor boss reveals his views on the Kingdom, the UAE economy, Trump and Iran

A word often used to describe Khalaf Al-Habtoor — founder and chairman of Al-Habtoor Group, and one of the Middle East’s most venerable business leaders — is “forthright.”

His tweets, TV broadcasts and public statements all display a quality of candid outspokenness rare in senior business leadership in the Arab world.

In the course of an early morning conversation at his headquarters in Dubai last week, he was forthright on a host of subjects, ranging from ambitious expansion plans in Saudi Arabia to the challenges faced by the UAE economy and the global geopolitical scene.

Al-Habtoor is not a man given to diffidence, though he said he would not be sharing his views with the “global elite” preparing to travel to the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos next week. “We leave that for the really big people. It’s really entertainment rather than anything else,” he joked.

Entertainment and leisure have been the mainstays of the Al-Habtoor business empire, which is as old as the UAE itself and one of the country’s best-known brands, with interests in construction, real estate, motor distribution and education.

The group has hotel operations in Europe and the US, but the chairman is now looking at Saudi Arabia as a major avenue for expansion, with a multimillion-dollar investment project planned for the Kingdom. The opportunities are mind-boggling, he told Arab News.

“I call Saudi Arabia a continent rather than a country. It has history before Moses and Abraham,” he said.

“We’re seeing now on TV something we’ve never seen before — we see green fields, we see skiing, we see sun and desert. You can’t believe this is the Arabian Peninsula,” he added.

“That makes it very attractive to every tourist or investor because they have variety, because you’re not restricted to one area or sector where you want to build something. You have a choice as to what you can do.”

Al-Habtoor has chosen — in partnership with the Saudi tourism authorities — to back a huge leisure and recreation project outside Riyadh.

It will draw on the successful Habtoor City development in his native Dubai but on a much bigger scale: Up to 7 million square meters of hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail and residential facilities, and — imagine it — lakes and beaches. “You’ll ask me now where does the beach come from in Riyadh. We’ll create it,” he said.

The project is still at the planning stage and subject to final approval from all parties.

It will borrow some of the elements from the successful Habtoor City development in Dubai, notably a Saudi version of the spectacular theatrical production La Perle. But it will not be a straightforward copy of the Dubai attraction, nor indeed of the Dubai development strategy.

“In Dubai, we don’t have oil. If we were dependent on oil, we wouldn’t be like this now. Saudi Arabia has a bigger population — 30 million people, 90 percent of them Saudi, who want to enjoy their lives and their history,” he said.

Born:

• Dubai, UAE.

Education:

• Al-Shaab School, Bur Dubai.

Career:

• Founder and chairman, Al-Habtoor Group.

“We in the rest of the Gulf haven’t seen this history, and I personally would like to go and see this history and see Riyadh, the Eastern Province and the Red Sea.”

Al-Habtoor believes that the Kingdom can use the lessons of Dubai’s development, especially in creating a more liberal social and cultural environment in what is generally regarded as a more conservative country.

“The word ‘conservative’ needs some explanation. The people of Saudi and the UAE are from the same background, the same family. We’re related. When they visit us, they see that,” he said.

“The original people of the UAE are conservative by background, too, but they also enjoy going to restaurants, to the movies, to the theater. They want to go everywhere. They want to be free,” he added, while allowing that there are limitations to freedom.

“Freedom doesn’t mean you should abuse your country, your people or the authorities. You have to protect your culture by educating other people.”

On the question of whether alcohol could ever be served in Saudi Arabia as it is in Habtoor’s UAE establishments, he replied:  “To be honest, I can’t comment on that because I don’t know what their plan is for that.

“But everything is changing, everything is possible,” he added.

The Vision 2030 “masterplan” is changing perceptions of the Kingdom, he said. “It really is an excellent strategy. Everything is clear and transparent. There is a huge future for Saudi Arabia as far as investment and visitors and tourists are concerned.”

Al-Habtoor Group has interests in many sectors of the UAE economy, and from this position the chairman is well qualified to give an authoritative opinion on the challenges facing the country as it prepares for the Expo 2020 business exhibition.

The most pressing worry for economic analysts has been the oversupply of residential and hotel developments, and rising prices that some believe are forcing expatriate workers out of the UAE.

“Well, 2018 wasn’t a very good year, and 2019 was also very slow in the beginning, but by the end of the fourth quarter you could see the signs of improvement in the market. You could see it in retail, things were moving. In the land department, people were buying and selling land and real estate,” he said.

In his car-leasing business, in real estate, luxury cars and his education business, he saw signs that the UAE economy was picking up again. “Definitely. I can see improvement,” he said.

But the volume cars business was lagging, reflecting different spending patterns by expats who often now choose to rent a car long term rather than buy. The rising cost of living was also a big factor, he said.

“Everything is becoming more expensive. The only cheap thing in the country is hotel rooms — they’re among the cheapest in the world,” he added.

“There are too many hotel rooms and residential developments, and it’s not recommended that we should build more.”

The UAE government has taken some measures to limit supply of real estate and hotel projects, which Al-Habtoor thinks is a good thing.

But the introduction of VAT was, in his view, a damaging economic mistake that should be rectified immediately.

“I think it should be cancelled, and also all the money taken should be refunded. The idea of VAT is wrong in my country for the time being. Maybe in the future,” he said.

He would prefer to see the cancellation of sales tax and the scrapping of government fees for services such as visas and business licenses, replaced by a standard rate of income tax.

“I’d recommended they stop all the fees and VAT and let them take from income, like Britain, for example,” he said.

In international affairs, his opinion of US President Donald Trump has wavered between condemnation of his policy to ban travel from some Muslim countries, to warm approval of his current policy toward the Middle East.

Now Al-Habtoor seems overwhelmingly positive on Trump and would like to see him re-elected.

“I said that we need a businessman rather than a politician to lead the world. But whatever he said in the past I think it was just to get elected, and a lot of his supporters didn’t know about us, the Arabs,” Al-Habtoor said.

“They don’t know whether we were terrorists or good people. There are a lot of naive people in the US.”

In particular, he is a firm supporter of Trump’s recent policy toward Iran, though he feels that US sanctions could be better focused.

“If Trump wants to make (Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali) Khamenei and his gangs starve to death, he can do that. So I can’t understand why he isn’t doing that,” Al-Habtoor said.

“There are sanctions, but he’s not killing the rich people. They still eat caviar and the best steaks while the poor people are starving.”

On the US killing of Qassem Soleimani, Al-Habtoor is in complete agreement that it was the right thing to do, but hinted that he believed there was Iranian collusion in the attack.

“It should’ve happened a long time ago. He was the biggest criminal on earth. I think maybe the Iranians wanted him gone, too, otherwise how could the Americans have tracked him? But what happened is good, it doesn’t matter who did it,” Al-Habtoor said.

He is adamant that there should be no further escalation in regional tensions, but believes the next big threat will come from Hezbollah, Iran’s ally in Lebanon.

“I think Hezbollah is more powerful than Iran, and I think (Hezbollah leader) Hassan Nasrallah is the biggest threat to peace in the region,” Al-Habtoor said with forthright finality.

Related


INTERVIEW: All eyes on Starzplay as lockdown reaps rewards

Updated 05 July 2020

INTERVIEW: All eyes on Starzplay as lockdown reaps rewards

  • CEO Mazen Sheikh sees business soar as Saudi viewers turn to streaming services

Mazen Sheikh has had a good lockdown.

The founder and CEO of Starzplay, the Middle East’s leading entertainment streaming channel, saw his business soar as curfews, social distancing and travel restrictions left people with little to do apart from slump in front of a TV and binge watch for hours on end.

“I think when the whole situation was unfolding, we were trying to think which way is up and which was down, both on a personal level and also as a company — what it means for our subscribers. It was nerve-wracking in the beginning,” Mazen Sheikh told Arab News.

In the region, it was Starzplay subscribers chose to watch, rather than Netflix or other streaming services, in English and in Arabic.

“What we benefited from, of course, was all the people staying home, but one of the things that worked in our favor was that we are an organization based and headquartered here, and we were able to adapt and localize our services much faster than anyone else,” he said.

“In Saudi Arabia, you can sign up for Starzplay via STC, Mobily or any of the other services. You can sign up with your mobile phone number. Netflix came to this region with a very US-centric mindset, thinking that everyone had a credit card and that having a credit card is a norm in the world. In fact, the reality is different, especially in Saudi. Not everyone has a credit card,” he added.

“So, through one bill where you pay your landline and your broadband, you can also have access to Starzplay on the same bill. You can just download onto your smart TV,” he added.

Starzplay has been in business for five years, and while it is probably not as well known as Netflix, it has been making big inroads into the region, especially Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom accounts for 40 percent of total revenue, while almost half of all consumption in the Middle East and North Africa region comes from Saudi viewers.

And what have they been watching during the long weeks of lockdown? 

Lots of “Vikings,” “The Office” and Turkish-made romantic soap “Jusoor Wal Jamila.” 

Saudis on average watched more than 18 hours of Starzplay in May, compared with less than 12 a year before.


BIO

BORN: Islamabad 1970.

EDUCATION

  • Schooling in Dubai, UAE.
  • Oklahoma State University, US.
  • University of Kansas, MBA.

CAREER

  • Various executive roles in media and communications, US.
  • Chief sales and operations officer, OSN, Dubai.
  • CEO and founder, Starzplay.

“The beauty is that everyone has a mobile phone. We were there in the market with the right product, the right content, but also the right distribution so the masses can actually sign up for our service. It really benefited us.

“It was not just that we were a streaming service. The whole category benefited from the lockdown, but we were the only one in the market that had this kind of distribution and payment arrangements. We were the only one available to the masses,” Sheikh said.

It is not just the distribution platform that is different from Netflix. Starzplay takes a distinct stance on content, too, as Sheikh explained.

“Our industry is evolving in a simple and predictable way. What is happening is that the more Netflix has gone into its own originals, the more studios see them as a competitor. So studios have been pulling their content away from Netflix.

“Until now, with what comes out of Hollywood and the UK, 95 percent of English-language content was produced by seven or eight studios. In the UK it’s the likes of the BBC and ITV, while in the US it’s Warner, Disney, Sony, Showtime, CBS, all the major studios,” he said.

“So, the way the industry is evolving is that if you want Netflix originals, you go to Netflix, if you want anything else you go to Starzplay,” he said.

Sheikh reeled off an impressive list of top shows on his platform. “Big Bang Theory,” “Billions,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Britannia” are among them, while younger viewers soak up “The Flash,” “Supergirl” and other DC titles made by Warner Studios.

Starzplay has also made its first foray into original content, tailored for a Middle East audience, with the series “Baghdad Central.”

“Data is the new oil, they say, and ‘Baghdad Central’ was the result of our experience over five years of consumption history, with billions and billions of minutes consumed. So based on what people were consuming in our key markets and with those insights, we produced our first original,” Sheikh said.

“Baghdad Central” was launched in March with a big name Hollywood actor — Corey Stoll from the award-winning series “House of Cards” — as well as top British and Arab actors.

“We wanted to bring a show to the region that combined the best of the three. It was shot in Morocco in partnership with UK and US producers,” he explained.

That kind of content has pulled in the viewers during lockdown. The figures show Starzplay hit a peak of 6.5 million daily minutes of consumption in Saudi Arabia in the middle of April, compared with about 2 million before the pandemic lockdowns.

Existing viewers are also watching more. The average Saudi spent 28 minutes daily in front of a Starzplay show before the lockdown. That more than doubled to one hour as movement outside the home was restricted.

“To put that into perspective, it took us five years to go from zero to 2 million minutes a day, and it took us six weeks to go from 2 million to 6.5 million. We did more consumption growth in six weeks than we did in the first five years,” Sheikh said.

He is reluctant to forecast how many of these consumers will stay with Starzplay as the lockdowns are eased around the world and the region. 

“I’m expecting some churn, so it’s tough to predict what the base will look like later in the year. We saw tremendous growth, but as the lockdown eases I think we’ll see some churn on those subscribers,” he said.

But even as the lockdown are eased significantly in the region, consumers are not going back to pre-pandemic levels. There is likely to be a permanent shift in demand for Starzplay in the “new normal” environment.

“Unlike Netflix, one of the challenges we had in the region is that the brand awareness and content awareness of our service was comparatively low. One of the things that has happened is that because of increasing demand and awareness, people got to find out about Starzplay. People experienced that and connected the content to our brand.

“That is going to be an enduring and lasting benefit for our company. You cannot unlearn it. I’m expecting some churn in high sign-ups and reduced consumption volumes, but the lasting benefit we’re hoping for is the brand awareness and content awareness that was created,” he said.

That kind of growth is likely to accelerate Starzplay’s evolution from a privately funded startup to a listed public company. It has raised $125 million over its five years, from some pretty impressive investors, including US media giant Lionsgate, the big financial firm State Street Global Advisers, and Nordic investment firm SEQ, which backed Starzplay from the beginning.

With profitability just around the corner, Sheikh does not see the need for further funding, especially as investment sources have dried up during the uncertainty of the pandemic period.

“During COVID times, when consumption and new subscribers were going through the roof, the flip side was that we realized that capital markets were going to be out for 2020. Lucky for us, we are well capitalized, and we are not in a situation where we need to use funds. This is not a good time to be out there raising money,” he said.

“The goal is to serve our customers and also create shareholder value. There are multiple ways of doing that. One is that you generate cash and shareholders benefit from cash dividends. That’s the traditional model. The more high-growth model that is more applicable to companies like us is shareholders push for more growth and expansion to increase the enterprise value of the company,” he said.

Sheikh has set his medium-term sights on a public listing. “In the long run the goal is to continue to grow the business, and in the next three to five years to get into a position where we can list the company on the London Stock Exchange.

“We haven’t absolutely decided that, as it’s so far out. I’d say what we’re looking to do is list ourselves, and if not in London, then other markets, local or London. That’s the ambition, to look to IPO on London or other markets. We’re not there yet. We’re still two to three years away from a decision, but that’s our ambition,” he said.