INTERVIEW: Cash is no longer king at Middle East checkouts, says Network International CEO Simon Haslam

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Updated 06 September 2020

INTERVIEW: Cash is no longer king at Middle East checkouts, says Network International CEO Simon Haslam

  • The Dubai-based executive explains why folding money is a thing of the past

Here is a personal insight into the changes in regional retailing during the pandemic: Spinneys shoppers have virtually given up paying with cash.

The big queue in my local branch in Dubai is now for the automated payment machines, rather than the physical checkouts, and even at the tills payment is overwhelmingly by card or phone app rather than cash.

I talked to Simon Haslam, Dubai-based CEO of Network International — the company that processes most of those electronic payments in the UAE and beyond — to find out why. “COVID-19 is accelerating the shift from cash to digital. What’s so exciting about my business is that the Middle East and Africa is one of the last regions where this shift is happening, and that presents big opportunities for us even with the short-term disruption of the pandemic,” he told Arab News.

After many years in the payments and banking business with some of the biggest corporations in the world and in places as varied as Brazil and eastern Europe, Haslam joined Network in 2017 and led the company to an initial public offering (IPO) in London last year.

But even his wide experience could not have prepared him for what happened earlier this year.

“We were having a good year until February, and then the lights just turned off. We noticed first that fewer Chinese were coming and spending, and then the situation changed rapidly. By the end of April volumes were 60 percent down,” he said.

In normal times, about 25 percent of his business comes from foreign visitor spending, which virtually vanished overnight when air travel was halted, also hitting online payments for flights, a significant part of Network’s volume.

 

Things have improved since the UAE began to reopen, and he said that domestic volumes are now 90 percent back to pre-COVID levels.

But there has been a distinct shift in retail behavior. Network experienced a 60 percent growth in online business by the end of June, and although this is “flattening” now that malls and stores are open again, it could have permanent effects.

“There has been a shift to ‘omni-channel’ shopping, with people browsing in the malls and then going home to buy online, for example, or ‘click and collect,’ when shoppers choose online and then go to the store to pick up,” Haslam said.

Some analysts have forecast the “death of the mall,” but he does not agree. “I don’t believe so. Malls in this part of the world are destinations in their own right, especially in the summer,” he said.

But, as my Spinneys observations suggested, the move away from cash seems irreversible. Before the pandemic, about 80 percent of transactions were in folding money, a stark contrast to Scandinavia, for example, where 90 percent of transactions are cashless. But that has changed across all groups of consumers, from the most affluent down to the less well-off, as measured by Network’s customer metrics.

The Middle East and Africa have all the ingredients for that change to quicken — sustained long-term economic development, a young tech-savvy population, and advanced payment systems like the ones Network provides. Even the hit to spending from the pandemic will prove to be only temporary. “COVID-19 is just a short-term disruption in that long-term transition,” he said.

Haslam believes that anything like a return to pre-pandemic normality in the UAE will depend on what happens with tourism. “We are open for business, but people are still not willing to travel,” he said.


BIO

BORN: North London, 1961.

EDUCATION

  • Tottenham Secondary School.
  • Fellow, Chartered Institute of Bankers.

CAREER

  • Various positions, HSBC. 
  • Head of Credit and Risk, Citigroup credit cards.
  • President and CEO, Elavon.

The transition is also happening in Saudi Arabia, which has lagged behind other parts of the region in the move away from cash. Network had big plans for the Kingdom before the pandemic struck. “We announced pre-COVID that we intended to enter Saudi Arabia. We’ve been excited and bullish about it for a long time and we said we would spend $25 million on establishing our business there primarily through the build of a data center and . . . our platform, because in Saudi Arabia you have to have technology on the ground, because that is their rules,” he said.

Network had discussions with the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority to use its technology in a “sandbox” trial. It was already doing business in the Kingdom via its big UAE partner Emirates NBD.

The pandemic has delayed that initiative, but not for long. “We wanted a more solid economic outlook, and we are fortunate we have the balance sheet and the liquidity. Our ambitions in the Kingdom are not diminished, but paused,” he said.

The Saudi project will restart toward the end of this year, but again exact timing will depend on how quickly borders and airports will reopen. “We have to physically have staff there on the ground,” he said.

Haslam believes Network’s move into the Kingdom should not be seen as a threat to its existing payments structures or its banking systems. “I’m not going to market there and take their customers. I’m an enabler for them to provide digital technology to banks and financial institutions. We’re going to help drive the changes of Vision 2030,” he said.

 

The Saudi launch will be the second big international expansion for Network since the IPO. Last year, it paid $288 million for the Kenya-based payments business DPO Group, mainly with money raised via the London listing, to get ownership of the biggest payments group in Africa with a presence in 19 countries.

“DPO ticks all the boxes. It was top of our acquisition list and had been for some time,” Haslam said.

Other acquisitions could follow, but none are likely to be as big as DPO, at least for the time being. Growth in market share is not dependent on buying businesses, he added.

The financial firepower for “selective acquisitions” was one of the reasons for the listing in London, as well as the “strong governance and liquidity” of the UK capital. “We chose the London Stock Exchange because we are an international business growing rapidly. A lot of emerging markets investors have their headquarters in London, and both the City and the US have a long history of understanding payments systems,” Haslam said.

The listing valued Network at some £2.6 billion ($3.5 billion) soon after trading began in the shares in April 2019, and was an opportunity for some long-term investors, including Emirates NBD, to cash in their investment in Network, although ENBD remains a shareholder with 5 percent of the stock.

Long-term partner Mastercard holds 9.9 percent of the shares and has the “same desire” to improve the payments systems in the region. Network has relationships with all the other main credit card companies, too.

The stock initially performed well, but halved in the period between last December and April, when the full ravages of the pandemic were becoming clear.

Other forces may have been at work on the share price also. UAE-based companies were coming under investor scrutiny as the full extent of the NMC Healthcare fraud was emerging; Finablr, another Emirates financial payments company, was also crashing because of the management links it shared with NMC. Meanwhile, Wirecard, yet another financial payments firm, was in its death throes after an attack by determined fraudsters.

Did Network shares suffer because of a perceived connection with these scandals? Is there an inherent vulnerability in financial technology companies that leaves them prone to fraudulent attack?

Haslam does not want to talk about specific cases, beyond saying that his business model was “fundamentally different” from that of the German company Wirecard. But he is quick to point out some other contrasts between his company and the fraud victims. “Where Network is different is that our business has not grown out of a founder-led model. We have a team of experts who for many years have been working in companies governed by UK and US regulators, and who are used to operating in that kind of environment.”

He also pointed to the long list of blue-chip investors who came on the share register at the time of the IPO . “None of them have been selling, and they all participated in fund-raising for the Africa deal,” Haslam said.

It appears likely that when the airports open and the tourists return, Network International will get back on the expansion path once more. Who knows what the Spinneys checkout will look like by then?


Saudi group wins Subway master franchise deal in UAE

Updated 37 sec ago

Saudi group wins Subway master franchise deal in UAE

  • In Europe, Middle East, and Africa, Subway plans to double its number of restaurants across the region in the coming years

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia’s Kamal Osman Jamjoom Group on Tuesday signed a master franchise agreement with Subway in the UAE as the restaurant brand seeks to expand its footprint in the region.

The deal marked the start of a new chapter for Subway in the UAE as it seeks to expand its footprint and remain competitive in the market.

“Subway is making bold and impressive changes to continue to grow its presence in markets around the world,” said Hisham Al-Amoudi, Group CEO of Kamal Osman Jamjoom Group.

“As Subway continues to expand internationally, we are focused on attracting well-established, large-scale operators in regions where they can leverage market expertise to help our brand thrive,” said CEO John Chidsey.

Established in 1987, Kamal Osman Jamjoom Group is a major franchise industry player in the Middle East with 675 stores across seven countries, making it one of the largest franchise networks in the region. They are a valued partner to some of the world’s most iconic brands, such as The Body Shop, LEGO, and Early Learning Center.

The group’s “deep knowledge of the Middle East and experience strengthening and expanding other global franchisee brands makes them the ideal partner in the UAE,” Mike Kehoe, EMEA president at Subway.

In Europe, Middle East, and Africa, Subway plans to double its number of restaurants across the region in the coming years and will continue to seek strong partners to support the brand on its journey.

The agreement will enable significant growth in the UAE in the coming years  including accelerated deployment of restaurant remodels — featuring a new, modern “Fresh Forward” design — as well as improved, consistent guest experiences, both on- and off-premise.


France’s OVHCloud takes first step toward IPO and hopes to raise around $470m

Updated 20 September 2021

France’s OVHCloud takes first step toward IPO and hopes to raise around $470m

  • OVHCloud hopes the IPO will “accelerate its growth trajectory and consolidate its European leadership position while continuing to expand in North America and Asia”

PARIS: French cloud computing services provider OVHcloud said it was hoping to raise 400 million euros ($468.64 million) via the issuance of new shares as part of a planned initial public offering (IPO) on the Paris stock market.
OVHCloud hopes the IPO will “accelerate its growth trajectory and consolidate its European leadership position while continuing to expand in North America and Asia,” the company said, as it released its IPO registration document.
The family-owned company added on Monday that it was targeting a revenue growth of 10-15 percent for 2022 and an organic revenue growth rate in the mid-twenties by 2025.
These growth targets would be achieved while maintaining an adjusted EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization) margin in line with the fiscal 2020 level.
No dividend payments were anticipated in the mid-term with cash-flows expected to be re-invested in line with the company’s accelerating growth trajectory, it added.
Following the IPO, the Klaba family will retain a substantial majority stake in OVHcloud.
The company had initially announced its IPO plans in March, two days before a major blaze destroyed one of its data centers in eastern France — a disaster that had raised concerns about its capacity to go public.
In June, OVHCloud re-committed to an IPO but provided no timetable.


ACWA Power bets big on Uzbekistan growth

Updated 19 September 2021

ACWA Power bets big on Uzbekistan growth

  • ACWA has invested about $1.2 billion in Uzbekistan thus far
  • ACWA plans to contribute to $100 million Uzbekistan fund

MOSCOW/RIYADH: In the crowded corridors of the Hilton Tashkent City, ACWA Power Chairman Mohammad Abunayyan talks quietly with key delegates of the Islamic Development Bank’s annual meeting in Uzbekistan, who approach him one after another.

Abunayyan, a lean, middle-aged, intelligent-looking man is celebrating with the bank's officials the launch of the $100 million Economic Empowerment Fund for Uzbekistan earlier this month. 

ACWA Power is planning on becoming one of the Saudi investors that will make up 45 percent of the fund, which is also being financed with money from the Islamic Development Bank and the Uzbek government.

ACWA’s contribution would be the latest in a long line of investments in the Central Asian nation, where the utility now has assets worth $4.6 billion having invested about $1.2 billion, according to the prospectus for its initial public offering that was launched earlier this month.

Although that is less than one tenth of the SR248 billion ($66 billion) of assets ACWA has accumulated globally since it was established in 2004 with what Abunayaan describes as a small equity investment. Abunayaan joined the board in 2008.



Beyond its home market in Saudi Arabia, ACWA also owns assets in Oman, UAE, Bahrain and Jordan.

Still, Uzbekistan is an important market for ACWA Power.

In 2020, the company was awarded three projects: Sirdarya Combined-Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT) independent power producer (IPP) with 1,500 MW of gross contracted power capacity; the 500 MW Bash Wind IPP; and the 500 MW Dzhankeldy Wind IPP.

The company’s fourth and largest Uzbek asset in Uzbekistan is the Karakalpakstan 1,500 MW Wind IPP project, valued at $2 billion. The Karakalpakstan, Bash and Dzhankeldy projects are at advanced stages of development and Sirdarya IPP is under construction.



ACWA Power’s investments in Uzbekistan represent a sizeable chunk of total foreign direct investment (FDI) that the country has received in recent years.

“Uzbekistan attracted $2 billion in FDI in 2020 and targets another $5 billion this year,” Atabek Nazirov, director general of the Direct Investment Fund of Uzbekistan, told Arab News on the sidelines of the IDB’s two-day conference on Sept. 3.

Such investments mean a long-term relationship between ACWA Power and Uzbekistan.

“[In our projects] we need to lay the foundation for a long-term partnership, this is a relationship that lasts for 20, 25, 30 years,” Tom Teerlynck, executive vice president of ACWA Power, said during a panel discussion organized by the Islamic Corporation for Insurance of Investments and Export Credits.

“The early years go very smoothly because everybody is happy — agreements signed, infrastructure is being built, the services being provided,” he said. “But problems come in later when people in ministries or private companies change. So, it’s very important to lay very robust foundations.”

Uzbekistan officials are confident that ongoing reforms will propel economic growth, despite the global shock caused by COVID-19.

“In 2020, Uzbekistan was the only economy in the Central Asia region that did not have a negative gross domestic product [GDP],” said Direct Investment Fund of Uzbekistan’s Nazirov. “We were able to achieve just above 1 percent growth.”

The government is forecasting economic growth of 6.5 percent this year although that is a conservative scenario and it is hoping for closer to 7 percent, Ilhom Norkulov, Uzbekistan’s deputy minister of economic development and poverty reduction, told Arab News at the IDB meeting.

“For the next five years our target is to increase GDP to $100 billion so we are working to create conditions for the economy to grow 6-7 percent a year,” he said.

However, Uzbekistan’s economy is facing tailwinds in the form of a high inflation rate – expected at 10-11 percent this year – unemployment of 10.5 percent in 2020 (up from 5.8 percent in 2017) and a decline in average monthly wages to a low of $226 in the fourth quarter of 2018 from a peak of $415 in 2016, but back to $280 in the second quarter 2021, according to official data.

Government officials say they are fully aware of the issues, and maintaining economic reforms and income growth should ease the employment and wage conditions over the long run.


Lebanon’s soaring inflation led by 250 percent jump in fuel costs amid currency slump

Updated 18 September 2021

Lebanon’s soaring inflation led by 250 percent jump in fuel costs amid currency slump

  • Lebanese CPI jumped 123 percent in the year to July 2021
  • Food and non-alcoholic beverages prices rose 248 percent

DUBAI: Lebanese residents were forced to pay more than double for consumer goods in July compared with a year earlier as prices soared amid a partial lifting of fuel subsidies and a record plunge in the local currency.

The latest data from Lebanon’s Central Administration of Statistics shows the consumer price index leaped 123 percent year-on-year last month as officials struggled to contain an economic meltdown the likes of which have not been seen since the end of the country’s 1975-1990 civil war.

The biggest contributor to surging prices has been the cost of transportation, which soared by 253 percent from July 2020, reflecting the rise in fuel costs after the previous government priced gasoline at the exchange rate of 3,900 pounds to the dollar in June. Two months later, the central bank began providing fuel importers with dollars at an exchange rate of 8,000 pounds to the dollar.

The Lebanese pound has been officially pegged at 1,507.5 pounds to the dollar since 1997, but is worth a lot less on the black market. Following the resignation of former Prime Minister-Designate Saad Hariri in July, it plummeted to a record 24,000 per dollar.

This pushed prices of food and non-alcoholic beverages up by 248 percent in the year to July 2021, while health care services rose by 178 percent. Prices at restaurants and hotels grew 246 percent and clothing and footwear prices almost doubled.

The formation of Najib Mikati’s government last week, following a 13-month political vacuum, provided Lebanese with slight reprieve.

The pound stabilized at around 14,000 to the dollar on Thursday amid the new government’s pledges for reforms and a resumption of talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which had hit a dead-end following bickering over the size of the banking sector’s losses.

Reforms demanded by the international community include a forensic audit of the central bank’s accounts and a restructuring of the banking sector.

On Thursday, a meeting took place at the Economy Ministry with the president of the syndicate of supermarket owners and the president of the syndicate of food importers to discuss lowering the prices of goods.

The meeting touched on a new pricing mechanism for goods in the wake of the Lebanese pound’s surge, with new economy minister Amine Salam saying that ” both unions have committed to start reducing the prices of commodities.”

“The ministry will not tolerate this issue and will be strict in monitoring price,” he said.


Saudi mining law will attract ‘incredible’ private investment to $1.3 trillion sector: Golden Compass CEO

Updated 19 September 2021

Saudi mining law will attract ‘incredible’ private investment to $1.3 trillion sector: Golden Compass CEO

  • The Saudi Industrial Development Fund is also offering 60 percent loans to investors in a bid to attract global players into the Kingdom
  • Alcoa Group, The Mosaic Co. and Barrick Gold have invested in the Kingdom's mining sector

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s new mining law will attract private investment from home and abroad as the Kingdom looks to exploit an estimated $1.3 trillion of potential value in the sector, according to Meshary Al-Ali, founder and CEO of mining consultancy Golden Compass.

In January, the Kingdom moved to capitalize on the vast wealth hidden below ground in Saudi Arabia with the establishment of a mining fund and support for geological surveys and exploration program activities.

The Saudi Industrial Development Fund is also offering 60 percent loans to investors in a bid to attract global players into the Kingdom, while the Ministry of Industry and Mineral Resources is investing $3.7 billion in the sector.

The deputy minister of Industry and Mineral Resources Khaled Al-Mudaifer talked up the potential riches beneath the Kingdom’s soil last month, telling CNBC that studies have estimated $1.3 trillion in reserves of phosphates, gold, copper, zinc, nickel, rare earth metals and other minerals.

Speaking to Arab News, Al-Ali was confident the Kingdom’s enthusiasm for the sector would attract worldwide attention.

FASTFACTS

Studies have estimated $1.3 trillion in reserves of phosphates, gold, copper, zinc, nickel, rare earth metals and other minerals in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi Geological Survey has announced 54 locations for exploration, with more to be revealed soon.

The Kingdom has already attracted major international investors.

“It’s a very flexible and very transparent system, and it’s one of the most powerful in mining around the world,” Al-Ali said. “The system is new and it can encourage investors to come to Saudi Arabia.”

Under Vision 2030, mining is the third pillar of Saudi Arabia’s economic development, after energy and petrochemicals, as it aims to diversify the country’s economy away from dependency on oil.

The Saudi Geological Survey has announced 54 locations for exploration, with more to be revealed in the coming months that will be auctioned to investors.

The National Geological Database is being created to allow investors to find the locations of mineral deposits in a bid to increase the transparency and competitiveness of the sector in Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom has already attracted major international investors, including US firm Alcoa Corp., which has a 25.1 percent stake in Ma’aden Bauxite and Alumina Co., and Ma’aden Aluminium Co., as part of $10.8 billion joint venture with Saudi miner Ma’aden, located in Ras Al-Khair Industrial City in the eastern province.

Fertilizer producer The Mosaic Co., another US company, has a 25 percent stake in the $8 billion Ma’aden Wa’ad Al-Shamal Fertilizer Production Complex located in Wa’ad Al-Shamal Minerals Industrial City in the northern province of Saud Arabia.

Canada’s Barrick Gold Corp. has a 50 percent stake with Ma’aden in the Jabal Sayid underground copper mine and plant.

“The private sector contribution will be incredible within the next couple of years,” said Al-Ali.

The mining sector is expected to create thousands of jobs in the Kingdom in the coming years with the goal of 256,000 geologists, engineers and others by 2030, he said.

“The ambitions will be reflected in a doubling of the sector’s contribution to GDP,” said Al-Ali.

“The income for the mining sector was above SR96 billion ($26 billion) in 2020 and we are targeting SR176 billion by 2030.”