Frankly Speaking: Saudi Arabia can be number one market for Rolls-Royce, says carmaker’s CEO Torsten Muller-Otvos

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Updated 27 December 2021

Frankly Speaking: Saudi Arabia can be number one market for Rolls-Royce, says carmaker’s CEO Torsten Muller-Otvos

  • With more women and young people drawn to the brand, Saudi Arabia is becoming a top Middle East market for Rolls-Royce
  • CEO Torsten Muller-Otvos says Rolls-Royce is a “frontrunner” in the electric car transition among ultra-luxury brands

DUBAI: Big changes under way in Saudi Arabia could turn the Kingdom into the top market in the Middle East for Rolls-Royce cars, Torsten Muller-Otvos, the elite motor company’s chief executive, told Arab News.

“Saudi obviously is a big market. I see even more potential to come from Saudi in the years to come because the market is currently also opening up and is growing,” said Muller-Otvos, citing the royal decree of 2017 that granted Saudi women the right to drive and obtain driving licences for the first time.

“We see now the first female drivers in our cars in Saudi and for that reason I foresee we might in a couple of years talk about this being a massive, great market. It might even one day be the number one market in the entire region. Who knows? Potential-wise, it’s possible, but it depends on some other aspects,” he added.

Muller-Otvos delivered his forecast on Frankly Speaking, the series of video interviews with thought leaders in the Middle East and the world.


In the interview, the boss of the British-designed but German-owned luxury car manufacturer set out Rolls-Royce’s road map to go completely electric, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on global and regional sales, and the effect of rising oil prices on elite car sales.

He also talked about some of the more extravagant custom features regional customers want on their cars.

The Rolls-Royce mark, founded in Britain 115 years ago but owned by BMW of Germany since 2003, is the ultimate status symbol in motoring, from California to Shanghai, but with a particular appeal among Arab buyers.

The transition currently under way in the global transportation market, with the surge in electric vehicle sales, has impacted Rolls-Royce and other petrol-engine manufacturers. Nevertheless, Muller-Otvos says Rolls-Royce is leading the way in electrification among the ultra-luxury market.

A vintage Rolls-Royce is shown during the exhibition in the King Abdullah II car museum in Amman, Jordan  Feb. 18, 2016. (Shutterstock)

“I would even say we are front-runners,” he said. “I mean, we are not comparing ourselves with what I would call the ‘normal’ automotive business. We are high in luxury. And you might also know that we are the very, very first ones in the ‘ultra-high luxury’ segment worldwide.”

The first electric Rolls-Royce, the Specter, will be available in the Middle East from 2023. “I can tell you Spectre will be a stunning, remarkable Rolls-Royce,” Muller-Otvos said. “We also took our time because, first of all, it needs to be a Rolls-Royce, so that means no compromises around luxury experiences for our clients worldwide, and then second comes, obviously, electric.”

The Spectre — which motoring pundits expect will cost around $350,000 for a starter-level vehicle — will play to Rolls-Royce’s traditional strengths. “It is also silent. We are not defining ourselves with loud engine noises or exhaust noises and for that reason I think it’s a perfect fit for the brand,” he said.

Rolls-Royce has announced that its first electric car would be made available by 2023. (Supplied)

But there were also commercial and regulatory imperatives for Rolls to get into the electric market. “We also see, worldwide, certain regulations kicking in that might mean in a couple of years you can’t enter city centers any longer without driving electric. And that, of course, would not be great for the brand.”

Elon Musk’s Tesla has so far been the headline grabber in the move to electric vehicles. Now, many traditional car companies in all the big markets are jumping on the “EV” bandwagon. However, Muller-Otvos is confident Rolls-Royce has traditional strengths in the hotly competitive market.

“Rolls-Royce never defined itself purely by the engine. That is not us. That is for other brands. We defined ourselves as the ultimate in luxury. It is about the finest materials, the best craftsmanship. It takes 1,000 hours at least to build one of these beautiful masterpieces,” he said.

Muller-Otvos also believes the move toward electric vehicles fits the shifting demographic of the Rolls-Royce clientele. “I think we will see a trend, step-by-step. Particularly the younger ones are very much attracted to electric propulsion. What we have also learned is that once you’re in an electric car, you are probably not getting back into a combustion car,” he said.

In the past, Rolls-Royce customers were overwhelmingly male, successful business executives, celebrities, or even royalty. That profile is now changing.

“When I started — and I’ve been in the role now for nearly 12 years — the average age of a Rolls-Royce customer was around 56. We are now down to 43. We have massively refurbished the brand, reinvented the brand, rejuvenated the brand. We now have young clients all over the world,” he said.

In the Middle East in particular, more women want to drive a Rolls-Royce. “When I joined, (the client base) was 1 percent female worldwide. Now we are at around 15 percent worldwide, and I think there are more to come, particularly here in the Middle East. You see quite a lot of female drivers behind the wheel. I think in the Middle East, we are talking probably 20 percent or so, and that’s quite a good share,” he said.

A big earner for Rolls-Royce has long been the trend towards customization — what the manufacturer calls the “bespoke proces” — where wealthy customers pay extra for unique features in their cars.

Sometimes, this results in lurid color schemes and outlandish accessories that would horrify Rolls-Royce traditionalists. But Muller-Otvos does not see himself or Rolls-Royce as an arbiter of individual taste.

“Let’s imagine, for a moment, a bright orange exterior and a yellow interior. It might look a little bit odd in central London, but down here in bright sunshine it looks stunning. I think you always need to keep that in mind. The last thing I want to do is judge — with my European taste — international clients. We are not the taste police in Rolls-Royce,” he said.

There was one request for a luxury accessory, however, that went aa bit too far — a request from a wealthy client for a chilled cigar compartment on the dashboard.

“One that was too crazy and was declined was for a humidor on the top panel, and that, unfortunately, wasn’t possible, technically, because we would have lost homologation (regulatory approval),” he said.

The Cullinan has been tested in the world’s toughest terrain, including Arabian deserts. (Photo courtesy of

Rolls-Royce has long held a special place in the Arab world, dating back to the time when Britain’s then-prime minister Sir Winston Churchill presented King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia with a custom Phantom model as a post-war gift.

The early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic saw a sharp drop in Rolls-Royce sales, as the Goodwood plant in the UK was forced to halt its production line for two months and deliveries were disrupted.

But that turned out to be the prelude to a rapid acceleration in sales in the Middle East and the wider world once the recovery got under way, matching a global phenomenon that saw all sales of luxury goods grow after the initial shock of lockdown. Muller-Otvos had an intriguing explanation for this.

“Many clients told me they have realized that it is possible that you could die suddenly, and many of them have even seen that up close. That made them think: You only live once, enjoy your life now, don’t postpone it to later days,” he said

The new Rolls Royce Ghost – re-engineered and relaunched in 2020 – is in high demand in the Middle East (Shutterstock)

The Cullinan, Rolls-Royce’s first foray into the luxury SUV market, has been in particularly high demand in the Gulf, as has the Black Badge Ghost.

As ever in the region, the fortunes of the oil market continue to determine the strength of the economy — and Rolls-Royce sales.

“The oil price is quite an indicator here for how healthy the economy is and we are very much dependent on how the economy goes,” Muller-Otvos said. “If the economy flies, we fly.”

Misk fellowship competition bootcamp underway in London

Updated 28 June 2022

Misk fellowship competition bootcamp underway in London

  • Both bootcamps are designed to equip young Saudis with the skills needed to become effective leaders
  • Misk Fellowship Program 2022 runs for six months and ends in December

LONDON: Saudi students are participating in a competition bootcamp in London this week as part of the Misk Fellowship Program 2022.
It started on Monday and followed the first week of the program, which saw the 60 students participate in a leadership bootcamp.
Both bootcamps, spanning a total of 10 days, are designed to equip young Saudis with the skills and behavior needed to become effective leaders.

Fellows listen to a session presented by Afnan Ababtain  during the competition kickoff bootcamp in London on Tuesday. (AN photo)

Critical thinking, problem-solving, self-motivation, self-awareness, teamwork, and leadership best practices are some of the competencies the bootcamps will focus on.
Abdulrahman Alhenaki, the project officer for the Misk Fellowship Program, told Arab News that the competition kickoff bootcamp would focus on helping fellows find sustainable development solutions to challenges faced by Saudi Arabia with assistance and guidance from Misk partners.

Fellows discuss ideas during the competition kickoff bootcamp in London on Tuesday. (AN photo)

These partners include the Saudi Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, the Kingdom’s Research, Development, and Innovation Authority, the UN Development Programme, the Small and Medium Enterprises General Authority (Monsha’at), and management consulting firms Bain & Company and Strategy&.
He said the fellows would return to the countries where they were studying once the current bootcamp was over and start the second part of the fellowship program virtually.
“They will start thinking about what kinds of solutions they will come up with to fix these challenges and also participate in other components of the program, including being coached and mentored. We also have placement opportunities to enhance their journey and to make them ready for the job market in the future.”

Fellows listen to a lecture during the competition kickoff bootcamp in London on Tuesday. (AN photo)

Fellows will work in groups of six on their solutions and present them in early September.
“There will be three winners chosen by the judges who will win internships, incentives, and opportunities to participate in other Misk programs. There will also be two other winners. The first will be selected by the audience that day for the best presentation and the other will be selected by the social media audience.”
Dr. Basem Hassan, general manager for technology transfer and commercialization at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, said his organization was helping to guide the students in their challenges.
“Our role in this program is to define the Sustainable Development Goals and challenges facing Saudi Arabia. We defined 12 challenges and, on Monday, we had a session with the students. We presented the innovative ecosystem in Saudi Arabia and all the transformations happening in the ecosystem.

A fellow asks a question during the competition kickoff bootcamp in London on Tuesday. (AN photo)

“We also presented some of the latest technologies and projects in Saudi Arabia addressing global challenges and sustainable climate solutions. Then we talked about the 12 challenges that have been defined for them for the competition, and presented some of the innovative solutions from around the world that address parts of these challenges.”
The director of the women’s and social entrepreneurship department at Monsha’at, Afnan Ababtain, presented a session on Tuesday.
“We are happy to be part of the Misk fellowship. Today we are sharing with the fellows Monsha’at’s strategy in social entrepreneurship and what kinds of services we are providing for social entrepreneurs to make sure that we will have scalable businesses owned by social entrepreneurs,” she said.
Misk fellow Nawaf Bin Awshan told Arab News he was glad to be part of the program.
“It is an insightful program that provides the next generation of leaders with focused points of leadership. This program focuses on how to move students from the student stage to the leader stage. I really enjoyed the first part of the fellowship, the leadership bootcamp. This week, we have started a competition and we will deal with how to solve some of the challenges faced by Saudi Arabia.”
Another Misk fellow, Dana Almudayfi, described the program as “informative and wonderful.”
“This has been a really informative and wonderful program insofar as it has given us the tools to be leaders, which is the most important thing.”
She said she was looking forward to using the skills she had learned over the last two weeks in the workplace.
The program runs for six months and ends in December.


Saudi farmer engineers a blooming desert in the desert

Updated 27 June 2022

Saudi farmer engineers a blooming desert in the desert

  • Secret is research and data, says Sofian Al-Bishri, CEO of Mojan Farms
  • Engineer grows basil, Japanese cabbage, lettuce, cherry tomatoes

KHULAIS: The last thing one expects to find in the middle of dusty and dry Khulais, located on the western side of the Saudi Arabian desert, is a farm blooming with all sorts of herbs and vegetables.

Yet this is exactly what Sofian Al-Bishri, the 24-year-old CEO of Mojan Farms, has done. The qualified engineer has proven that combining technical know-how with a little ingenuity can go a long way to fulfil his dream of greening the environment, while also running a sustainable business.

Al-Bishri explained to Arab News that despite the lack of water in the area, he was able to construct a full ecosystem using sustainable farming methods such as bumble-bee pollination, hydroponic saltwater technology, and a fully automated monitoring system.

On a 15,000-square-meter strip of family land, Al-Bishri established Mojan Farms in 2020 with five greenhouses, each containing a different type of herb or vegetable.

Hydroponic technology allows for the cultivation of crops without soil, with roots growing in a liquid nutrient solution or inside moist inert materials like Rockwool and Vermiculite.


Despite the lack of water in the area, Sofian Al-Bishri was able to construct a full ecosystem using sustainable farming methods such as bumble- bee pollination, hydroponic saltwater technology, and a fully automated monitoring system.

The water of the liquid nutrient solution is a mixture of essential plant food, allowing faster crop growth than traditional planting methods.

The farm has various crops, including basil, Japanese cabbage, lettuce and cherry tomatoes. “Every house is a separate ecosystem. We do this to eliminate cross-contamination, so each house is separate and has its designated variety.”

Mojan Farms is environmentally friendly because the system captures and reuses water, rather than allowing it to drain away. “We use drip irrigation, it reduces the water usage by 40 percent, and we work with a company locally that produces biopolymers, which are formed into gels that we have under the ground right now.”

“When talking about wasted water, the problem is when you irrigate the crops, the water just gets drained down. It doesn’t get retained in the soil. So these polymers hold the water which transforms into a gel full of water, allowing enough time for the plant to absorb it, so we get to irrigate much less.”

There is also considerable automation in place, which allows for cooling and irrigation. “We need to believe in research and data, this is our game. I invested in some retrofitted tech from other industries to cut down on labor requirements and time.”

Instead of having an engineer constantly monitor water usage and the spreading of fertilizers, Mojan’s greenhouses are equipped with a sensor system.

“All of these smart devices that we have are automatically connected to the cloud, it all tunes into risk management, so we protect ourselves from any loss of crops.”

Al-Bishri said that he grows crops that are in demand by industry, and is constantly gathering data, sometimes over months, from restaurants, distributors and importers. “So we find those strains that are usually imported, and we find ways to grow them locally.”

Al-Bishri said his farms produce 300 to 400 kilograms of produce ever month. He chooses to grow some Italian strains such as Genovese basil which is different from local ones. In addition, he produces Lola Rossa and Lollo Bionda lettuces, both red Italian types, used mostly to garnish burgers.

He has now decided to go public with his operation. “This farm has been private, it’s just for my father and me, we just come here in winter ... we decided we had enough entertainment here ... and it’s time to share (this project).”

He also plans to plant over 3,000 mango trees as a long-term investment. “Within two years, we’re hoping that it will provide enough shade for us to create artificial lakes and open that for picnics and for the public and families, and to make it an actual park.”

“And the reason we’ve decided to do this now, as opposed to before, is that we’re actually now working with a local startup to provide tech for that strip of land that reduces water by 80 percent, which means we can do it at a more sustainable rate. That’s both good for me and good for the environment.”

First Moroccan pilgrims arrive in Jeddah through Makkah Route Initiative

A Moroccan pilgrim breezes through the immigration line at the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, thanks to the Mak
Updated 27 June 2022

First Moroccan pilgrims arrive in Jeddah through Makkah Route Initiative

  • Morocco is the fifth country to participate in the Makkah Route Initiative, after Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh

JEDDAH: King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah received its first Moroccan pilgrims through the Makkah Route Initiative.

They departed from the Makkah Route hall at Mohammed V International Airport in Casablanca and were greeted by Moroccan Consul General Ibrahim Ajouli, Col. Suleiman Mohammed Al-Yusuf, and representatives from the initiative at KAIA.

The Makkah Route Initiative was launched for the first time this year in Morocco, adding to the four countries already participating in the project: Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

A Moroccan pilgrim gets gets "processed" without hassle at the immigration desk of the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah. (SPA)

It aims to simplify procedures for pilgrims by issuing e-visas, completing passport procedures at the airport of the country of departure following the completion of health requirements, and dealing with luggage procedures, transport, and accommodation.

Upon arrival, pilgrims directly move to buses transporting them to their accommodation in Makkah and Madinah while authorities deliver their luggage to their lodgings.

Serving pilgrims is one of the Interior Ministry's programs contributing toward Vision 2030.

The initiative was first launched in 2019 in a few airports and expanded this year, saving pilgrims up to 12 hours upon arrival at Saudi airports.


Makkah Route Initiative

Inaugurated by King Salman in 2019, the Makkah Route Initiative is a program that seeks to provide visitors to the holy sites in Saudi Arabia with the finest possible services to help them perform their Hajj rituals easily and comfortably. Five countries are currently participating in the initiative: Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Morocco, and Bangladesh.


Saudi Arabia confers Order of King Abdulaziz on Pakistan’s military chief

Updated 26 June 2022

Saudi Arabia confers Order of King Abdulaziz on Pakistan’s military chief

  • Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa also met to review Saudi-Pakistani military ties and other fields of cooperation

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia has conferred on Pakistan’s chief of army staff the Order of King Abdulaziz, an order of merit named after the Kingdom's founder, state media said on Sunday.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, implementing King Salman's order, decorated Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa the King Abdulaziz Medal of Excellent Class, "in appreciation of Gen. Bajwa’s distinguished efforts in strengthening and developing Saudi-Pakistani relations," SPA reported.

Bajwa was in the Kingdom on Saturday for a visit. 

The crown prince and the Pakistani military chief also met and "reviewed bilateral relations, especially in the military fields, and opportunities for developing them, in addition to a number of issues of common interest," SPA said.

The occasion was attended by Prince Khalid bin Salman, Saudi deputy minister of defense; Saudi Arabia’s Chief of General Staff Gen. Fayyad Al-Ruwaili; and a number of senior officials from the two sides, said the report.

Lauding social reforms in Saudi Arabia, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio says Rome ready to support kingdom

Updated 26 June 2022

Lauding social reforms in Saudi Arabia, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio says Rome ready to support kingdom

  • The two G20 members are committed to continue working in the ‘same spirit of cooperation and solidarity for strong sustainable and inclusive growth’
  • Di Maio to co-chair 12th session of Saudi-Italian Joint Commission with KSA Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan

ROME: Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi Di Maio has stressed the importance of consolidating his country’s historic relations with Saudi Arabia ahead of his visit to the Kingdom on Sunday.

Speaking exclusively to Arab News, he said both governments were fully aligned and shared common interests and strategic priorities that provided the foundations for an all-encompassing long-term relationship.

While in Riyadh, Di Maio will review several aspects of Saudi-Italian relations and ways to strengthen them, in addition to discussing regional and international issues of mutual concern.

He noted that Italy would be organizing celebratory events later this year to mark the 90th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two nations. Italy was one of the first countries to recognize the Kingdom’s status.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (L) meeting with Italian FM Luigi Di Maio in RIyadh. (AFP file photo)

Di Maio said: “Italy was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the early 1930s and 2022 marks a very important anniversary in our longstanding friendship.”

On Monday, he will co-chair the 12th session of the Saudi-Italian Joint Commission with Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan, and also attend the Saudi-Italian Investment Forum, where institutions and enterprises from both countries will meet to develop further partnerships.

“Back then, Italy and Saudi Arabia decided to start a strategic dialogue, and my visit aims at consolidating our long-lasting relationship by exploring new areas of cooperation and partnership. The 12th session of the joint commission that I will chair on Monday with Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan will specifically focus on this goal.

Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan. (AFP)

“High-tech Italian companies attending the event could contribute to the Kingdom’s goals of a more diversified economy, especially in the fields of sustainability and energy transition,” he added.

Saudi-Italian relations have been driven toward more political, economic, and cultural development. They have their roots entrenched in sound cooperation, with Italy being one of the Kingdom’s main historical trading partners.

Similar to many nations with long-established Saudi links, Italy has a shared vision aimed at developing and maintaining friendship ties.

Di Maio praised the Saudi leadership for making “significant social developments, especially as far as women empowerment is concerned,” adding that his country was, “ready to provide all the support the Kingdom needs to implement its reforms further.”

The 35-year-old minister is considered one of the most prominent figures in the Italian political arena.

Last week, he established a parliamentary group called Together for the Future (IpF), a breakaway from the Five Star Movement, the populistic party founded by Italian comedian Beppe Grillo and where Di Maio began his political career. The new group will support the coalition government of Prime Minister Mario Draghi.

Di Maio pointed out that Italy and Saudi Arabia shared “deep historical ties,” and said he was “delighted” to be returning to the Kingdom following his last visit in January 2021, “when I also had the privilege to visit the magnificent AlUla site.”

He noted that Rome’s cooperation with Riyadh had “been growing throughout the years in all areas,” including political, cultural, scientific, and technological collaborations, and sectoral partnerships.

Italian FM Luigi Di Maio (R) receiving Saudi Arabian FM Prince Faisal bin Farhan in Rome in June 2021. (SPA file photo)

“We look forward to boosting further our cooperation in the fields of infrastructure, new technologies, smart economy, tourism, and green transition,” Di Maio added.

During 2021, bilateral trade between the two nations topped $8.6 billion, a 32.9 percent increase on 2020. Italy is Saudi Arabia’s seventh-largest supplier of goods, and the Kingdom ranks 21 in goods supplied to Italy. Saudi Arabia provides approximately 9 percent of Italy’s oil imports.

The Observatory of Economic Complexity, the world’s leading data visualization tool for international trade statistics, in 2020 showed Saudi exports of $3.18 billion to Italy, with the top products being crude oil worth $1.7 billion, refined oil at $931 million, and $97.9 million of ethylene polymers.

Over the last 25 years, Italian exports to Saudi Arabia have increased at an annualized rate of 3.31 percent, from $1.67 billion in 1995 to $3.77 billion in 2020.

Oil and gas supplies will be on the agenda during official meetings in the Kingdom as Italy, along with Germany, approved the opening of Russian ruble accounts earlier in May for companies to be able to continue buying Russian oil and gas without violating the letter of sanctions imposed by the EU on Russia.

Di Maio said: “There is always room for improvement though. We count on strengthening our cooperation in the oil as well as in the natural gas sectors.”

Italy agreed with its EU partners to cut Russian crude imports by 2023 — in response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine — a move that Draghi called “a complete success.”

The Italian foreign minister added: “(Saudi Arabia is a) key partner for regional stability in the Middle East and the Gulf for Italy. Therefore, we deeply value our dialogue on the main regional files.

“We firmly believe that the broader Mediterranean is a region of opportunities, where fruitful synergies among people and economies can be established. We share this commitment with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and we stand ready to work together toward those common goals.”

As members of the G20, Saudi Arabia handed over the honorary gavel as a token of the G20 Presidency’s transition to Italy, which held the 2021 G20 presidency. And as fellow members of the G20 Troika, Di Maio highlighted the role of both nations’ commitment to continue working in the same spirit of cooperation and solidarity for strong sustainable and inclusive growth and help, “devise a coordinated response to global challenges.”

On the issue of cooperation, he said: “My participation these days in the joint commission and business forum proves once more our commitment to celebrating this anniversary by strengthening our cooperation in traditional and new sectors.

“Much remains to be achieved, but Italy is ready to provide all the support the Kingdom needs to further implement its reforms. In that spirit, I am confident that the Saudi-Italian Investment Business Forum that I will co-chair on June 27 will turn out as a success and will be a trigger to foster new industrial and trade partnerships.”