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.”

Health experts put Hajj season monkeypox concerns into perspective

Updated 05 July 2022

Health experts put Hajj season monkeypox concerns into perspective

  • Still-unknown routes of transmission and virus’ rapid rate of mutation are a cause for global concern
  • Total number of Hajj pilgrims limited to about 1 million because “pandemic still exists, not over yet”

DUBAI: As Saudi Arabia prepares to receive up to 1 million Hajj pilgrims from around the world for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the shadow of a new virus looms over the horizon, raising the inevitable question of whether monkeypox will be the next global health crisis.

Thus far, more than 5,700 cases of monkeypox have been reported in 52 countries, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Europe accounts for nearly 90 percent of all confirmed and reported cases worldwide since mid-May. As of this week, 31 countries in the continent have reported at least one monkeypox case. A handful of cases have been identified in the Middle East, mainly in the UAE.

The World Health Organization has ruled that the spread of monkeypox does not yet qualify as a global health emergency. However, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director general, has voiced concern over the rapidly evolving threat.

Up to 1 million Hajj pilgrims from around the world will partake in religious rites this year. (SPA)

Experts are divided on whether the jump in the number of monkeypox cases worldwide from 800 to 3,500 during June is a sufficient cause for alarm.

Smallpox, which belongs to the same family of viruses as monkeypox, was eradicated in the 1980s through mass vaccination. Some scientists believe monkeypox is spreading because of the human population’s diminishing protection from smallpox.

Others believe climate change is a likely culprit behind the spread of the virus as the space between human communities and animal habitats shrinks.

Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, has suggested that as the planet deals with rising levels of ecological fragility and climate stress, both animal and human behaviors are being affected.

Citing recent findings, researchers at the US National Institutes of Health have said that the monkeypox virus strain has mutated 12 times more than expected since 2018.

The current strain is said to be circulating at an abnormally rapid speed, which could change its regular contamination patterns.

Under the circumstances, how afraid should the Arab world be of the monkeypox virus?

The unprecedented increase in cases is concerning, but the threat can be controlled, says Dr. Abdullah Algaissi, a virologist and assistant professor at the college of medical sciences at Jazan University, Saudi Arabia.

Noting that it is still not clear whether monkeypox is an airborne virus or not, he told Arab News: “While the main route of infection is sexual contact or contact with blisters or rashes of infected persons, there is evidence suggesting that monkeypox can be transmitted through the respiratory system.”

What is known for sure is that close and extended contact with an infected person must take place for contamination to occur.

For the same reasons, according to Dr. Gregory Poland, an infectious diseases expert and director of the Vaccine Research Group at the Mayo Clinic, monkeypox should not be a significant concern during the upcoming Hajj season.

While those who live with or have close contact with infected persons are at a higher risk of the disease, increased risk of infection during Hajj is “unlikely,” he told Arab News.

Dr. Gregory Poland, an infectious diseases expert and director of the Vaccine Research Group at the Mayo Clinic. (Supplied)

“Monkeypox is a rare but dangerous infection similar to the now eradicated smallpox virus, but it is nowhere near as transmissible and has a very low fatality rate if treated properly and promptly.”

Signs of monkeypox infection, according to Dr. Algassi, include skin lesions such as blisters around the genitals, hands, legs, face and arms, fever and swelling of the lymph nodes. The symptoms are more severe for immunocompromised individuals, he said, but “rarely fatal.”

Dr. Algassi explained that the first outbreak was reported in monkeys in 1958, before it became clear that rodents were the source of the infection.

“The monkeypox virus is a zoonotic virus that is usually transmitted from animal hosts to humans or even other animals and belongs to a larger family called pox viruses,” he said.

The first human case of monkeypox was diagnosed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1970, and quickly became endemic in several African countries. However, the disease has rarely spread outside Africa.

A monkeypox virion obtained from a clinical sample associated with the 2003 prairie dog outbreak. (AFP)

A health protocol issued by the Saudi Ministry of Health last month requires pilgrims flying in from Nigeria to complete a monkeypox declaration form 24 hours before departure.

The ministry earlier said it was fully prepared to monitor and deal with any monkeypox cases, and that no cases had been recorded in the Kingdom so far.

All necessary medical and laboratory tests were available in the Kingdom, the ministry said, adding that it issued guidelines to healthcare workers on the matter. The ministry also said it had a complete preventive and curative healthcare plan to deal with any cases.

With regard to COVID-19, the ministry has announced an approved list of vaccines along with the requisite doses for each inoculation. It has also provided plans for managing any cases that emerge during the Hajj season by providing tents for the isolation of infected pilgrims.


FASTFACTS • Saudia has dedicated a fleet of 14 aircraft for pilgrims.

• More than 268 international flights from and to 15 stations.

• 32 domestic flights to and from six stations.

• 107,000 International and 12,800 domestic seats in total.

• Pilgrims are flown to King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah or Prince Mohammed bin Abdulaziz International Airport in Madinah.

Appearing this week on “Frankly Speaking,” the flagship weekly current affairs talk show of Arab News, Hisham Saeed, Saudi Arabia’s deputy minister of Hajj and Umrah services and official spokesman, said that despite the new threat of monkeypox, “we are ready to handle any case, any scenario.”

A 30,000-strong medical team of doctors and nurses, as well as over 185 hospitals in the Kingdom and more than 100 medical centers in the holy sites of Mina, Arafat and Madinah, will be ready to treat pilgrims suffering from any illness, according to Saeed.

He said although more pilgrims will be allowed this year than in the past two years, the total number will still be limited on account of health concerns.

Dr. Abdullah Algaissi, a virologist and assistant professor at the college of medical sciences at Jazan University. (Supplied)

“This year we have a decision to go for 1 million, because the pandemic still exists, it’s not over yet, and we are not running the full capacity for this year,” Saeed said.

Indeed, according to Dr. Poland, unlike monkeypox, COVID-19 continues to be a threat in huge crowds and gatherings. “This is the much larger issue as immunization rates are likely to be low or variable and amassing large numbers of such individuals together over days represents a risk and threat,” he told Arab News.

Echoing the same concern, Dr. Algaissi cited the emergence of new variants such as the omicron sub-variant, BA.5, which gives COVID-19 an “evolutionary advantage,” adding that these variants could get introduced from one country to another through travel.

Having said that, he noted that “most of the world is now vaccinated, which provides a primary layer of protection, especially against severe infection or death.”

Health measures are part of the Kingdom’s broader preparations for Hajj, which includes monitoring at the Saudi National Center for Security Operations. (AP)

Dr. Algaissi further pointed to the strict precautionary protocols adopted by the health authorities in Saudi Arabia as key in managing any potential outbreaks during the Hajj season.

Apart from being fully vaccinated, wearing masks in the holy sites and practicing basic hygiene precautions are essential during Hajj.

“Most importantly, if a pilgrim feels any respiratory symptoms during Hajj, they should strictly follow these instructions and avoid contacting others to stop spreading the infection,” Dr. Algaissi said.

Avoiding “skin-to-skin contact with others” will also help reduce chances of the spread of monkeypox.

King Salman appoints woman lawyer as deputy secretary of Saudi council of ministers

Updated 03 July 2022

King Salman appoints woman lawyer as deputy secretary of Saudi council of ministers

  • Shihana Alazzaz was one of first women licensed to practise law in Saudi Arabia
  • Alazzaz also served as General Counsel at the Kingdom's Public Investment Fund

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia's King Salman appointed Shihana Alazzaz as the Deputy Secretary of the Council of Ministers, in a royal decree announced on the Saudi Press Agency. 

Alazzaz was one of the first women licensed to practise law in Saudi Arabia. She was also the General Counsel at Public Investment Fund. 

The royal decree also listed a few a other appointments, including:

- His Highness Prince Abdul Rahman bin Muhammad bin Abdulaziz Al Muqrin is appointed as an advisor at the Royal Court with the rank of Minister.

- Bandar bin Obaid bin Hammoud Al-Rasheed appointed as Secretary to His Highness the Crown Prince, with the rank of Minister. 

- Ahmed bin Sufyan Al-Hassan, as Assistant to the Minister of Transport and Services

- Abdulaziz bin Hamad bin Saleh Al-Rumaih, as Deputy Minister of Health for Planning and Development

- Khalid bin Walid Al-Zaher, Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Saudi Arabia

Saudi medical team saves life of Iranian Hajj pilgrim in Makkah

Iranian pilgrim Hussain Qasmi Jalmrazy is shown recovering at the emergency room of Makkah's King Abdullah Medical City.
Updated 04 July 2022

Saudi medical team saves life of Iranian Hajj pilgrim in Makkah

  • The medical team offered to perform an open heart operation, but the patient refused this medical procedure

MAKKAH: A specialized team from Makkah’s King Abdullah Medical City has successfully performed an emergency cardiac catheterization procedure to save the life of an Iranian pilgrim on Saturday, the Saudi Ministry of Health said.

In a statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency early Sunday, the ministry said that the Hajj pilgrim was taken to the hospital's emergency department when he complained of severe chest pain while he was on his way to the Grand Mosque in Makkah to perform prayers.

A digital copy of the Iranian pilgrim's Hajj tag, shared on social media by Ekhbariyah TV.

The patient was identified in his Hajj tag as Hussain Qasmi Jalmrazy, from Isfahan in central Iran.

Specialists performed an urgent diagnostic catheterization after examination results "showed the presence of blockage of more than two arteries in the heart," according to the Health Ministry.

The medical team offered to perform an open heart operation, but the patient refused this medical procedure. It was then decided to insert stents instead in the damaged arteries, enabling the patient to recover and continue his pilgrimage, the statement said.

King Abdullah Medical City, with full the support from the Saudi government, offers specialized health care for all Hajj and Umrah pilgrims.

A million Muslims from around the world will perform the Hajj this year, up from only 60,000 vaccinated pilgrims in 2021 and a symbolic 1,000 pilgrims in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Saudi ministry releases Hajj e-guides in 14 languages

Updated 02 July 2022

Saudi ministry releases Hajj e-guides in 14 languages

  • Interactive e-manuals pave the way for ‘perfect Hajj journey’

JEDDAH: The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, in collaboration with the General Authority for Awqaf, has launched 13 detailed e-manuals offering advice to pilgrims from around the world on a variety of topics.

The guides have been released in 14 languages: Arabic, English, French, Spanish, Turkish, Russian, Persian, Urdu, Bengali, Indonesian, Malay, Hausa, Amharic and Sinhalese.

A ministry video shared on Twitter explains various features of the e-manuals and how the guides function.

“These guiding e-manuals are interactive, and include Shariah and Islamic law, procedural, organizational and health directives which pilgrims will need during their Hajj journey,” the ministry said.

“All you have to do is visit the guide website, pick the language, browse the guide you need, then you can listen or watch the available materials and download it as well.”

The video collected hundreds of thousands of views, with a number of officials commenting on the initiative.
Minister of Hajj and Umrah Tawfiq Al-Rabiah shared the video on his official Twitter account and wrote: “For a perfect Hajj journey, here are Hajj guides.”

In a TV interview, Hisham Saeed, assistant undersecretary of the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah for Hajj and Umrah Services, said that the guides’ detailed explanatory infographics and images will give pilgrims an alternative to audio or written materials.

Each catalog is supported by text, images and illustrations, in addition to a set of educational videos and audio materials.
Topics include Hajj rituals, as well as Ihram, Mina, Muzdalifah, Arafat Day, Jamarat, Umrah, health awareness, the Grand Mosque, the Prophet’s Mosque and its services, and city landmarks of Makkah and Madinah.

The guides are compatible with all phone operating systems, IOS and Android, and can be reached by visiting

The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah seeks to serve pilgrims in a way that enables them to perform their Hajj rituals in the most ideal way possible. The ministry aims to facilitate the journey of pilgrims and enrich their spiritual and Hajj experiences.


Saudi Hajj ministry announces alternative flights, facilities for pilgrims from UK, Europe and US

Updated 02 July 2022

Saudi Hajj ministry announces alternative flights, facilities for pilgrims from UK, Europe and US

  • Move comes after people faced technical issues while applying for Hajj via the electronic portal
  • Additional seats were added on flights after people reported limited capacities on flights

RIYADH: The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah in Saudi Arabia announced on Wednesday that it will secure alternative flights and provide additional seats for pilgrims coming from Britain, the US, and Europe. 

In cooperation with relevant authorities, visas will also be “issued immediately to the pilgrims entering the Kingdom as part of the efforts”. 

This comes after people faced technical issues while applying for hajj via a new electronic portal called Motawif and had several issues including no access to the limited seats on flights. 

The statement was also confirmed by a ministry spokesperson who spoke exclusively to Katie Jensen, presenter of Frankly Speaking — the weekly political talkshow produced by Arab News.

The technical issues experienced by some pilgrims with the new Motawif online portal are “solvable and being dealt with”, according to the official spokesperson and deputy minister of Hajj & Umrah Services Hesham A. Saeed.

“I am assuring you now that everybody chooses a program, including the air ticket, now it is solvable, they have the air ticket and everything is done now,” he said. 

“(The pilgrims) still have time, the Hajj season still has not started, we still have ten more days to start the Hajj season and all their difficulties, we are solving it now and it is already solved by Motawif company and everything now, Inshallah, is going very fine and smooth,” added Saeed during the interview which will air in full on Sunday July 3 via