Oil climbs after drone attack in Iran, China’s pledge to promote consumption
Israel suspected to be behind a Saturday night drone attack on a military factory in Iran
China resumes business this week after its Lunar New Year holidays
Updated 30 January 2023
SINGAPORE: Oil prices climbed in early Asia trade on Monday, supported by tensions in the Middle East following a drone attack in Iran and as Beijing pledged over the weekend to promote a consumption recovery which would support fuel demand.
Brent crude futures rose 54 cents, or 0.6 percent, to $87.20 a barrel by 0115 GMT while US West Texas Intermediate crude was at $80.22 a barrel, up 54 cents, or 0.7 percent.
Israel appears to have been behind an overnight drone attack on a military factory in Iran, a US official said on Sunday.
“It is not really clear yet what’s happening in Iran, but any escalation there has the potential to disrupt crude flow,” said Stefano Grasso, a senior portfolio manager at 8VantEdge in Singapore.
Ministers from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and allies led by Russia, known collectively as OPEC+, are unlikely to tweak its current oil output policy when they meet virtually on Feb. 1.
Still, indication of a rise in crude exports from Russia’s Baltic ports in early February caused Brent and WTI to post their first weekly loss in three last week.
On Saturday, China’s cabinet said it would promote a consumption recovery as the major driver of the economy and boost imports, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
“We have Russia on the supply side and China on the demand side. Both can swing by more than 1 million barrels per day above or below expectation,” said Grasso, formerly an oil trader with Italy’s Eni.
“China seems to have surprised the market in terms of how fast they are coming out of zero COVID while Russia has surprised in terms of resilience of export volume despite the sanctions.”
China resumes business this week after its Lunar New Year holidays. The number of passengers traveling prior to the holidays rose above levels in the past two years but is still below 2019, Citi analysts said in a note, citing data from the Ministry of Transport.
“Overall international traffic recovery remains gradual, with high-single to low-teens digits to 2019 level, and we expect further recovery when outbound tour group travel resumes on Feb. 6,” the Citi note said.
Standard Chartered agrees to sell business in Jordan
Bank said in April that it was seeking to narrow its focus to faster-growing markets in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Updated 26 March 2023
DUBAI: Standard Chartered plans to sell its Jordanian business to Arab Jordan Investment Bank (AJIB), the two parties said on Sunday, as the emerging markets-focused lender presses ahead with plans to exit seven markets in Africa and the Middle East.
The bank entered into an agreement with AJIB, subject to central bank approval, which will see Standard Chartered’s corporate, commercial and institutional banking, consumer lending and private banking businesses migrated to AJIB.
All Standard Chartered Bank employees in Jordan will be transferred to AJIB, it said an emailed statement.
Standard Chartered’s Africa and Middle East CEO Sunil Kaushal said the agreement is aligned with the banks global strategy “to deliver efficiencies, reduce complexity, as well as redirect resources within the Africa Middle East region to areas with the greatest potential to drive scale, grow and better support clients.”
AJIB said the purchase falls within the Jordanian lender’s strategy to grow its market share in the country, which continues to grow after it acquired HSBC’s banking business in Jordan in 2014 and National Bank of Kuwait’s banking business in Jordan in 2022.
Standard Chartered in April 2022 said it plans to leave seven markets, consisting of Angola, Cameroon, Gambia, Jordan, Lebanon, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe.
The bank said at the time it was seeking to exit markets where it is sub-scale and narrow its focus to faster-growing markets in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Startup Wrap: Saudi leads the way in flurry of regional activity in startups ecosystem
Saudi Arabian startups managed to secure large bulks of funding
Updated 26 March 2023
CAIRO: The Middle East and North Africa region witnessed staggering activity in the startup and venture capital space last week spearheaded by Saudi Arabia.
The region’s startup ecosystem experienced debt and equity financing with one mega round as well as cross-border investments.
For its part, Saudi Arabian startups managed to secure a large bulk of funding while UAE-based startups also participated with a fair share.
Tamara secures $150m in debt financing
Saudi-based fintech giant Tamara raised $150 million in debt financing from global investment banking company Goldman Sachs.
Founded in 2020, Tamara is one of the region’s leading buy now, pay later providers with over 15,000 partner merchants using their services.
“Providing excellent products and services to our customers across shopping, payments and banking is at the core of Tamara,” Abdulmajeed Alsukhan, co-founder and CEO of Tamara, said.
The funding will provide the company with support to finance the demand for its BNPL product and continue its growth across new verticals.
“The team has shown the ability to scale a complex B2B (business-to-business) and B2C (business-to-consumer) business model, and BNPL is just an initial offering. We see a much deeper demand that we can fulfill with the same technology and customer-first approach,” Alsukhan added.
Aumet raises $7m to expand AI capabilities
Saudi Arabia’s healthtech startup Aumet raised $7 million in a pre-series A funding round from Tokyo-based venture capital firm AAIC and Swiss private equity firm AIJ Holdings alongside other investors.
Established in 2016, Aumet is an artificial intelligence-enabled B2B platform that provides software solutions like an enterprise resource planning system and a marketplace for pharmacies.
The company also facilitates the exchange of data between healthcare providers, manufacturers and distributors to enable them to make the right decision.
The platform uses predictive analytics to forecast the procurement of products for pharmacies, resulting in cost savings and other efficiencies in the supply chain of pharmacies.
The company plans to utilize its funding to further expand its artificial intelligence capabilities, reach more pharmacies, and provide better access to affordable healthcare products.
Aumet serves more than 10,000 pharmacies across Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.
Saudi Venture Capital launches $80m fintech fund
The Kingdom’s booming fintech sector is set to get a boost, thanks to an $80 million investment fund launched by Saudi Venture Capital Co.
The ‘Investment in Fintech VC Fund’ was launched in partnership with Saudi Arabia’s Capital Market Authority and the Financial Sector Development Program to preserve the Kingdom’s fintech industry growth that attracted almost 25 percent of all Saudi venture capital funding last year.
SVC aims to stimulate and sustain financing for startups and small and medium enterprises from the early stage to initial public offering by backing venture capital and private equity firms all around the region.
The firm, which has always been keen to empower the startup landscape in the Kingdom, also signed a memorandum of understanding last month with the Saudi stock exchange Tadawul to support small and medium enterprises going public.
The company will strategically place the new fund to support Saudi Arabia’s fintech ecosystem which raised $239 million in funding in 2022, according to venture data firm MAGNiTT.
Saudi Arabia’s venture capital market has been one of the most attractive markets globally, capturing $987 million in funding last year, a 72 percent increase from the year before.
The Kingdom’s 2022 funding boom came as investment across the world decreased by 35 percent year-on-year, while the US venture market experienced a 37 percent drop, according to Crunchbase.
The UAE and Egypt, which are the region’s leading venture markets, also witnessed a decline in funding activity last year.
Founded in 2018, SVC is a government investment company under the SME Bank and has invested in 35 funds which financed 525 companies through 904 deals.
Spate of regional funding rounds
UAE-based fintech Credable raised $2.5 million in a seed funding round led by Ventures Platform and Egypt-based Acasia Ventures to roll out new products across Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya.
On the other hand, UAE-based payment solution Qlub raised $25 million in funding co-led by Cherry Ventures and Point Nine with participation from STV, Raed Ventures, Heartcore, Shorooq Partners, FinTech Collective and Al Dhabi Capital.
In addition, UAE-based edtech almentor raised $10 million in a pre-series C funding round led by e& Capital alongside other Egyptian investors to accelerate the company’s growth and expand into the Kingdom.
Furthermore, Saudi-based NFT marketplace Nuqtah raised an undisclosed seed funding round led by Animoca Brands with participation from Polygon to scale the business over the next 12 months.
Also, Bahrain-based proptech Estater raised $5 million in a series A funding round led by undisclosed investors from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to accelerate product development and boost technology infrastructure.
Iraq Islamic Bank partnered with MSA Novo to launch a new fund targeting Iraqi startups and lead the digital transformation in the country.
Abu Dhabi investment firm Group 42 went on to acquire a $100 million stake in TikTok’s owner company ByteDance.
Retail luxury sector in Saudi Arabia is fast evolving, says Harrods MD
Michael Ward: Nurturing loyalty has always been at the heart of our customer acquisition and retention strategy
Updated 26 March 2023
RIYADH: When it comes to retail luxury, very few people in the world can match the understanding that Michael Ward, the managing director of Harrods, has of this exclusive market segment.
As the head of the iconic British luxury department store, which attracts 15 million shoppers each year, he undoubtedly occupies one of the most influential and exciting roles in luxury retail.
Since joining the business, Ward has embarked on a program of significant development, enabling Harrods to become the extremely successful retail model it is today.
he integration of digital experiences with physical stores in Saudi malls was a key theme at the Retail Leaders Circle MENA Summit and with a number of next-generation mall developments currently underway in the Kingdom, international retail will no doubt in the future be learning from how these have incorporated digital technologies and immersive experiences.
He was recently in Saudi Arabia and shared his wealth of knowledge at the 9th edition of Retail Leaders Circle Middle East and North Africa Summit held in Riyadh earlier this month.
The two-day annual event brought together all industry players in the retail sector from international brands to local franchise partners under one roof. In an exclusive interview with Arab News, Ward said the retail sector in Saudi Arabia was fast evolving.
“The integration of digital experiences with physical stores in Saudi malls was a key theme at the Retail Leaders Circle MENA Summit and with a number of next-generation mall developments currently underway in the Kingdom, international retail will no doubt in the future be learning from how these have incorporated digital technologies and immersive experiences,” he said.
Asked how existing malls in Saudi Arabia can keep pace with the hyper-competitive landscape, Ward replied: “The future of brick-and-mortar retail is experiential – whether that is providing dining or wellness services or the more creative and immersive experiences, all retailers need to be challenging themselves on how they delight and reward the customer in order to remain competitive.
“Innovative collaborations should be considered as they can play an important role in creating first-class experiential retail.”
Personalization is key
Ward went on to say that luxury retailers in the Kingdom who are keen to personalize shopping experiences for individual customers can take a lesson or two from Harrods, which is renowned for the service it offers to its customers, whether that is provided by a member of its team on the shop floor or through its personal and private shopping services.
“What we are now challenging ourselves on is how do we provide that digitally, whether that is harrods.com or virtual personal shopping services,” he explained. “Our objective is that however they shop, customers always experience the same exemplary and personalized service that they expect of Harrods. This ability to personalize the shopping experience beyond face-to-face interactions is a key challenge for the luxury industry today.”
Reflecting on how the luxury retail sector in the Kingdom can improve the premium shopping experience, Ward said truly understanding customers is essential.
“At Harrods we have invested significantly in the last two years in our Single View of Customer,” he revealed.
“This allows us to understand a customer’s buying journey from thousands of available data points, allowing us to make strategic decisions and engage with our customers at the right moment, through the most relevant channels and with the most engaging and valuable content, expanding the customer journey and importantly improving the customer experience.”
With regard to building further value through experience and loyalty, Ward said that Harrods is privileged to have the loyalty of some customers who have shopped with them for their whole lifetime, and who may even be second or third generation patrons.
“Nurturing loyalty has always been at the heart of our customer acquisition and retention strategy,” he explained. “Today our Harrods Rewards scheme, which has been in place since 2008, plays a big role in winning and keeping customer loyalty.”
Ward added: “Rewards members gain exclusive access to an array of benefits and earn points as they spend. And three quarters of our trade in 2022 came from Harrods Rewards customers. What this provides is a vast quantity of customer insights allowing us to ultimately provide better experiences for our customers.”
Key luxury retail trends
Moving forward, what are the key global trends in retail that Saudi Arabia should be ready to embrace? “Looking at luxury retail specifically, we see two trends shaping the industry,” Ward responded. “Firstly, a demand for unique experiences that delight the customer and secondly, a demand for rarity and exclusivity.”
“At Harrods, we have fortunately been well positioned to capitalize on both these trends,” he continued. “Our ever more creative pop-ups and unique brand collaborations mean every visit to the store can still feel like a new experience and secondly, we are able to bring together the rarest items under one roof with sought-after products that are exclusive to Harrods.”
With regard to innovations that could help change the retail landscape in the Kingdom, Ward explained that what machine learning and artificial intelligence can do for retail is a key question being asked by the industry globally, and it will no doubt bring changes in every country.
“At Harrods, we are using machine learning currently as part of our SVC to help analyze immense quantities of data and there will undoubtedly be more and more use cases in the future,” he said.
Talking of shopping habits of Saudi customers at the Harrods store, Ward said most luxury fabrics are extremely popular with their customers from the Kingdom. “We see the rarity and exclusivity of products also act as an important factor in their shopping choices,” he added.
Harrods, which has a longstanding relationship with Middle East customers, continues to shape a vision of modern luxury for generations to come. By all accounts, there is much to learn from this iconic department store as Saudi Arabia sets new benchmarks in luxury retail in the region.
Global investors increasingly attracted by Saudi Arabia’s incredible economic progress, say top officials at Franklin Templeton
Updated 26 March 2023
RIYADH: Driven by giga-projects and economic reforms under the Vision 2030 program, Saudi Arabia has emerged as an attractive destination for investors, said top officials at global asset management firm Franklin Templeton.
Speaking to Arab News in an exclusive interview, Salah Shamma, head of MENA equities for Franklin Templeton’s Emerging Markets Equity group, struck an upbeat tone when discussing the opportunities available in the Kingdom.
“Large-scale projects that are long term in nature and are looking to be driven mainly by the public sector but with large or significant private sector participation have given a boost to the equity market in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Shamma also pointed to the young demographic of Saudi society, adding: “You’ve got one of the fastest growing populations which is a critical factor when you’re looking at emerging markets in general. What’s more, the Kingdom has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world and a very supportive environment for companies to operate within the consumer space.”
His enthusiasm was echoed by Mohieddine Kronfol, chief investment officer, global sukuk and Middle East and North Africa fixed income, at Franklin Templeton.
Kronfol explained that now is a great time to invest in fixed income markets for two reasons.
“One is obviously that yields are today much higher than they were a year ago and so there’s much more income for investors to be able to take advantage of,” he said, adding: “There’s also more protection that fixed income markets can offer. So when you talk about the Saudi fixed income markets, we’re talking about a very high quality, mainly government-sponsored markets, which is a safe place to put your money to work.”
Large-scale projects that are long term in nature and are looking to be driven mainly by the public sector but with large or significant private sector participation have given a boost to the equity market in Saudi Arabia.
Kronfol went on to say that Franklin Templeton’s outlook for debt in Saudi Arabia and the region in general is “very constructive, very positive.”
“We think that investors would be looking to take advantage of the yields on offer and the security and safety that these government bonds and government issues provide,” he said.
Reflecting on Saudi Arabia’s position in the bond market, Kronfol claimed the Kingdom has made “incredible progress” over the past five years.
“The Kingdom went from really hitting well below its economic weight in terms of its share of the regional bond markets into now being not just a leader in our conventional bonds but also in global Shariah-compliant bonds or sukuk markets,” he said.
Other than Saudi Arabia, Shamma and Krofnol are also positive about opportunities in the UAE which has witnessed significant improvements in its investment and ownership laws.
“The amount of businesses that are setting up in the UAE and the activity that we’re seeing is all quite positive for corporates that are operating within the country,” Shamma said.
But that’s not all. He pointed out that, among the other positive developments in Gulf Cooperation Council countries, governments have been expediting their divestment program and selling quality assets and blue-chip assets at attractive valuations.
“They’ve managed to de-risk a lot of these assets and offer them to the public. So you’re getting these quality, large scale infrastructure-related companies that have a very secure and visible cash flow over a long period of time and coming at an attractive valuation,” Shamma explained.
Kronfol said that the region has witnessed a strong rebound in economic activities after the COVID-induced slowdowns.
“As far as our region is concerned, we had a very sound response to the pandemic not only from a public health point of view but also from a reopening point of view,” he pointed out.
“The policies were so good that we actually engineered the same recovery spending one third of what emerging markets were spending, and one sixth of what the developed world spent.”
Kronfol believes it was because of this post-pandemic reopening that the region was able to absorb some of the higher input costs, thanks to relatively well-anchored inflation, positive growth and strong balance sheets.
“Whatever costs that came through to companies or governments, as far as higher input costs were concerned, they were able to pass that on without too much difficulty,” he continued. “And that’s one of the main reasons why you find that the region has outperformed other emerging markets in many developed markets over the past few years.”
Kronfol added: “Now, going forward, much will depend on the path of interest rates, the dollar and the one area of focus for us which is oil…I know policy makers here are doing what they can to keep oil prices up but there’s some uncertainty attached to that. However, if we continue to have oil above $70 and we have the policy flexibility because of our financial resources, I think the region is well placed.”
Challenges investors face
Asked about the challenges faced by investors, Shamma replied: “What’s happening right now in the world is that, with higher interest rates, the cost of capital in general is increasing. As such, when the cost of capital is increasing, you’ve got different assets that are competing for that capital.
“So, at this point in time, I think the key challenge that investors need to address is mainly on the asset allocation issue as they need to decide whether it’s time to benefit from higher interest rates which are quite attractive now or to invest in equity markets.”
Shamma added: “Since we are in a higher interest rate environment with tightening monetary policies after years of loose monetary policy as well as lower interest rates, there is a fair amount of volatility that is affecting all asset classes in general.
“Also, our markets are not going to be immune to that volatility, especially now that the participation of foreign investors has increased in our markets.”
Shamma believes since regional markets have done quite well over the past couple of years and valuations have risen significantly, another key challenge is for corporations to stick to their expansion plans.
“If the corporates are not able to deliver on their growth promises then obviously we will see a fair level of adjustment. That being said, we believe that investors in this type of environment need to be significantly more selective in not just trying to choose the best companies but also the best managers and the best asset classes to invest in given the volatility and level of uncertainty that we have in the global backdrop,” he concluded.
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s central bank said on Friday the country’s total foreign exchange reserves stood at $10 billion on March 17 after it received $500 million from a Chinese commercial bank.
Cash-strapped Pakistan has been making desperate attempts to secure external financing to stave off a balance-of-payments crisis, with its forex reserves depleting to critically low levels, currency hitting new lows against the dollar, and inflation at a multi-decade high.
The country is trying to secure a $1.2 billion loan tranche from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as part of its $7 billion bailout program, to keep the economy afloat.
Last week, Pakistan’s depleting forex reserves shored up slightly after the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) released the second instalment of $500 million as part of a $1.3 billion facility to the country.
"The total liquid foreign reserves held by the country stood at US$10,139.2 million as of March 17, 2023," the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) said in a statement on Friday.
It added the foreign reserves held by the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) stood at US$4,598.7 million, while the net foreign reserves held by commercial banks in the country amounted to US$5,540.5 million.
"During the week ended on March 17, 2023, SBP received US$500 million as [Government of Pakistan] commercial loan disbursement. After accounting for external debt repayments, SBP reserves increased by US$280 million to US$ 4,598.7 million," the bank said.
It may be recalled that Pakistan’s official forex reserves held by the central bank fell rapidly, from $16.3 billion in February 2022 to a nine-year low of $2.92 billion on February 3, 2023. The dwindling reserves, barely enough to cover three weeks of imports, pushed the country to the brink of default.
To prevent the outflow of dollars, Pakistan imposed restrictions on imports, with the move prompting the partial closure of many industrial units and affecting exports, which provide a major source of revenue for the country.