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The woman leading UAE’s drive to become an entertainment hub

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noura al kaabi

Noura Al Kaabi has brought filming of movies including “Star Wars” and “Fast and Furious 7” to Abu Dhabi as head of the free zone twofour54.

Goodbye, Hollywood. Hello Abu Dhabi. Noura Al Kaabi is leading the United Arab Emirates’ ambitious effort to become a global media and entertainment hub.

As chief executive officer of the government-owned free zone twofour54, Al Kaabi brought the high-speed car chases of the action movie “Fast and Furious 7” to Abu Dhabi and transported the “Star Wars’’ storm troopers onto the nation’s vast desert.

Other productions in the country include “Sesame Street,” the well-known children’s television show; Top Gear, a highly popular motoring show in the United Kingdom; and “Bang Bang,” a Bollywood action movie.

Zone provides infrastructure and support

It’s all part of an effort Al Kaabi is spearheading at twofour54, which aims to provide the infrastructure and support to attract foreign productions and also to grow entrepreneurship in media and entertainment within the country.

The “Star Wars” movie and other high visibility projects have put twofour54 on the map with international film companies. The project offers incentives and logistical support to attract new projects.

Bollywood has been especially interested because Abu Dhabi is only a few hours away from India.

Tax-free environment attracts foreign investment

Duraï featured in Fast & Furious 7

CNN, Sky News Arabia, and the Cartoon Network also have set up projects in the twofour54 zone.

The twofour54 zone is one of a about three dozen free zones the United Arab Emirates government has established to promote economic development and attract foreign investment. The zones provide a tax-free environment and allow foreign ownership of companies operating within it.

The twofour54 zone also offers business support services, production facilities, funding for entrepreneurs and media training.

While development of international films and programming has grabbed headlines, fostering internal talent development in media and entertainment is a key goal.

“We are enabling young skilled media professionals to learn from the world’s best producers, directors, developers and other experts in the industry,” Al Kaabi said, emphasizing the importance of bringing “fresh faces” into the industry as a way of encouraging innovation.

UAE seeks to diversify revenue base

She noted that Abu Dhabi’s emergence as an entertainment hub is contributing to the United Arab Emirates effort to diversify its revenue sources and reduce its reliance on oil revenue.

The UAE has set a goal of reducing the proportion of gross domestic product from energy products from 30 percent to 20 percent in the next 10-15 years. Other important sectors include financial services, manufacturing and tourism.

Visibility in international films can boost tourism as well, she said. “Fast and Furious,” for example, featured a scene in which the characters drove a stolen car through the Etihad Towers. That is likely to attract people who want to visit and see the structure close up, she said.

A LinkedIn Global Influencer

Al Kaabi regularly appears on power lists in the region.

She was the first woman from the region to be chosen for LinkedIn’s Global Influencer Program, which designates leaders to share perspectives on the professional network. LinkedIn has selected about 500 influencers, including U.S. president Barak Obama and Dubai vice president Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, since the program began in 2013.

Al Kaabi sits on several boards including United Arab Emirates University, the National Media Council, Abu Dhabi Media, and Image. She chairs in the Emirates Media Measurement Company.

She was one of Forbes Middle East’s 30 Most Influential Women in Government in 2014 and was awarded Business Woman of the Year at the Gulf Business Industry Awards.

Technology, metrics pose challenges

In spite of the progress of twofour54, she sees challenges ahead, particularly on the technology and metrics fronts.

She said the entertainment and media industry in the region needs a technology update. Another important next step is to figure out how to measure reach of the content the project produces.

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An Indian powerhouse in the Gulf

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Yusuf Ali

Billionaire M.A. Yusuff Ali has built the global retail empire Lulu Group from his base in Abu Dhabi.

M.A. Yusuff Ali, who has built a global empire of supermarkets, shopping malls and grocery stores, will be at the top of just about any list of the most powerful Indians doing business in the Gulf.

The managing director of the retail giant Lulu Group, based in Abu Dhabi, started in a small, isolated office in a barren desert 40 years ago and went on to build an international powerhouse that employs more than 35,000 people in 31 countries, most of them in the Middle East and Africa.

With a net worth of $3.1 billion, the Kerala-born businessman is number 24 on Forbes’ list of India’s 100 Richest People. He’s repeatedly been named the most powerful Indian in the Gulf by publications including Arabian Business and DNA India.

More retail outlets to open

Lulu Group now operates 121 retail outlets that cover a total of 22.5 million square feet. In January, it opened an outlet in Dammam, Lulu’s sixth in Saudi Arabia, and another in Juffair, a suburb of Manama, its fifth in Bahrain.

Yusuff Ali also has announced plans to open more hypermarkets and malls in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and Malaysia.

The company, with annual revenue of $5.5 billion, is also venturing into the hospitality business, notably with the development of a hotel at the former Scotland Yard in London.

Lulu opened its first hypermarket in Dubai in 2000. The stores cater to multi-ethnic shoppers in the region with an international mix of both products and staff.

In addition to its retail chain, Lulu Group engages in manufacturing, import-export, and business services.

Scotland Yard will become a hotel

Yusuff Ali has recently gone into the hospitality business, making headlines last summer with a $171 million deal to develop the former Scotland Yard headquarters in London. The new hospitality arm of Lulu, Twenty14 Holdings, will open the Great Scotland Yard Hotel early in 2017.

It was his second London investment. In 2014, he purchased for $85 million a 10 percent interest in East India Company, the historic trading company that led British colonization of India in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Yusuff Ali started small, moving from India to Abu Dhabi to join the family business in 1973 and finding challenging conditions there.

“It was a very hard time initially. Abu Dhabi was all of two roads; none of the glitz and glamour that you associate UAE with today. The entire country was just coming terms with the discovery of oil,’’ he said.

Company employs 35,000

In all, Lulu employs more than 35,000 people from 37 different countries.

It has operations in the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, Kenya, Benin, Tanzania, Senegal, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Mozambique, Cameroon, Togo, and Gambia as well as India, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brazil, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

Yusuff Ali is also active in business and charitable affairs in the Gulf and in India.

He cites as a matter of great pride that he is the first expatriate to be elected to the board of the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce & Industry. In 2014, he was re-elected to the board for a third term.

He also has received the Padma Sri and Pravasi Bharatiya Award, the Indian government’s highest honor for a non-resident Indian, as well as the Asian Business Award for Best Business Leader and Arabian Business Award.

He has donated to a variety of charitable causes in both India and the Gulf. He also helped organize relief from the Gulf for multiple natural disasters in India, including the Lathur and Gujara earthquakes.

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Driving Up Tourism in Abu Dhabi

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abu dhabi cruise

With ambitions to become a top winter sun destination, Abu Dhabi has launched a new cruise ship terminal and is developing its tourism infrastructure.

With ambitions to become a top winter sun destination, last Sunday, Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed Al Nahyan, National Security Advisor and Deputy Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council, officially opened Abu Dhabi’s first purpose-built cruise ship terminal. With capacity for three ships carrying 5,000 passengers at a time, this new terminal, located in the Zayed Port, marks a major landmark for cruise tourism in Abu Dhabi. 205,000 cruise visitors in 112 vessels are already scheduled for this season, 2015-2016, which is a fivefold increase compared to the first cruise season of 2006-2007. Officials expect this figure to increase by at least 15,000 next season to 220,000 cruise passengers in 117 vessels (2016-2017). Longer term growth projections anticipate that figure to reach 300,000 passengers in 130 vessels by 2019-20. Swiss-based cruise line MSC Cruises will be the first cruise line to use the new terminal as its home port for the 2015-16 season. The following season, it will be joined by Celebrity Cruises.

Abu Dhabi’s Economic Vision 2030

Development of the cruise tourism industry is part of a plan to significantly boost tourism in the emirate traditionally seen as second to Dubai as a tourist destination. In 2006, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, mandated the development of a long-term economic plan to increase the non-oil share of the emirate’s GDP. Known as the Economic Vision 2030, the year by which predictions suggest Abu Dhabi’s baseline growth assumptions could achieve economic diversification, the plan focuses on finding tangible solutions to boost tourism and leisure. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, Minister of State, said: “By working closely with our strategic partners and building the necessary infrastructure we hope to expand Abu Dhabi’s tourism sector and reinforce its position as a major global destination.”

As part of the Economic Vision 2030 plan, in 2006 Abu Dhabi also formed the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), a body intended to drive development of the tourism industry. Capitalizing on blue seas, sand dunes, and UNESCO world heritage sites, the TDIC is currently working on more than 55 projects across the emirate which are all set for completion by 2020. Building projects include multi-use complexes, business and leisure resorts, and desert resorts. One of its flagship developments is Saadiyat Island, where branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim are currently being built, and expected to open towards the end of next year. Two championship golf courses, environmentally-friendly resorts, new hotel developments, and luxury residential developments to house 160,000 residents are also underway.

The Abu Dhabi International Airport is also undergoing expansion in order to increase its capacity to 45 million. The new, high-tech 700,000 square meter Midfield Terminal Building, set to open in 2017, has been designed to process 19,000 bags per hour on a 22 kilometer baggage handling system and to utilize a new check-in system that can automatically verify mobile and printed boarding passes, improve security, and lower waiting times.

These projects will join the Yas Island development, Abu Dhabi’s $40 billion man-made destination island, which is home to the Ferrari World theme park and the $1 billion Yas Marina circuit, the most expensive F1 track ever built, which hosted the first Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2009.

Tourism up in Abu Dhabi

The strategy is already seeing some success. Abu Dhabi’s most recent summer season saw a 21% rise in the number of visitors compared with the previous year. The most significant growth came from Indian visitors, up by 29.8% year-on-year, and Saudi Arabian visitors, up 28% year-on-year. Visitors from the US also grew a significant 24.4%. And visitors from Europe grew 18.1%, with the United Kingdom and Germany contributing to the bulk of the increase. The figures mean that this year Abu Dhabi will exceed 4 million visitors for the first time. Sultan Al Mutawa Al Dhaheri, acting executive director of the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA), said: “We are hugely encouraged by number of visitors who came to the emirate, not only from across the GCC but from around the world”.

The TCA will continue to focus on attracting tourists from India, a drive which this year saw a promotion office opened in India’s capital Delhi to increase passengers of Cruise Arabia, a voyage touring Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, and Muscat. The TCA is also focused on attracting tourists from China. This year, more than 20 Abu Dhabi hotels, shopping centers, and tourist destinations enrolled in the China National Tourism Administration’s “Welcome Chinese” program to learn about providing services for Chinese travelers such as Mandarin-speaking staff and payment services for China’s UnionPay bank cards. The TCA has also led a delegation of Abu Dhabi travel suppliers, including representatives of Hyatt Hotels and Resorts and The Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi, to Korea and Japan. And looking toward the African market, the TCA will open an office in South Africa this coming year.

The Middle East looks to tourism

Abu Dhabi’s tourism aspirations are part of a burgeoning trend in the region. Dependent on oil for around 50% of GDP and suffering from high unemployment of the young, Saudi Arabia has begun investing in a number of programs to develop heritage sites, museums, tourist accommodation, and tourism infrastructure. A report by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTNH) confirms: “Tourism represents the second most important economic sector in the Kingdom. Despite its low contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) of only 2.7 percent, development plans in tourism show its ability to raise its contribution to higher levels, and makes it more capable to develop targeted areas especially the rural and remote areas that need comprehensive economic development to create jobs and investment opportunities.” The global Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report currently ranks Saudi Arabia as 64th in the world. This in fact puts it ahead of many of the more traditionally tourist-focused countries in the Middle East: Tunisia is 79th, Egypt is 83rd, and Lebanon is 94th.

Qatar is also looking to boost tourism to diversify its economy; 2013 tourism figures were up 8.3%, but it still lags behind most of its neighbours. The Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA) has set a goal of attracting 7.4 million visitors by 2030, and has pledged to spend billions in developing new tourist attractions and training more hospitality workers. And Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) is also busy implementing Dubai Vision 2020, a program designed to double the number of tourists from 10 million in 2012 to 20 million by 2020, and boost tourism’s share of GDP to $81.7 billion.

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