Essam Abdullah Nass, a prominent businessman and a senior member of the board of Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI), says the current positive climate for investment can improve further if officials adopted a coordinated approach to tackling the problems of the business community. “We businessmen want officials find solutions for the problems we face at various government departments,” he told Nadim Al-Hamid of Arab News in an exclusive interview.
He said the biggest obstacle facing new investors and the startups is the lack of cooperation and coordination among them. “There should be cooperation and exchange of views between them in a friendly atmosphere.”
He says the Jeddah Economic Forum, organized by the JCCI, will be held in March. This is the most important event for the chamber and a high executive committee has been set up to ensure its success, says Nass.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
How do you evaluate the investment climate in Saudi Arabia?
Generally, the investment climate in Saudi Arabia is considered to be outstanding. It is set to improve and develop in the coming years. However, businessmen and investors feel they need support from official quarters for the success of their ventures. We businessmen and investors look forward to some quick solutions to the problems we face, especially in the matter of licenses from government departments such as the secretariat, Saudi Electricity Company (SEC), the Ministry of Commerce and the Grievances Court.
In addition to direct support from regional governors to facilitate the investment process, the business community itself needs to see how best they could cooperate and coordinate to find solutions to their problems. This, in the end, will be in the interest of the Saudi economy. Unfortunately, I have personally faced many problems and obstacles. At some point, some government departments have hindered the progress of my investment projects in Jeddah. I didn’t receive the sufficient support to implement them, and on a few occasion I was in a state of despair. As you know, I’m a board member of Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI). I represent the merchant class; despite this, I have been a victim of such treatment. The other obstacle facing us as businessmen in establishing investment projects is the scattered locations of government departments that we need to visit in order to complete the procedures. For example, if we want to extract a commercial registration, a significant time and effort is wasted because of traffic congestion, and distances between entities. In order to solve this problem, I established a miniature model of independent government complex four years ago on Madinah Road. The complex is equipped with all the facilities and requirements. I expected to get the required and sufficient support for this project which is intended to facilitate procedures for businessmen and investors. It includes all government entities needed to save time and effort. Unfortunately, it didn’t receive any support from relevant government bodies. If this project was executed properly, many job opportunities would have been created for Saudi youths. I ask myself what we, as businessmen and investors, did for the benefit of small enterprises. I recently presented a project idea to the officials of JCCI to support these enterprises. The project represents a building equipped with all relevant equipment, on a 8,000 square meter land, located directly behind the JCCI premises. It contains exhibitions, shops, commercial offices, which can be leased to businessmen and young investors for a period of two years where they could create the project of their choice.
SMEs play a key role in terms of creating new job opportunities for citizens. The government provides support for them as well, what did you deliver for Saudi youth in this regard?
First, I thank the government of Custodian of The Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah for its continuing support for businessmen and entrepreneurs in the Kingdom. I also thank the Makkah governorate for opening the doors for us enabling the holding of regular meetings in the governor’s office to listen to our problems and try to solve them, as well as to exchange views and opinions. In one of these meetings, the Makkah governor said he was prepared to support us, businessmen and entrepreneurs, as much as he could. As for creating new job opportunities through SMEs, I am already finalyzing an investment venture, in coordination with the JCCI secretary general, which will create 40 jobs. The venture will be inaugurated next year. It is a commercial center consisting of more than 40 shops. Each young entrepreneur will operate his own shop free of charge for one or two years. After the end of the term, the opportunity will be given to another young businessman so that the most possible number of job opportunities will be available for those young businessmen. It is expected that more than 1,000 job opportunities will be available for them. In addition, these businessmen will get financial aid if needed in coordination with JCCI. A consultative committee will be formed which will include veteran senior merchants, businessmen, and investors to help these young entrepreneurs to get the optimum benefit of those ventures. Another committee will supervise the process of selecting the young businessmen based on their competence.
In a gesture that is considered the first of its kind at the level of Saudi Chambers, JCCI recently set up a charity organization with a capital of SR 100 million. What is your assessment of this project? Do you have any initiative in this direction?
This project is one of the exceptional charity projects, and the core for other similar projects. It is (JCCI Chairman) Saleh Kamel’s brain child. He is the sponsor and the supervisor. Incidentally, I supported this project with a small contribution. Now it is stepping forward steadily and rapidly. A committee has been formed to follow up its implementation.
In your opinion, what are the main obstacles facing businessmen and new investors and what are the solutions?
One of the most important obstacles facing businessmen and young investors from my point of view is the lack of cooperation and coordination among themselves, as well as their differing views. I hope that there will be cooperation and regular exchange of views in a friendly atmosphere. For this reason, I am now in the process of putting the final touches to create a cultural center for young owners of small enterprises, which includes a lounge with all types of sports, and a coffee shop. It is located on a suitable area at the same site of the mall project. It will be ready within the next four months. It aims to create a friendly atmosphere among them and give them the chance to exchange views, to talk and listen to each other, to discuss their projects and ambitions away from intolerance and bickering, thus giving the priority to the good interests of the country. Through this club, a legal committee will be formed of experienced and efficient persons, in cooperation with the JCCI and the relevant entities in order to find quick solutions for the problems and obstacles that may encounter them during the implementation of their projects. In this regard, I hope to create a fund to support emerging businessmen and small enterprise owners.
Recently a lot of commercial centers and markets have come up in Jeddah. Do you think that it is a positive indicator that contributes to the revival of Saudi economy, or vice versa?
From my point of view, I don’t think that commercial centers and markets are increasing. I speak by virtue of my long experience in this field as an investor and owner of several commercial centers and markets in Jeddah. I wonder if there is a study stating that the number of markets and commercial centers in Jeddah is much more than the actual need. The answer is that it is not. The population of the city of Jeddah is increasing steadily. There are more visitors and tourists coming to the city, from either inside or outside the Kingdom, in particular, because of year-long Umrah. It is well known that the markets and shopping centers are the only outlets for residents and tourists, where they can find restaurants, Luna parks, game and shopping centers. The bottom line is that the number of markets and shopping centers in the city is considered insufficient. It needs to construct more of them to cope with the increasing numbers of tourists, visitors and shoppers throughout the year. I think that this is a positive indicator in itself.
The Kingdom recently approved a law to regulate the home mortgage industry. What is your assessment of this law? Does it have a positive impact on the revival of the real estate market?
No doubt that the system represents a successful step, and a positive indicator for the revival of the real estate market. It is bound to increase investments in real estate projects, as it allows for those with limited income to own their houses, and establish a small business. Of course, this is achieved by the intention of repaying the loans in the first place so that others can benefit from the system.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges facing Saudi youth today and how do you think they can be overcome?Personally, I wish there are more government facilities for youth, such as sports clubs, cultural and entertainment centers, schools, science institutes, etc., where they can practice their hobbies and the activities they love. As for the solutions, I think that there should be more cooperation and coordination between businessmen and the state to make available the aforementioned facilities. In addition, more universities should be opened to accommodate the increasing number of high school graduates. It is a known fact that most of our students go abroad, to places like Dubai, Cairo, Sharjah, Europe and the US to finish their college education because there are no seats available locally. In Jeddah, for example, there are two universities for boys, and another two for girls.
As you are a member in the board of JCCI, what are the latest updates of events and activities that the chamber intends to hold?
One of the most important events that the chamber is preparing for at the moment is the Jeddah Economic Forum (JEF). This is the second year that the chamber takes charge of organizing the process. It is making big efforts under the leadership of its Chairman Saleh Kamel to carry out several projects for businessmen and investors, such as the charity organization that I referred to above, and other developmental projects to be executed in the near future; one of them is the administrative complex which a national company is working on at the moment to draw up the sketches. The complex is located behind the chamber’s headquarters, and is intended to increase its income. It’s worth mentioning that the chamber decided in its last meeting to establish a specialized seat to solve the problems, and overcome the obstacles that face young businessmen and investors, and SMEs’ owners. This commission will hold a monthly meeting with a government official to exchange views and overcome any obstacle that arises.
Do you plan to set up commercial investment projects in Egypt? Do you expect to face obstacles and difficulties in this context?
A joint committee has been formed in this connection led by Commerce and Industry Minister Tawfiq Al-Rabiah, and includes Abdullah Dahlan, and a number of senior Saudi businessmen, including me. We went to Egypt to find solutions to the obstacles that Saudi businessmen encounter there. We met the Egyptian president, the deputy prime minister, and the minister of investment. They all promised us to resolve all our issues and remove the obstacles facing Saudi businessmen. Nonetheless, no progress has been made so far in this regard in spite of our continuing follow-ups. Thus, it is only natural that if the mentioned problems weren’t resolved, no investment from our part will be made there in the future.
As an investor in tourism in Jeddah, are you planning for new projects that would promote tourism in the city and in the Kingdom in general?
Jeddah is a promising tourist city with a bright future ahead. It has a great tourism potential but it needs some support from SCTA to increase the number of festivals. It is well known that there is only one festival in the city, Jeddah Ghair Festival. But there should be other festivals to include sports, culture and art throughout the year. The city needs to increase the number of hotels and furnished apartments, with affordable prices. It’s very important that there should be a supervisory watchdog to follow up the issues resulting from high prices. On my part, I am in the process of finalyzing several tourism projects in Jeddah — a hotel and an integrated Luna Park to the north of the city, a resort in Obhur and Nass Mall on Al Madinah Road. This last one is a grand project, with the cost of SR 1 billion, and located at an excellent place near the airport. The mall includes two hotels and a Luna park, with comprehensive medical facilities. I hope that the project gets the support needed for its completion. It will be opened officially in the coming holy month of Ramadan.
Your next distinguished project (Ship Mall) is considered to be a rare landmark masterpiece in the city of Jeddah, which in turn contributes to the revival of domestic tourism in Jeddah. Can you give us a brief introduction of this?
First, I would like to express the scale of suffering I had encountered to get the approval for the construction of this mall designed on a ship. It took me six to seven years to get it. I chose the form a ship for two reasons — first, the building is close to the sea (Corniche), the other is that the land upon which the ship is laid is in the form of an island. Personally, I adore the sea. The ship is considered a unique, unmatched project, not only in the Kingdom but also on the level of the Gulf states. Government officials and senior businessmen in both Dubai and Qatar offered me a land to build the same project. The construction took a year and a half and it will be opened in the coming Ramadan month.
What is your advice for Saudi youth?
Personally, I started from scratch. This beginning was the catalyst for me to go on, first in business, then in contracting. My advice for startup businessmen and women is to set their goals and pursue them to the end, to overcome the obstacles and solve the problems and not to give up until they achieve their goals.
Any last word you would like to say?
I would like to thank Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah and his government, and in particular Makkah Gov. Prince Khaled Al-Faisal for discussing our problems during the regular monthly meetings.
From Arab News