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Tue 22 Sep 2009 04:00 AM

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Bright lights

The Saudi government is forging ahead with large-scale development plans - but breaking into this lucrative market presents its own set of specialised challenges.

Bright lights

The Saudi government is forging ahead with large-scale development plans - but breaking into this lucrative market presents its own set of specialised challenges.

The Saudi Arabian market is undeniably complex - but highly attractive nonetheless. The kingdom has emerged largely unscathed from current economic instability and is forging ahead with large-scale public sector development plans, making it a magnet for companies seeking new revenue streams.

"When Dubai became popular, a lot of companies pulled out of Saudi Arabia and went there. Now, I'm seeing the opposite," said Wiley Jones, regional vice president, Middle East and Africa, international sales, Shaw Industries.

The sheer size of the country is one of its many attractive attributes. "The Saudi Arabian market offers a wealth of opportunity, due to its large population of 27 million, in comparison with the UAE's population of only four million," said Domenic Zaffino, managing director, Mobilia Australiana Designs.

The kingdom's cautious approach to development has also worked in its favour, explained Mohsin Jawaheri, chief operating officer of the Dubai-based designlab. "Because of its conservative approach to its different industries, such as investment, development and so on, and the control apparatus that it has in place, Saudi has been least effected by the financial crisis that is going on across the world. It has lost less than anyone else," he explained.

The country has placed particular emphasis on developing its education sector, with large-scale projects such as the 35,000 hectare Princess Noura Bint Abdul Rahman University for Women, proceeding to schedule.

"The government here is pumping a lot of money into really strategic projects, such as big universities and economic cities - and these projects are all moving ahead. Nothing has stopped, in spite of the economic downturn," noted Abdul Al Azem, managing director of the Saudi Arabian-based Technolight, which represents a range of brands, including Erco and Vitra, in the kingdom.

An integral element of the country's measured approach is a focus on quality, Jones maintained. With less pressure on budgets, projects often have the luxury of using products at the highest end of the spectrum.

"What I feel right now is in Dubai, contractors are not using the product that is being specified - they are more interested in making money, so they are taking the lowest cost products that they can find. In Saudi Arabia, it's just the opposite," Jones explained.

Linked to this quality drive are government efforts to avoid using inferior products from China in any high-profile education projects, Jones revealed. "For university projects, the government has decreed that nothing can come from China. They will not accept Chinese products. I'm not saying that Chinese products are all bad, but the perception is that they might be inferior."

In addition, the country is playing close attention to sustainable considerations. "They feel very strongly about recycling - and I really respect Saudi Arabia for that," said Jones.

But it is the very characteristics that have guaranteed Saudi's success in the current economic climate - its cautious, highly insular, culturally-specific approach, for one - that make it such a challenging market to infiltrate.

A strong cultural and social understanding is imperative when dealing with what is still a highly specialised marketplace, industry experts insist.

"My advice would be to understand Saudi Arabian cultural values, attitudes and business etiquette before jumping in with both feet. This will assist in navigating the Saudi Arabian market and developing more successful personal and professional relationships," warned Mobilia Australiana Designs' Zaffino.

Shaw operates showrooms in Riyadh and Jeddah, and is planning to launch new premises in either Dammam or Al Khobar in October. According to Jones, even the showroom model has been adapted to cater to the particularities of the Saudi Arabian market.

"We have offices and showrooms and they are ‘24/7'. That's the one thing that you have to do with the Saudis. When they say they want something now, they want it now. Another thing is that when we're doing our specifications, or talking about recycling and so on, we are increasingly trying to do that in Arabic now," he continued.

Ultimately, designers need to make themselves aware of a range of cultural sensibilities, and address these in their work. For example, restaurants need to be designed with a ‘male' section and a ‘family' section, and the latter needs to be entirely concealed. Meanwhile, new legislation that demands that offices have separate women's areas, with completely separate access, could soon be passed, and will seriously impact how designers go about their work.

"I think it all depends on what kind of industry you are dealing with. That will dictate how you move forward. They are open to new ideas and the good thing is that they have the financial means to go that extra mile," said Jawaheri.

For example, designlab recently finished work on the new 4,500ft² EFG Hermes offices in Jeddah. "They wanted a modern look but still wanted to incorporate cultural elements. It was really modern - a very sleek, very chic, high-end office," he commented.

It is simply a matter of familiarising yourself, Jawaheri continued - and once you have a foothold in the market, things become much smoother, he guaranteed. "You have to get used to the Saudi mentality. The style of design is different and their interaction with clients is different; but once you are in, it becomes a much easier place to do business," he said.

To that effect, designlab is considering opening an office in Riyadh within the next six months or so. "We're actually hoping to open an office in Riyadh. If things go well, we'll hopefully have a presence there within the next six to 12 months. There is a lot more potential if you have an office on the ground," Jawaheri explained.

But with no free zones and a sponsorship system still firmly in place, the logistics of breaking into the Saudi market are far from straightforward. "I've seen lots of international companies trying to find a way in by either partnering up with a local consultant or a local architectural firm. Cityscape was held in Saudi Arabia a couple of months ago and it was quite a success," said Technolight's Al Azem. "I saw many big companies present in Saudi for the first time. There were big American, European and even Asia firms present."

Shaw's Jones recommends finding a trusted individual to partner with. "You need to find a strong local person to work with. Notice I say person not company. Take a more personal, straight-on approach," he advised.

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