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Lebanon 2014 | ECONOMY | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Faysal Abou Zaki, Deputy CEO of Al-Iktissad Wal-Aamal Group, on designing conferences, promoting investment interest in the region, and the latest trends in event topics.

Faysal Abou Zaki
BIOGRAPHY
Faysal Abou Zaki has over 25 years of experience in the Al-Iktissad Wal-Aamal Group, where his innovative approach was a major drive for the Group’s diversification. His main focus has been to help the Group develop into a leading force in conferences and business events in the region. He also contributes to regional policy forums and is a frequent commentator on regional and global events. Abou Zaki also serves as the Deputy Editor in Chief for Al-Iktissad Wal-Aamal magazine and is a Board Member in Al-Iktissad Wal-Aamal Co.

How has Al-Iktissad Wal-Aamal made the transition from solely being a business magazine to becoming a business intelligence brand?

I think there are two things. First, we were among the pioneers in business publishing as Al-Iktissad Wal-Aamal began 35 years ago as a regional business magazine. As a result of this, we were able to establish a regional network across all the Arab countries in the Gulf, the Near East, and North Africa. Then, we expanded into the conference business. Now, we are the leader in conferences because we conduct them in practically all the countries in the region. In the last 25 years, we have held more than 300 events, which are all major conferences. We are not an events management company, we are more of a conference-making company. We develop the concept, content, and agenda. We do the marketing and we bring in participants, sponsors, and engaging speakers. Then, we do the logistics and manage the whole thing. Alongside this business we also do some consultancy work.

How do you decide on the content of the conferences?

Sometimes we are approached by governments, chambers of commerce, and large companies that want to hold conferences. Other times we propose the idea, and it could be for governments, government institutions or ministries, or private sector partnerships. For example, we organized a conference for Qatar Rail in conjunction with the Ministry of Business and Trade. Then, we have the marketing side of our business where we leverage our network and our ability to put a project together, which we can do in any country. In Turkey, for example, we did the Turkish Arab Economic Forum with the Turkish Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Then, we ran another event for the Turkish Arab Capital Markets Forum. We have also done some events in Africa.

How significant is your contribution to business tourism in Lebanon?

Al-Iktissad Wal-Aamal is incorporated in Lebanon and has its head office here; however, we are a regional player, with 80% to 90% of our business being outside of Lebanon. We did the first Arab Economic Forum Conference here, and that has continued for the last 22 years. That conference helped to bring back investors to Lebanon after the war, which was a challenge. When we started the conference the concepts of economic forums and privatization were strong. Subsequently, I think the issues became broader and we felt we had to address policy issues at the conferences, too. During its peak years the Arab Economic Forum was attended by between 800 and 1,000 plus people.

What investment trends would you say the conferences have encouraged over the last three years?

Before the Syrian crisis, residential, retail, and commercial real estate were all prime investment areas. The growth sectors are predominantly the knowledge-based industry, the fashion and jewelry industry, and ICT. Lebanon is an exporter in these sectors. Business is more challenging at the moment than it has been in the past five years. Conferences usually help because they help spread optimism and confidence, especially if you have a conference with regional participation from high-level government and business interests.

What themes are you focusing on at the moment and where are you focusing your international expansion?

We are, of course, doing events in Lebanon; we have three events coming up in 2014 that have to do with SMEs, e-banking, and female entrepreneurs. We are focusing on a number of countries in Africa and Central Asia where we do conferences relevant to the economic relationship between the region and the Turkish Arab Economic Forum. We are also focusing on re-launching in countries that have seen changes such as Egypt and Tunisia, because we used to do events in these countries. Now investors want to re-explore these countries in light of the changes. In the region we also focus on specific topics, for example we are doing a number of events on entrepreneurs and SMEs in Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Qatar.