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Saudi Arabia 2019-2020 | TOURISM | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Amr Banaja, CEO of the General Entertainment Authority, on changing strategies, megaprojects, and opportunities for the private sector.

How has the approach of GEA advanced in 2019?

Today, we are simply putting more focus on the entertainment sector. The entertainment offering has always been a wide one across multiple categories, and the first few years have proven that these offerings are in high demand. Under our new leadership, we have more support to expand our plans and fast track many of our initiatives. One of the most vital developments was the establishment of the Saudi Seasons, a new calendar concept, led by a new committee directly under the Crown Prince. Across the Kingdom, for all provinces, we have aligned the entertainment agenda in terms of these seasons to better align all events, taking into consideration our climate conditions and cultural agenda. This both organizes internal tourism and will attract tourists from abroad. Additionally, we will fill these seasons with cultural, entertainment, and sporting events to create a better quality of life in the Kingdom by spreading joy and creating a vibrant society.

How does this seasonal approach call for more alignment among all the cultural authorities?

There has always been coordination, but with anything that is new, coordination will get better over time. For example, the National Day was a well-coordinated effort across multiple authorities, and the Formula E race in Diriyah and the golf tournament were a great success as well. For Formula E, we created a festival rather than just a sporting event, thanks to the joint effort of the organizers. Now with the creation of seasons, different committees are focused on different aspects, like culture, entertainment, sporting, and tourism. This allows us a holistic approach and adds a lot of demand for creating events and activities that attract tourism, both locally and internationally. We are working now to make sure we program the seasons well in terms of location, time, and audience. We also take international occasions into consideration and aim to create events that are relevant to a global audience.

How do you balance between megaprojects and smaller scale initiatives in the entertainment industry?

Megaprojects and smaller scale initiatives complement each other. GEA is the regulator; it facilitates creativity, while putting in place the regulations, licensing process, quality standards, and inspection. GEA organizes and promote the seasons and supports smaller organizations and SMEs to get started. Its mandate is not to invest in megaprojects, but rather in projects that the private sector would not necessarily invest in because of longer return, larger scale, or unclear regulations. When GEA promotes the entertainment sector, it does so in the international arena. We share our standards, so we know we are issuing the right ones. When we deploy programs to develop local talent, we work hand-in-hand with them, but it is the private sector's role to come in and invest.

Will the authority slowly phase out of its role as a funder and become a regulator?

The funding initiative is currently housed under GEA since no other mandate exists for it. However, a new entity will take over this role in the future. The infrastructure will be expanded to accommodate different SMEs funding models. That said, we invite banks and other financial institutions to invest in entertainment, including the entire chain of private equity and private capital. Over the recent years, we have proven there is demand, and now we have to prove that there is financial reward. We will then witness more funding vehicles that want to contribute. Subsidies are going to ease eventually, and it will become more sustainable through creating the right infrastructure. For example, we currently lack dedicated venues, and are thus relying on existing ones such as universities, public spaces, land, and so on. We are working to create a platform that includes a database of all available venues so we can match them with relevant event organizers. Furthermore, some venues need to be upgraded, and we are partnering with venue owners and international companies for management services to do that and attract further events. GEA is also subsidizing ticketing to create buzz. Within the next few years, as new venues and sponsors emerge, the sector should become sustainable and attract more investors.

How do you envision to have more local organizations participate in the current and future opportunities?

Over the last three years, we have expanded the number of local companies we work with through licensing them and providing increased support. Consequently, we have seen growth in the number of companies that have held events without requiring funding from us, in addition to an increase in sustainable companies. Furthermore, there are two major vehicles in the sector, Qiddiya and PIF's Saudi Entertainment Ventures (SEVEN). Qiddiya is about to release its master plan which will outline and clarify participation opportunities. This project is 2.5 times the size of Disney with sporting facilities, an opera house, a theme park, a water park, and a safari. Moreover, opportunities are plenty, even in areas indirectly related to entertainment, such as power companies, hospitality companies, food and beverage (F&B), and more. As for SEVEN, it is working to build entertainment clusters around the country. These will look like malls, but will consist of around 70% entertainment, in addition to retail and F&B. They have acquired land and developed a design that will be launched soon. There are extensive opportunities for private-sector players, both local and international, to invest. For family entertainment centers, there is good local expertise, and they are open to work with international companies that want to work on sustainable and culturally relevant partnerships.

What are your main priorities going forward?

First and foremost, we will continue to align ourselves with other government entities to take a holistic view on developing the entertainment economy. The concept of seasons is also a priority that we are expanding. Tourism, culture, entertainment, and sport go hand-in-hand, and will all contribute their share to the improvement of the quality of life in Saudi Arabia. Developing local content and infrastructure to facilitate growth is another strategic priority. The sector needs more local talent, and we recently organized a competition to source the available talents and train them. In more practical terms, we want to streamline our licensing process, so it becomes simpler for companies to get the necessary licensing for events. We are working on setting quality standards, developing a protocol for live events, and launching theme parks. In terms of local content, we are striving to export our own IPs and to commercialize our offerings internationally.