Jumeirah Group, Dubai’s luxury hotel and hospitality chain, is close to clinching its first deal in Saudi Arabia and plans at least four more openings in the kingdom in the near future.
Gerald Lawless, the group chief executive, said on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, that the company planned to open hotels in Mecca, Medina, Riyadh, Jeddah and Al Khobar, and that a memorandum of understanding on one of those was imminent.
“We are having very real discussions with owners in Saudi Arabia who have sites and who share our vision of luxury hospitality. We haven’t yet signed on the dotted line, but it’s getting close.”
Opening in Saudi Arabia will be a major extension of Jumeirah’s international expansion strategy, which has resulted in recent launches in India’s Mumbai, Oman, Russia and China.
“The international awareness of our brand is very high. But we still want to evolve and develop in the UAE and the Middle East. Discussions have been going on a while in Saudi.”
Jumeirah would also consider opening hotels in Iran, Mr Lawless said, if the conditions were right and United States-led sanctions were lifted.
“If a good enough project came along in Tehran or other parts of Iran for a luxury hotel that would fit the Jumeirah profile, of course we would consider it.”
Jumeirah’s business in Dubai had been at an all-time high over the past few months, Mr Lawless said, adding “the festive season was great. We’re back beyond where we were in 2008”.
Like the rest of Dubai business, Jumeirah suffered from the fallout of the global financial crisis but occupancy levels and room rates have recovered along with the recent boom in Dubai’s economy, with record numbers of tourists visiting the emirate.
Mr Lawless said the group was particularly satisfied with the performance of the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers hotel in Abu Dhabi. “It’s won lots of awards and the food and beverage is doing very well. We’re very pleased to have it.”
Jumeirah’s food and beverage business was growing rapidly, he said and the group now operated more than 100 restaurants in Dubai.
Mr Lawless was involved in an anti-corruption initiative launched at Davos, where he also defended the record of the hotel industry, which has attracted some criticism from environmentalists for overdevelopment of beach resorts that can harm marine life.
“We don’t want to be like the big European resorts where it’s one building after another,” he said. “We’re protecting the beauty of the resorts. It’s important we don’t destroy the product we’re promoting. We do our best to preserve and enhance the environment and location.”
He pointed to the Dubai turtle rehabilitation centre, where injured and ailing creatures are treated in the Burj Al Arab and Madinat resorts, as evidence of Jumeirah’s environmentally responsible credentials.
“There is a heightened awareness of the hotel and tourism industry round the world,” Mr Lawless said.
“The business involves 255 million jobs worldwide, or 9 per cent of the global workforce, and accounts for 9 per cent of global GDP. It is a labour-intensive business, so we can help tackle unemployment, one of the key issues to have emerged at Davos,” he said.
Mr Lawless added that the anti-graft programme did not reflect a growing problem in the industry. “It doesn’t mean I think there is more corruption in the tourism business than other sectors.
“It just means we are socially responsible people, so we’re concerned about it.”