From Dubai to Singapore and New York, Richard Attias, executive chairman of Richard Attias and Associates, provides advice to public and private leaders alike. In a global economy faced with great political and economic challenges, he shares his insights on how new business models can be built. Interview by Hichem Ben Yaïche and Nicolas Bouchet
The world has been turned upside down during the past two years. Was your activity affected by this great change?
Yes and no… My teams and I work on a first area, that is providing strategic and communication advice to political and economic leaders, to governments and to international institutions.
In that area, nothing has stopped. More than ever since 2020, our clients need to be supported and to receive advice on their strategy and their many platforms’ repositioning and redeploying.
Then comes our other skill area: being creative, and curating platforms such as international conferences. These past months, we have seen a mix of physical and digital events, and hybrid events. This encouraged us to reinvent ourselves all through 2020. Especially during the G20 set in Saudi Arabia. Every G20 summit generates 200 events all year long at ministerial and at expert levels. Since we need to reinvent ourselves, we created our own digital event platform, a centrepiece of what we offer.
In a world in crisis, does crisis communication hold meaning?
It does, but not in the usual sense of crisis communication. Every crisis comes with opportunity and we must always reinvent ourselves. Everyone reinvents themselves and looks for something new and unusual, including in their individual and personal lives.
Our activity is pure strategic advice. Faced with the pandemic, business models are being reinvented: we do not buy like we used to, and we look differently upon industries. We all saw the importance taken by climate change in many sectors. We are thinking electric and organic, and health has become a priority.
Every industry has been affected by these changes. This is where we intervene as counsel. Strategic advice becomes operational through the creation of platforms that integrate new strategies.
We have maintained our major collaborative platforms as seen during the Future Investment Initiative event, one of few events to be held physically in October 2021, gathering more than 5,000 participants, and before that in hybrid mode with 400 participants, in January 2021. We resolved to go forward while respecting every sanitary regulation.
In the current instability, how can business models be built?
You ask an essential question for a global economy faced with great political and economic challenges. To me, these uncertain times are the new normal. They are not new however and were there before the coronavirus. We knew the only certain thing was imprevisibility and that we lived in a new era where we should be ready for any possibility. I have to admit, I always led my business by being “paranoid”, by telling myself if the worst should happen, I should be prepared for i
Business models should be maintained that can account for all possibilities, like some governments do. For example, by elaborating budgets based on several oil price hypotheses, from $40 to $120 a barrel. In the business and media worlds that were hit hard, I believe it is important to be prepared for anything. What about the scenario where everything goes online? The one where we go full digital, like what New African is doing for this interview? What about the one where, eventually, there is appetite and a will to return to in-person working and events?
We now have to find the right balance. It is not found at the far ends of a business model but right in the middle of it. And there is another very important phenomenon coming into play, that US media have dubbed “The Great Resignation”. As you know, more than 30 million people who had a job in the US chose to resign within a year. I know a great number of people who decided they did not like their lives any more and wanted to change their lifestyle. They sought to work at least on a part time basis, or from home. They also wanted to go more towards tech companies.
It is very difficult today to build a strategy and business model without considering the turn over phenomenon. Not because workers are bored or are unhappy, but simply because they are now aware of what has become important and a priority in their lives. They then change their lifestyle and their destination. This can even be seen in this global trend of people leaving the cities for peripheries. If the obligation to self-isolate should come back, we would rather be in the countryside than in a small apartment.
We should account for all these parameters. They provide us with work with all our clients to think out their redeployment strategy.
Where are you and your activities located?
Our new positioning matches expectations from our clients and from markets. As part of the Richard Attias & Associates group, we manage five associate brands. To be more specific, we created a first brand names RA&A Advisory and Diplomacy. Actually, major economic conferences and major sports and cultural events are initiatives taken in economic, cultural and sports diplomacy.
We can see relations between businesses and governments and between the public and the private sectors are based on this new diplomatic ecosystem.
People need ideas and want to be connected to a large number of international experts. This is what RA&A Lab does, as a real ideas lab that constantly thinks and stays aware so to analyse future trends and develop content with our expert community, feeding into our platforms.
A third area, which is here to stay, deals with all digital aspects. We have created RA&A Metaverse not for trying to follow in Facebook’s steps – it was rebranded to Meta – but because, for two years already, we have launched various conferences where we talked about the Metaverse phenomenon. This is more than a fad and will one day make for 10 to 20% of our daily lives.
I believe our generations are a little disconnected from this phenomenon and do not yet grasp well enough that this tsunami is coming fast. Actually, this is a world that escapes me and this is why I have trusted colleagues in their thirties with it…
For matters of diplomatic influence, you are at heart of the emergence of a “new Middle East” via the Abraham Accords. What shape is this “revolution” taking?
Our activities are located in the United States, in Europe, in Africa (Senegal) and in the Middle East (Dubai and Ryad). We have a small branch in China because you should never disconnect from Asia. Our group has always been present on every continent but the past three years have seen an incredible acceleration in the Gulf region. We can see this reflected in the Dubai Universal Exposition in March but also in all visionary projects in the areas of industry, politics, the economy, culture and more, that are all part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030.
The world economy switched from the West to the East and its epicentre is in the Gulf countries. The Arabian Peninsula at large, that is the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and even smaller countries like Bahrain and Oman, has made the most of the situation. This in all areas including arts, entertainment, sports with the Dakar Rally or with four Formula One Grand Prix in Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Jeddah.
Do the Abraham Accords strike a new deal between Israel and Arab countries?
This is only the beginning. I humbly contributed to what the Abraham Accords have become, simply by organising their outset in June 2019, through the Peace for Prosperity conference. This was held in Bahrain under the protection of the White House, with Jared Kushner’s team. He was at the time a special advisor to President Trump.
This conference allowed to display the economic potential that a stable and robust peace would represent. This is not a minor phenomenon and it is becoming real thanks to what the UAE and Israel are doing and what Morocco and Israel are doing. To me, the Abraham Accords will expand beyond the Middle East to show that these conflicts are something of the past. Some African countries will join in, as Sudan already did. I think some European countries will join in as well because these agreements are so much more global than the relation between Arab countries and Israel.
Young generations want peace. We have had enough economic, cultural and existential difficulties without having to deal with problems that no one understands. Today, we want to settle these territorial problems and for people to live in peace and harmony. I never thought I would live to see it and I hope the Accords will remain set in stone.
Beyond the idea of partnerships and prosperity, what do the Accords run on?
Firstly leadership, and this goes beyond the second fuel that are economic and financial interests.
Many crises, be they financial, economic or political, predominantly are leadership crises. This is what we see in Africa with the many and repeated coups in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and a few days ago with troubles in Guinea Bissau.
This shows how fragile all these countries are, and this comes from the fact they do not have strong leadership. This should be acknowledged before we can start thinking. What should we do now for leadership to be strong, legitimate and supported by the people? All these colonels who repeatedly overthrow heads of state do not do it for fun. They probably know part of the public opinion supports their action.
The first thing that fuels the Abraham Accords and this progress towards peace is that there is a strong leadership in a country that wants to move on and make history by making peace. This kind of leadership is found in Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed in the UAE, in King Mohamed VI in Morocco and in the King of Bahrain, among others.
The second fuel undoubtedly is economic prosperity. Who says peace says instant restoration of economic relations. Who says economic relations says economic expansion and job creation. See how, before the pandemic, tourism increased in Morocco thanks to flights from Israel, bringing with them a new flux of consumers. You already know there are four to five daily flights between Dubai and Abu Dhabi and as many between the UAE and Israel. This creates consumption. Great energy and technology projects have been launched, and all this creates value and jobs.
It takes time for global economies to rebound. Is there a risk that this weighs on these projects and these good ideas that commit several nations?
This depends on where the crisis is felt. The situation is different everywhere. In the United States, we almost see a full employment situation and I have difficulties hiring. A real crisis is not really felt there in spite of inflation. Businesses that have made profits are adapting and are raising salaries.
In Gulf countries and in the Middle East, the economic crisis is not felt. Consumption is at its highest. Oil prices, if they do not plummet, support surplus budgets. In Asia, we do not really know what is happening because the region has shut off ; however, I do not feel that the Chinese economy has come to a halt.
In Europe, we indeed see economic crises but they were there even before Covid-19. This crisis will need to be solved in a way or another with more collaboration. The real question lies in the way the multi-billion euro and dollar debts that have been contracted during Covid-19 will be absorbed or cancelled. Unless, and this might be idealistic on my part, governments agree to cancel the global debt because, even if there has been a lot of money printing, we should not leave debt repayment to the coming five or ten generations.
I know that President Macky Sall, who now holds the rotating African Union’s Presidency, is calling for a new world order. I think he is right and that we should seriously talk about this new world order that some leaders are calling for.
For the great communicator that you are, the words branding and major brand mean a lot. How can we look beyond gimmicks in a world that has radically changed?
Countries have become brands. Today, youth on social networks are much better informed and they are not stupid. They know who the loved brands are. This explains migration. I have never seen so many youths come to Dubai since it has become an attractive and loved brand.
How is it that, in that small state that sometimes seems like a shallow country, we see more and more young couples who are very educated and have children, and who come from very serious trades like consulting, technology, strategy, industry or finance? They come to Dubai just like in the days we saw an eldorado in Hong Kong or Singapore. This is because they associate these brands to values of security, education, a better life and good healthcare.
Brands that embody these four values attract more and more citizens. Migration and exodus are seen within the United States. They are seen going from New York State to Florida, where values are offered and allow for higher purchasing power. In Miami, I have seen a city that is not for the retired only but for young entrepreneurs, people who work on artificial intelligence, technology, and the metaverse. People leave California and especially Los Angeles, a city that unfortunately has a booming crime rate, and go to Florida. This has never been seen before.
What is the place of Africa in your activity? How do you see the relationship between Africa and the world?
Our activity is relatively well balanced and has recently brought us from New York to Singapore for the Bloomberg conference on the new economy. In Africa, our teams have redeployed strongly out of Dakar and work on several economic, political and sports projects on the continent.
Asia is the region where we are the least present, because it is more and more closed in on itself. I see Africa as the continent where I was born and that will always be close to my heart. We will redeploy many efforts there and we are convinced we must go forward in spite of the pandemic. We are talking with several heads of state who are concerned with the current situation and who are trying to stabilise their economies.
Very simply, and to make a parallel with the business world, Africa cannot escape the phenomenon known as ESG (environment, social, governance). These parameters drive investors more and more towards companies that account for environmental, social and governance criteria. Today, African heads of state must comply with a strategy that integrates these ESG values. These are strategies that will bring satisfaction at the environmental and climate levels because populations do not want to endure floods, tsunamis, droughts and climate-driven migration.
Populations also want, and this is very important, good governance. Corruption should be eradicated, even if this can be wishful thinking. In my industry, I gave up on a number of projects because I was met with expressions of corruption. I preferred to politely turn back than to go into something contrary to what has been my ethics for thirty years. Without fighting corruption, this series of coups will continue and create terrible instability. A great number of heads of states are trying to fight this plague.
Finally, the social dimension. One must absolutely have a social policy. I have never stopped promoting this when we were organising the Libreville New York Africa Forum. With President Ali Bongo, we tried convincing his peers they should intervene in social affairs and in education. From there, we launched the Train My Generation program, for which states had to invest in vocational training to create quality jobs instead of producing super-graduates who end up being unemployed. This was unfortunately the case in Tunisia, where the Arab Springs started. This being said, Africa is resilient and will play a very important role in the world thanks to its citizens.