The July war once again demonstrated that conflict has been transformed by the media’s up-to-the- minute news reporting. With business decisions made instantly, the rise of the global economy and shifting environments, the media – in all its roles – plays an increasingly important role in our lives, and one company that is helping to shape the Middle East print media industry is the Al Iktissad Wal Aamal Group, which boasts an average issue readership of 5.6% of the total GCC population, a market share that is nearly double its nearest rival.
Established in Beirut in 1978 by Raouf Abou Zaki, a former journalist on An Nahar, the group is spearheaded by its eponymous business magazine, ably supported by Al Hasnaa, a woman’s monthly, Al Difaiya, a defense publication and Middle East Travel. “The company is the first true shareholding media company in the region not family-owned,” boasts Abou Zaki.
By 2005, Al Iktissad Wal Aamal’s average monthly circulation had reached 45,000, with a 60% subscription rate. Al Difaiya sells around 22,350 copies annually, while Al Hasnaa sales for the first half of 2006 reached nearly 60,000.
The company also has a highly profitable conference arm –the biggest in the Middle East – which holds around 15 events a year in the MENA and Euro regions, focusing mainly on tourism, IT, telecom, investment and banking. Thankfully, no conferences were scheduled this summer, and Abou Zaki is convinced that future conference business will not be harmed.
Through its conferencing activities, Al Iktissad Wal Aamal has developed strong inter-governmental ties. “Relations with governments are never static; they vary depending on the person in office and the situational context,” explains Abou Zaki. Relations, especially with successive Lebanese governments, have always been positive. “Since hosting the first conference in Lebanon after the 1989 war, Al Iktissad Wal Aamal, using its media and conference arm, has been singled out as a promoter of Lebanon’s investment opportunities,” he says.
It is a role he intends to continue to perform in the light of the July war, with the launch of a special conference program addressing Lebanese economic needs. “It will provide a vehicle for business ventures, highlighting business opportunities and putting forward grievances, establishing a dialogue between powerful market players, regulators and government agents,” he explains. “At our last Beirut conference, participants voiced criticism over the handling of the Gulf stock market crisis by Arab governments and today, future conferences will address current Lebanese concerns.”
Origins of demand
Al Iktisssad Wal Aamal was created because Abou Zaki identified demand for serious business reporting. “In the late 60s, real business news was rare as newspapers focused mostly on local politics,” he says.
Recognizing the potential for accurate business reporting in the wake of the 70s oil boom and the ensuing emerging economies, he founded a daily Arab business news agency, Orient Press in 1970, a move that inspired the rest of the local papers to carry their own economic and business sections. “A business reporting style evolved,” he remembers. “We started writing in a simpler, more concise manner that was easier for readers, addressing both consumer and supplier.”
With the evolution of this new brand of business reporting, Abou Zaki felt the natural move was to establish a title that carried the same spirit of reporting; enter Al Iktissad Wal Aamal in 1978. However, the war and the deteriorating Lebanese economy forced him to take on a pan-Arab identity and a wider editorial remit.
The 1982 Israeli invasion forced Abou Zaki to relocate to Paris. “From there, we directed our attention to the Gulf and North Africa, establishing relations with key global business figures,” he recalls. “We also recognized the importance of conference organizing as an effective media tool and in 1988, we hosted our first conference on Islamic banking in Tunisia.”
Building a regional group that caters to all Arab countries has defined the company’s expansion strategy. With a network of 150 employees and journalists and offices in Dubai, Cairo, Tunisia, Riyadh and Paris, Al Iktissad Wal Aamal has consolidated its regional and international presence. In 2005, Al Iktissad Wal Aamal sold 39% of its print run in Saudi Arabia, 10% in UAE and 16% in Lebanon, while KSA accounted for 32% of Al Hasnaa sales and Lebanon 36%.
“As you can see, the main focus is on the Gulf and Lebanon, however with the emergence of Jordan and Egypt, we are increasing our regional scope,” Abou Zaki explains.
Consolidation and growth
The group’s readership reflects the strategy of a diversified product base: “Most international publishing houses own magazines catering to different markets, such as the French Capital which also owns Gala, a social publication,” explains Abou Zaki. The acquisition in 1999 of Al Hasnaa, a publication dedicated to women, reflected this need. Middle East Travel, also acquired in 1999, was a natural choice. “With the tourism industry mainly dominated by foreign tour operators, to bring together Arab and foreign markets, English language was the obvious option,” he says.
Al Iktissad Wal Aamal’s readership is primarily higher-echelon business people (over 44 and earning at least $7,000 a month according to Abou Zaki), while Al Hasnaa’s figures show it outstrips its competitors Alam Hawaa, Al Jamila and Mondanité. According to Ipsos in Lebanon, Al Hasnaa is read by married women over 30. It has a 9.06% market share, ahead of Snob (7.97%), Special, Noun and Fairuz International.
“Our market strategy for Al Iktissad Wal Aamal was to establish a pan-Arab image. We publish around 36 issues annually, including special issues [to promote conferences and forums and exhibitions as well as build the Al Iktissad Wal Aamal brand] as well as local and regional publications,” Abou Zaki explains. “We have proved over the years, often in extremely difficult times, our ability to ensure full regional coverage. We have been able to earn the trust of governments and key industry figures which is reflected in our high turnover rates. If our name is associated with an event people expect a success.”
Abou Zaki attributes this success not just to the group’s level of professionalism and the trust it has achieved among readers and conference clients, but also to strategic alliances with blue chip international brands. For five years in the 1980s, it published a newsletter called Al Aamal in collaboration with the Financial Times, while today, Al Difaiya is a joint project between Al Iktissad Wal Aamal and the German Monch, the world’s biggest media group, specializing in defense news. It also interacts with its customer base. Through a system of awards, the company regularly recognizes key figures and promising companies.
As a regional brand name with a presence in most Arab countries but also a strong Lebanese identity, Al Iktissad Wal Aaamal’s role remains central in the light of recent events. “The political cloud floating over Lebanon needs to be lifted in order to restore faith in the economy and bring back investors. I think it is essential to address this effort to help kick start the economy,” says Abou Zaki, confident that Al Iktissad Wal Aamal can play a part in this initiative.