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Saudi mall operator takes aim at Dubai’s retail crown

Cenomi executives hope to attract shoppers who might otherwise spend abroad by offering a 'world class' experience Young muslim couple shopping and having fun Anel Alijagic/Shutterstock
Cenomi executives hope to attract shoppers who might otherwise spend abroad by offering a 'world class' retail experience in Saudi Arabia
  • Cenomi Centers targets top location title
  • Five more malls planned by 2027
  • 21 ‘top brands’ booked in

Saudi Arabia’s leading mall operator is looking to challenge Dubai for the title of the top retail location in the Gulf, with plans to add five more locations by 2027.

Bruno Wehbe, chief operating officer of Cenomi Centers, said the Jawharat Riyadh would include new elements such as 3D holographic projections, food halls with live cooking shows and classes. There will also be communal areas where youth can display art and other projects, he said. 

“We’re moving away from the closed concrete box design, we’re thinking outside the box on integrating inside and outside spaces instead of the closed-box mindset,” Wehbe said in Riyadh on April 23. 

“In the Gulf people think the top malls are in Dubai. The aim of Jawharat Riyadh is to break this, and to be the top mall, or in the top five in the Mena region,” Wehbe said. 

The other new Cenomi sites will be Jawharat Jeddah and Jawharat Khobar. 

Wehbe said the key draw will be top brands opening stores in Saudi Arabia for the first time. At least 21 of a targeted 30 brands have already signed up, though their names cannot be published yet. The electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla is on the list of those targeted. 

“No mall has more than around 10 or so flagship stores in Saudi Arabia today,” he said. 

“Saudi consumers go to Paris, London and Dubai to shop. By offering them something world class next door it ends the ‘spend leakage’ going outside the country,” Wehbe said, referring to the Saudi government policy goal of boosting internal tourism and other spending. 

The company is also looking at how to integrate e-commerce into the malls, allowing consumers to browse for items online and have them delivered inside the mall. Plans also include underground parking, a relative rarity in Saudi malls. 

Construction, Helmet, ScaffoldingAndrew Hammond
Cenomi hopes Jawharat Riyadh, currently under construction, will be one of the most popular malls in the Mena region

Asked if Cenomi Centers business is expected to come from an untapped consumer base or existing malls, Wehbe pointed the government’s plans to revamp Riyadh as a world capital in time for the 2030 World Expo to be held in the Saudi capital. 

“Riyadh is seen growing from 7 million to 14 million by 2030. But there is also room for taking some of the B or C market [lower quality malls] which will be cannibalised. That will be true for a lot of legacy malls,” he said. 

Saudi Arabia’s population was more than 32 million at the time of the 2022 census, showing an average annual growth of 2.5 percent since 2010. The government is hoping to attract 100 million tourists annually by 2030, and annual foreign direct investment of $100 billion. 

Cenomi Centers is owned by Fawaz Abdulaziz Alhokair Group, which also owns Cenomi Retail, owner of franchises and individual stores. 

Cenomi Retail is currently divesting many of its lesser known franchises and stores in an attempt to turn around losses

This contrasts with Saudi Arabia’s retail strength: the kingdom rose nine places to No 3 in the latest Global Retail Development Index, published by the consultancy Kearney.

Cenomi Centers, the largest operator of malls in the Gulf state, has reported record footfall, rising by almost a fifth to 124 million individual mall entrants in 2023. 

In 2022 Alhokair Group rebranded the companies under the Cenomi name. Arabian Centers was renamed on the Saudi stock exchange as Cenomi Centers and the retail franchise, which was called Alhokair, became Cenomi Retail. Talks on a formal merger failed last year.

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