The Kingdom of AV

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the subject of this month’s local insight. Its vast oil wealth continues to power one of the world’s fastest growing economies, but in comparison to its much smaller and flashier neighbours, AV technology is very, very serious business indeed.

Sami Mattar, is a very serious sounding man. considering his job, that is not a surprise. As regional manager of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province for Samir Photographic Supplies, his remit includes the richest part of one of the resource rich nations in the world. Egyptian by birth, he has spent the last decade or so providing audio-visual solutions to a market second to none in its demands for quality and technical excellence.

Samir Photographic Supplies is a bit of a misnomer, born of a past age when its business really was the supply of Kodak photographic equipment from a street store in downtown Jeddah. These days, it is one of the top 100 companies in the Kingdom, with services ranging from the supply of medical imaging equipment to the provision of turnkey AV projects for customers such as Saudi Aramco, the state owned oil company.

I began by asking Mr Mattar for his assessment of the AV market in Saudi Arabia: “you want to evaluate the Kingdom, both horizontally and vertically, you will find that it is more sophisticated in terms of business applications [than others]. Due to the special circumstances of the Kingdom you will not find entertainment applications of audiovisual integration greatly, if at all. If you exclude the entertainment segment, Saudi Arabia is the richest market in the world for audiovisual technologies, this is how I see it.

“In terms of the Middle East, you could say that Dubai is in the entertainment business, Qatar is involved in both business and entertainment, but for Saudi Arabia, it is a huge market and it is mainly, mainly for business. We do have some things like auditoriums, and they are very highly specified, but they are not for performances, but for business meetings and conferences.”

Blessed with the world’s largest reserves of crude oil, 75% of the countries business revolves around the extraction, refining and export of the material. Where there is money, there are banks, lawyers and other corporations of all kinds making corporate AV a huge part of the work that Samir do. And then of course, there are the oil companies themselves, being the national partner for Barco has meant Samir’s participation in huge control room projects for the likes of Saudi Aramco.

“Business priorities in the Kingdom are different to many other places in the world. First and foremost always comes quality,” continues Mattar. “Secondly, there is the total cost of ownership – the long term view. In parallel we consider the application and how the features of a solution match our needs. These are the most important three things. Price is certainly a factor, but it is definitely not the primary consideration.”

It sounds like an AV technology supplier’s dream scenario, but as Sami explains, it is not that simple. “If you get to speak to the end client, the customer, then technology will always come first. However, in some projects you do not have access to the main customer. When you have contracts awarded to a big contractor, who gives work to subcontractors then you start to get compromises on price.

“Sometimes for me as a technology provider, I am not under the control of the end user, but of the contractor or sub-contractor. I don’t get to have the same conversation about technology needs.”

The prevalence of so called mega-projects in Saudi Arabia means that this an often encountered problem, and difficulty in getting directly to the customer is one of the biggest problems that Samir Photographic faces day-to-day when doing business.

Away from the massive projects, there is still plenty of ‘normal’ work to be done. Mattar reckons that this falls into two broad categories. The first is the new project and the second the renovation or upgrade of a facility. The former tends to be carried out via a consultant, with a customer typically employing both a building consultant and a communications / technology practitioner. In an existing building with an established relationship with the customer things go a little different.

“You will find contractors performing the role of the consultant. One of our customers will come to Samir and ask our advice on a new auditorium or boardroom. We are not only contractors, we will perform consulting and even re-design work. That is the key to success for us and companies like us, we perform consultation work and we don’t charge for it.”

That’s fine in the context of an existing client relationship. But this unpaid consultant work can be a double edged sword. “Another example would be a telecommunications consultant who has won some work, which involves audiovisual technology, but who doesn’t have the required expertise. They come to us and say: ‘please design this system for us, and you might get the work’. So we give the design, they remove any product specific references, and then present it to their client as their own. This is risky for us since we have no guarantees that we will win the contract. However if we don’t offer to do it, then they will simply go to another contractor for the same thing.”

The sheer size of the Saudi AV market leads to another of Sami Mattar’s biggest concerns – the issue of frivolous bidding. “There are plenty of small companies, who have contacts with important clients and they then make low or irresponsible bids for work, without being able to provide an appropriate solution.”

In terms of full service integrators Mattar would expect to see three or four other companies bidding for work on a national scale. These are full service providers who, as he put it, offer everything from A to V. There are of course numerous smaller companies who operate regionally, or in specific markets such as education or digital signage that will also pitch in.

And then there’s the recruitment issue. There doesn’t seem to be a problem with finding AV personal in Saudi Arabia, the Middle east is a rich source of technology workers, however they do need to be of a certain standard.

Bringing people in from elsewhere in the region is problematic since the Saudi AV market is far advanced compared to some of its neighbours. If you take someone, to follow Mattar’s example, from Egypt, where the majority of presentation and display systems are relatively primitive. There is a much greater level of sophistication in terms of technology applications. This means that any new staff need to be brought up to speed, even at the basic level of including system control in a design. The basic knowledge is there, but they just need to be brought up to speed, even at the basic level of including system control in a design. The basic knowledge is there, but they just need to be brought up to the level of the market.

A secondary factor is the national legislation regarding the number of local Saudis that must be employed by a company. “Once we have selected these people, we invest in them. We put them through college if necessary and then onto further courses for the specialist areas. We don’t rush their development because technology and engineering are relatively new areas to Saudis. It’s also a big risk for us because there is no guarantee they will remain with the company.”

If you can ignore for a second the huge amount of money available for projects in the Kingdom, the market concerns are the same as the ones you can identify in any of the other big AV markets. The mega-projects can be tricky to get into, in terms of finding the right contacts, and there are of course local peculiarities in building business relationships. However Saudi Arabia market bears all the hallmarks of a healthy and mature AV market.

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