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CNBC Interview with HE Saif Saeed Ghobash, Director General, Department of Culture and Tourism, Abu Dhabi

Following is the transcript of a CNBC interview with HE Saif Saeed Ghobash, Director General, Department of Culture and Tourism, Abu Dhabi and CNBC's Middle East Anchor, Hadley Gamble.

HG: Saif, thank you so much for joining CNBC.

SG: Thank you for having me.

HG: I want to kick off by asking you about what's happening over the next couple of days here in Abu Dhabi. You have this forum all about culture and tourism. What's the point of this summit?

SG: So today and for the next few days the culture summit will be convened here in Manarat Al Saadiyat, in Saadiyat island. It is in its second edition and the topics that are being discussed today are a result of topics discussed in the inaugural summit last year. A lot of problems were presented last year with potential solutions such as you know increasing economic growth, improving sort of visitation and interest in cultural sites, topics, projects, fighting extremism. What we've done today is we've convened a very very interesting crowd. We've convened leaders from the culture and arts sector, academics, students, CEOs of tech companies - large and small. And I like to highlight small, because these guys are the disruptors and it's good to have a disruptor in the audience and then have discussions. And the theme of the summit is 'unexpected collaborations', and that's what you would expect out of this.

HG: Kind of crowd.

SG: Kind of crowd which is you know getting to come up with very creative and innovative ideas to addressing problems that we face today such as the ones I've listed.

If anything for me, it's all about this dialogue. And Abu Dhabi does play that role today in the world. We are a cultural capital, but we are also a couple that fosters and facilitates these kinds of, you know, conversations such as the one at the summit. You see these conversations through other forums and bodies were involved in such as Aleph which is the foundation created and now is located in Switzerland to safeguard and protect antiquities and heritage in areas of conflict through the very unique narrative of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. It's all about us having a place and providing a place for visitors and residents alike to have conversations, to understand how connected they are to one another. It's a message of peace.

HG: What's the biggest challenge? Is it increasing footfall? Is creating this eco system whereby Emirati's today are going to look at the culture and arts sector and say, this is where I want to work next?

SG: It's a very nice question, and I'll try to address it from multiple angles. I want to talk at a national level. Abu Dhabi strives to diversify its GDP away from oil, and one of the key sectors that enables us to do that is the tourism sector, and its contributions will be direct and indirect. And you know Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi presents itself as a family friendly leisure destination for all. And we do have, you know, the beaches, the malls, the sites, the amusement parks. But what distinguishes us is our cultural offering. These sites - these forts we have - these historic sites, the Mega-Museum, the other museums (inaudible). This gives us different angles, and attracts also a different kind of a segment but also extends the day spent by your average tourist.

So that's on the tourism side and how it connects to culture to a certain degree. But it's not all about the football. I mean when you look at the Louvre museum, and you know we're not going to discuss the cost, but that investment goes beyond...

HG: Why don't you discuss the cost? Why is that always so tough to get out of you guys?

SG: Because you can never put a price on cultural dialogue, and cultural understanding. And we do regard ourselves as Emirati's, as global citizens who have a responsibility towards the world. But I want to take a step back. You asked about the locals, the Emirati's. You know part of our mandate at The Department of Culture and Tourism is to increase awareness about the culture history and heritage of these lands and to increase national pride. And, you do that through many things; through the educational programs you run, universities you work with on the degrees they have, the fairs, the talks, the symposiums, the festivals, but also the Mega-Museums. When you enter the Louvre lobby and you know that narrative, you will find a lot of important artifacts from these lands. So, imagine how proud an Emirati would feel to see his history being featured compared and contrasted with the histories of other territories and lands.

HG: So it's about raising the cultural dialogue of your home? You say you can't put a price on this kind of artistic value. Does that mean that the government here in Abu Dhabi and the UAE generally will pay whatever it takes to implement this kind of reform and this kind of dialogue?

SG: Oh certainly not. We have we have clear cut strategies. We have cleaner plans, and they run at a very cost efficient manner and we are able to measure the outcome for all of our efforts. I think the trick is, for the next era, is to engage the private sector or the third sector. Cultural philanthropy benefactors play a greater role in funding the culture and arts strategies in the West. And we're seeing the beginnings of that today as the Louvre Abu Dhabi and some key sites in the other Emirates. I think the government is committed to continuing its support of the culture and arts sector. But, I believe it is time for as well, other parties, other participants to come in as well lend a hand, to these efforts.

HG: Is that going to be members of the private sector, private individuals, young people?

SG: It could be many. I mean today, I give you an example. Be it at the Louvre Abu Dhabi or are even here at Manarat Al Saadiyat, we have people who own collections, who are interested in a certain type of art, who are willing to fund the restoration of a certain type of art. Believe it or not, at the department we have a large collection of ancient manuscripts and books. And we've been approached by some people who said, listen we want to work with you, we want to work with you on the restoration of these and the exhibition of all the things along these lines. So it's about identifying these people, it's about also working with others and identifying what their interests are and trying to come up with a win-win situation.

At the end of the day I do believe with our efforts, there is an increased awareness in society on the importance of culture and arts. Not only on a human level, but also, it has implications for the economy. And if you can look at other countries, the more they invest in culture and arts, the greater the economic growth.The greater the development, the greater their ability to attract entrepreneurs to come and set up base in these countries. So, it is a connected story in a sense.

HG: Since you've already had this significant collaboration with the Louvre. Where else would you like to collaborate? Are we talking about some of the institutions in New York for example, in the UK?

SG: We have partners everywhere in the world and you know today, you know, you just mentioned the Louvre Abu Dhabi. I'm also glad to tell you today that our projects with the Guggenheim are on track. And the project, The Zayed National Museum is well on track. We continue to work with partners across the world to further our cultural agenda. And, it's about identifying partners that have certain specialties in key areas. The Guggenheim is working with us to create the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi which is going to be a contemporary art museum. Where is the connectedness there? You will see through the exhibitions that we've run, Guggenheim has had several exhibitions here at Manarat Al Saadiyat. A lot of Emirati art was featured. So, we work with our partners in New York to come and identify these Emirati artists. We come, and we create educational programs around them. We bring their art up to global levels, and we also exhibited, and down the line I hope that when you and I walk into the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi in a few years time, you will see Emirati of exceptional quality being placed side by side with Western and international art.

So these partners not only give us the museum management know how, but also contribute to our educational programs and other ones as well.

HG: How far away we from the Guggenheim completion, are we on track?

SG: We haven't yet announced the date, but now that the Louvre Abu Dhabi has been inaugurated, I'm glad to tell you that we're moving full steam ahead on the other two museums. The first one that will be announced and will be very soon, is the National Museum; The Zayed National Museum. And that museum is going to cover the story of this country. It's going to be a National Museum, a Natural History Museum and Museum about our late founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed Al-Nahyan. And, it is only natural to have it as well here in the district in Saadiyat cultural, next door to the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

HG: Walk me through the narrative here in terms of what you do specifically. Is this about footfall in the sense that when you look at the last several months in particular - there's been an increase in footfall, there's been increased hotel occupancy. But, when you look at even the last several weeks over the Easter weekend for example, prices in Dubai three to five times higher. Are you trying to increase the tourism in the footfall and the hotel occupancy at the expense of prices? Are you basically saying that it's OK to lower those prices now just to increase the amount of people who are willing and ready to come to Abu Dhabi to experience these things?

SG: So as part of our tourism strategy, we would like to achieve a level of around eight and a half million visitors by 2021 and that could only be attained through a two pronged strategy.

HG: You're willing to cut prices?

SG: No I did not say that.

First of course, the first arm of that strategy is our marketing promotion efforts and that's a key source markets. Last year we grew year on year. We grew around 10 percent in the number of hotel guests. And we believe that we will see greater growth this year. One thing you need to know is that, we as a department do not set hotel prices, just like in any part of the world. It's a free market, but what we work is we try to increase the demand at very significant levels to ensure that the demand can sustain good returns for investors. At the end of the day, you know, my job is to as well attract investment to the tourism sector - be it the hotel sub-sector or any other sub-sector of the tourism sector. And that could only be done by generating healthy returns from our investors today. There have been drops in returns, but I do believe that they are temporary across the Emirates. And, I'm happy to tell you that yes the Louvre Abu Dhabi opened last year. But this year you're going to see the world's largest indoor theme park open in the summer in Abu Dhabi; The Warner Brothers Abu Dhabi theme park. In addition to, not too long after that, an addition of maybe one or two very important historic sites to our tourism landscape. The demand is being built through the release of these projects and the marketing promotion continues to be upped. We see a lot of growth from China, from India, from Saudi Arabia. And we expect to continue to see that phenomenal exceptional growth from these markets.

The trick is, how do we work with all our partners in the destination to defend this market share and to grow it.

HG: What do you see as the next exciting move by the Abu Dhabi government to attract folks in? Because obviously it's a family friendly tourist destination, you feel, often times I hear the narrative that Dubai and Abu Dhabi really are expected to complement each other in this space. What's the next big thing for Abu Dhabi?

SG: The next big thing for Abu Dhabi - I mean, it's about continuing to deliver mega attractions or projects every year. And as well provide the enablers - be it regulation or whatnot, to drive the success. The big accomplishment for us was when late last year the transit visa category was announced in Abu Dhabi. So now, you know Abu Dhabi's airport is a hub, is a connecting hub for many airlines and many passengers. We are now seeing an increase of transit passengers disembarking and experiencing the destination. I think Expo 2020 will play a huge role and we are working hand in hand with our colleagues in Dubai to optimize that experience for visitors coming for Expo 2020. The site is only about an hour away from here and I'm sure that you know hand in hand with Dubai and the other emirates. We will deliver a seamless and flawless experience for these visitors and it starts today. So we go together, and search the key markets, we promote to increase awareness about the destination. So that's already big and it's already happening.

HG: When you look at something like a Yas Marina or a Yas circuit for example - it is difficult to increase and keep a sustainable level of interest in a venue that only has a mega event once a year. What's the strategy there to keep people coming back?

SG: I'm pleased to tell you that Abu Dhabi's going to be hosting the 10th Grand Prix this year at Yas Marina circuit. And we have huge plans, for instance this year, we're going to shine. And venues such as these, continue to you know peak the interest of visitors and the DMC's (Destination Management Company) and tour operators alike. It's through the experiences we offer - and you have to - you know there are experiences that are bespoke for a certain segment of people. And there are those for let's say, the average tourist, and it's open for people who want to come and try the driving school for a day, try different types of cars and so on and so forth. But, where does the Yas Marina circuit really shine if you want to ask me about the key distinguishing factors, is their very unique role in business tourism. It is a fantastic site. I have been there to many events, business events, where the garages were converted into meeting spaces, where dinners took place on the site, where companies flew in from abroad with their high flyers and did a - what they would call a powwow - at the Yas Island, stayed at the Yas Viceroy, conducted some meetings in the business center, had some group break studies or whatnot in the paddle clubs or in the garages, had their dinners, and it's exhilarating, the driving experience on the track.

So let's not forget the business tourism angle - and that's something that we are very good at in Abu Dhabi. It's how we leverage our sites to maximize our ability to attract business tourists. Because, at the end of the day if you ask any business planner and any agent they are tired of the same old venues. Business travelers, be it people coming to exhibitions, congresses or whatnot. One of the key considerations is what can I do in the city after the event is done, or what can I do to enhance the experience of that visitor.

HG: Final question. Talk to me about the Year of Zayed. It's a really significant time for the UAE generally and Abu Dhabi as well. How important are the things that you're doing now to that cultural experience?

SG: The Year of Zayed is very important. The Year of Zayed is a year that is going to enable everyone. Nationals, residents, visitors alike to sit and reflect, and ponder upon the values that Sheikh Zayed taught us, what he has contributed to this nation. And well, metaphorically speaking, put the torch in perspective, for every single person in the UAE to decide how to carry this torch forward.

HG: Because things are changing - I mean this is, the era of oil is slowly coming to a close.

SG: Things are changing, but believe it or not perseverance is one of the greatest values that has been instilled in us and the ability to innovate, to destruct ourselves, to continue to be competitive in that era beyond oil. So from a culture perspective, from a tourism perspective, or from a societal perspective it's about taking you know, reflecting on the legacy of Sheikh Zayed, and building on it. The late Father founded the seeds for this nation which has bloomed into what I would call a heaven and it is our job to safeguard it and to further develop on it and perhaps even help other nations attain the same levels.

HG: To not to be drawn into these regional conflicts that we see?

SG: More or less, that's how you say it in a sense. So, in terms of development, educational attainment, women's empowerment, love for one another, peace, tolerance, cultural understanding - all of these things, they affect us on a day to day basis. We need to remember that it is important that we keep these values at heart in our minds as we go about our work every day.

HG: Thank you so much for joining CNBC.

SG: Thank you so much - really a pleasure.


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