InterContinental Hotels & Resorts celebrates 75 years, focuses on Saudi Arabia

Haitham Mattar

InterContinental Hotels & Resorts, IHG's luxury brand, celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. Its India, Middle East & Africa (IMEA) story begins 60 years ago in 1961 with the opening of the first InterContinental hotel in the Middle East, InterContinental Phoenicia Beirut. InterContinental Jordan opened its doors shortly after in 1963, followed by  InterContinental Lusaka in 1968. InterContinental Riyadh opened its doors in 1975 as the first luxury hotel in the Saudi Arabia, marking the beginning of the brand’s strong legacy in the Kingdom.

Today, IHG has 38 properties in Saudi Arabia across 7 of it 16 brands, covering luxury, premium, economy and long-stay segments. We speak to of Haitham Mattar, Managing Director of IMEA, for more regional insight. Mattar joins IHG Hotels & Resorts after two years in the Saudi Ministry of Tourism where, as Senior Advisor and a member of the Executive Leadership Committee, he contributed to the development and implementation of Saudi’s sustainable tourism strategy to become one of the world’s top tourist destinations.

“My insights into Saudi Arabia marry perfectly into IHG’s growth ambitions in the country. With 18,000 rooms in operation within Saudi Arabia, we are largest operator in the country today. We also have a great pipeline of 21 hotels between now and the next two years and this pipeline continues to grow,” Mattar tells us in a one-to-one interview.

“We have signed a Six Senses property with Dhiriyah, which is luxury but also focuses on sustainability and wellness. We are now in deep discussions to introduce more of our brands in Dhiriyah.

“Dhiriyah is a phenomenal project - it’s not just Saudi’s history, it is the history of the origins of all of Arabia. It’s the only mud-city that is still standing in the world. Not only has the government cared to protect their history, culture and authenticity but also brought in hospitality product into it without taking away from its beauty because it is a Unesco World Heritage site.”

Before his time in Saudi Arabia, Mattar had spent four years as CEO of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority, reporting to His Highness Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qassimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah.

“There’s opportunity in the near future, with the InterContinental opening up in Ras Al Khaimah in Mina Al Arab, in the first quarter of 2022.”

“For the UAE, we are currently seeing booking pace grow exponentially for the last quarter of the year. We also see that the first quarter of next year will be much stronger. We are in deep discussions with Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing and leadership on how we can continue to promote the Expo 2020 using our platforms across the world to reach our loyal members. We are also seeing a take up into our hotels in Abu Dhabi and Fujairah – not just Dubai. Expo 2020 is a six-months affair, you will have people who want to go away on the weekend and our properties in Abu Dhabi and Fujairah are perfectly suited to welcome them.”

In 2020, Mattar was appointed as a Special Advisor to the Secretary General of the UNWTO on matters of sustainable tourism.

“Everyone knows that sustainability is a lot more than going green,” he tells us. “It includes diversion and inclusion, culture and heritage, the human angle – when you combines these with AI and digital technology, you will have solutions for hospitality of tomorrow.

“In 2017, I was with Ras Al Khaimah and so, I was part of the committee when United Nations launched their 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Most countries globally can be ambitious enough to adopt five or six of these SGDs realistically but Saudi Arabia, due to its vastness and diversity being the 12th largest country in the world and the forward thinking nature of its leadership, can actually adopt all 17 of these SGDs.”

“IHG’s Journey to Tomorrow, a ten-year programme, also aims to bring these sustainable goals into practice from a hospitality perspective. We, at IHG, aim to help with Saudisation, help bring the experiences of Saudi into the hotels in the country.

"It’s not about bringing in coffee and dates – everybody does that. We want to go beyond that.”