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The Middle East's new king of hotels aims to build where others fear to tread

By John Defterios, CNN
April 7, 2014 -- Updated 0454 GMT (1254 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rotana Hotels is expanding across the Middle East at a rapid rate
  • CEO has plans to develop new hotels in Iran in near future
  • Company also wants to push into markets in India, Australia and Southeast Asia

Editor's note: Watch the full interview with Omer Kaddouri on Marketplace Middle East Facetime on CNN from April 10.Click here for the show times

(CNN) -- With sparkling new air hubs and new tourism opportunities, some of the world's biggest hotel brands have spied the perfect opportunity to pitch up in the Middle East in recent years.

Hilton, Waldorf Astoria and Shangri-La are all making major investments in previously sleepy outposts such as Ras al Khamiah as well as hot new locations like Saadiyat Island, both in the UAE.

But one local company has a head start on the big global players coming late to the game.

Rotana Hotels is an Abu Dhabi-based chain that has been growing at an aggressive rate since it was founded by business partners Nasser Al Nowais and Selim El Zyr in 1993.

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From just two hotels back then, Rotana is now responsible for 85 sites across the Middle East and northern Africa.

According to new CEO Omer Kaddouri, beating the international competition to the likes of Syria, Iraq and Sudan is just the start of the company's plans.

The ambition is to more than double the number of cities where Rotana has a presence to 40 and increase the number of hotel rooms -- or keys -- to 28,000 by 2018.

The majority of this early expansion will take place in the Middle East but Kaddouri is also casting his eyes further afield.

"We are talking to people in Southeast Asia, India (and) Australia," he told CNN's Marketplace Middle East of where he hopes Rotana will develop next.

Having been in the hotel industry for almost 30 years, Kaddouri believes that Rotana should be competing with some of the larger hotel chains in big important regional locations.

"I visited several major cities in need of hotels. (They'll say) 'Who are Rotana?' That's when we need to sell ourselves."

"When they (potential investors) come and see us, the quality, the portfolio... the five stars and (the) apartments, they believe us. There will be an investor that will give the new kid on the block a chance."

A home-grown brand

Rotana's home grown brand status in the Middle East gives it the ability to break ground where others may hesitate. It was the first to open a five-star-hotel in fast-growing Erbil, northern Iraq.

Iran is a big market, we want to be the first there and I think we will be.
Omer Kaddouri, CEO Rotana Hotels

Next on the list according to Kaddouri is Iran. With roughly 80 million consumers, the Islamic Republic is a big prize.

"Iran is a big market ... we want to be the first (there) and I think we will be. Some elements need to be stabilized but we are hoping by end of next year, early 2016, we'll see our first hotel."

To expand as planned, Kaddouri says it is important to always maintain a clear identity and remember where the brand was born.

The Beach Rotana in Abu Dhabi, for example, was the chain's first property and it remains a reference point for the company and the UAE.

"We're not going to change how we've been doing business just because I'm the new CEO," Kaddouri said.

"Our model works and we want to keep it that way. In the next six months, one year, we will start enhancing, tweaking."

With the Middle East, and in particular the likes of Dubai and Abu Dhabi fast becoming aviation hubs, opportunities to grow and further develop the regions burgeoning hotel sector will be plentiful.

"I always talk about the airlines," Kaddouri said. "It's happening, making our area explode (with) incomings and outgoings."

"It's getting better moving forward...bringing in commerce. That didn't happen 20 years ago and is great for us here and when we move out (around the world)," he added.

See who else has been on Marketplace Middle East

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