Cultural Heritage as an Economic Driver

Heritage as a Value Point: Building Economies around Culture and Tradition

MENA’s historical and cultural heritage, which spans millennia, provides plenty of unique value that can be tapped into in order to create experiences exclusive to the region. In this outlook, we explore how emerging businesses and regional champions can leverage cultural heritage as an economic driver. By incorporating their cultural elements into their business strategies, entrepreneurs and business owners can differentiate themselves from regional and international competitors. Entrepreneurs and businesses tend to adopt a future-forward approach for business growth. Still, sometimes heritage from the past holds exceptional opportunities for innovation and growth that capable business owners can leverage.

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Bridging past and future: the value in heritage

For an ecosystem to thrive around heritage and tradition, each of its members must step up to the challenge. Governments must first recognize the value in points of cultural interest, then implement policies and initiatives to maintain them and cultivate dynamic economies around them.

Businesses should also learn the value of this heritage, and design growth strategies that embrace and capitalize on the opportunity. Sectors such as Tourism, hospitality, entertainment, and F&B rely heavily on the cultural aspect of their offerings. This makes them prime candidates for such strategies, especially the SMEs driving most market activity.

Evidently, cultivating a growth mindset within the ecosystem requires elaborate upscaling and upskilling action plans. This is where ecosystem partners like AstroLabs come into play, offering expert programs that tackle the challenges faced by businesses in different sectors. Following a process of rigorous research, ecosystem enablers can identify opportunities, and equip SMEs and entrepreneurs with efficient tools to benefit from them. In the case of Tourism, the Vibes AlUla SME Enablement Program was a leeway for many of AlUla’s small business owners to step up their operations and grow in line with the government’s vision for the city.

Recently, we are seeing a surge of emerging ecosystems around heritage sites across Saudi Arabia, and while it is motivated by the same sense of entrepreneurship and national pride, the approaches can look wildly different depending on the local businesses and communities.

Take for instance AlUla and Diriyah. These two historic cities offer tourists an exclusive glimpse into the lives of old Nabateans, in an environment of cultural celebration. The key difference is that while AlUla celebrates its proud heritage by showcasing its long-lived traditions, Diriyah chooses to incorporate more contemporary attractions. The AlUla Camel Cup, for example, brings a traditional Saudi flair that is unique to the city, promoting the rich history of camel racing in the peninsula. In contrast, the Diriyah Urban Festival is hosting the UCI BMX Freestyle Park World Cup, with global appeal to the modern tourist.

The complementarity of these approaches is evident, as tourists seek both experiences when traveling. For tourism-centric ecosystems, heritage is an asset of great value that can be celebrated to engage and delight customers from all across the globe.

Local identity, global appeal: the power of branding

In many ways, heritage can be utilized as a branding tool, and several parallels can be drawn between heritage and branding. After all, both of these notions culminate in a sense of identity and distinction, and they often overlap in ecosystems where heritage is prevalent.

Businesses that incorporate heritage into their brand are essentially displaying their cultural identity and the intrinsic values that it entails. The commonalities between the principles of local businesses and their ancestral culture can result in uniquely branded concepts that are proper to the ecosystem in particular.

SMEs in AlUla have understood the importance of a strong localized brand. A notable example is Racha al Joud, an artist from AlUla whose brand revolves around the stone etching motifs of the city’s ancient architecture.

Meshing both identities, the brand’s and the culture’s, has allowed al Joud to create exclusive products that can transfer the value of local heritage to customers from across the world. The brand features not only the AlUla art style, but also features messages inspired by Arabic literature, Islamic texts, and local folklore. This helps the brand relay its values through the very design of its offering while leveraging culture as a clever and inimitable selling point.

Keeping MENA’s stories alive

When a business brings cultural values forward, rare and ingenious branding opportunities emerge. Beyond aesthetics and messaging, cultural codes and philosophies can help entrepreneurs transcend branding, and weave their heritage directly into their business models through storytelling.

Demonstrating this powerful tool, Dubai-based startup Floward has drawn inspiration from Arab generosity and cordiality to create a flower and gift delivery platform. Floward’s business model has proven highly successful, having expanded their business across MENA and overseas, and amassing a client base of over a million users. In record time, the simple intention of relaying a classic Arab custom to the world has led to an internationally successful e-commerce platform. This is a testament to the power of a story well told.

In a similar fashion, the online platform for coffee enthusiasts, COFE, chose to turn the traditional Arab gatherings over coffee into a cross-cultural digital marketplace. In doing so, COFE found a way to promote an important facet of the Arab lifestyle to users across the globe. They even partnered with the Saudi Coffee Company (SCC) as a way to elevate the Saudi coffee industry and allow it to compete internationally, further advancing the unique local offerings of the region.

As more and more ecosystems emerge around the region’s wealth of heritage sites, it is important to recognize the value of cultural heritage, maintain it, and cultivate dynamic economies around it. Heritage remains a valuable asset that can be utilized by MENA businesses to differentiate themselves, strengthen their brand identity, and create unique experiences for customers.