When it launched in June 2018, Magrabi Retail’s “Empower Your Vision” campaign broke the internet – the Arabic-speaking internet, that is. The 60-second film shows determined young women doing things – playing football, painting, boxing, driving – against a triumphant soundtrack. They wear cool clothes, the odd headscarf and lots of chic sunglasses and spectacles. The Arabic version amassed 5.2 million views on YouTube (an English-language equivalent garnered 1.8 million). This sororal call to arms by the biggest eyewear retailer in the Middle East inspired enthusiasm among young people across the region and sparked thousands of online discussions. It also incited outrage. One Magrabi shop in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, was vandalised by conservatives.
“We did the campaign as soon as we could,” says Cherine Magrabi, the company’s creative and communications director, when we meet at the brand’s glossy shop in Dubai’s City Walk mall. “There were reforms in Saudi earlier this year [including laws allowing women to drive and to be shown on posters and in films]. Before now we would not have been allowed to air the campaign there. Did we take some risks? Yes. Were we happy to take them? Yes.” Amin El-Maghraby, Cherine’s big brother and the company’s ceo, builds on his sister’s point, as the two are wont to do. “It’s a really important message at a really important time – for the whole region but especially for Saudi Arabia,” he says. “It’s a much more interesting bond with customers than us saying, ‘We’re the best, you should buy from us.’ We want to be relevant in our consumers’ lives as a brand.”
This campaign is the most powerful example of how Magrabi Retail is keeping abreast of modern consumers in markets that are as wealthy as they are volatile. The historic family-owned firm boasts nearly 200 luxury multi-brand eyewear shops, from Cairo to Beirut via Riyadh, Dubai and Doha. It is being propelled forward by the siblings, a pair of articulate forty-somethings who are overhauling their shop fit-outs and communications strategy and recasting their brand in an engaged, fashion-forward light. They are staying agile in a region in which eyewear is a key status signifier – and in which shoppers’ spending habits shift as rapidly as Arabian quicksand.
Magrabi Retail is unequivocally Middle Eastern but it’s tough to tag it with a specific nationality: it has offices in, and ties with, Jeddah, Dubai, Beirut and Cairo. “Our nationality is really in those four cities,” says Amin. “Even within our family we have a Lebanese mother, an Egyptian father and a Saudi nationality. We’re confused.”
The company’s business involves selling sunglasses, spectacles and contact lenses, all by third-party brands. Magrabi Retail comes under the Magrabi Group umbrella, whose other pursuits include eye hospitals (it has 27) and a foundation that carries out charitable eye care across Africa. The firm’s improbable story begins with Cherine and Amin’s grandfather, a respected Egyptian ophthalmologist who fled during the 1950s revolution and landed in Jeddah, the Saudi port city. For a time he was the private eye-surgeon to the king and then he opened a clinic: the first private medical centre in the kingdom. His son – the siblings’ father – also became a revered ophthalmologist and he too opened a hospital. He grew frustrated because he would send patients to opticians to buy frames and they would return unsatisfied with the products. So in 1981 he opened a tiny eyewear shop in his clinic. Thus Magrabi’s retail ambitions were born – very much an accessory to its medical functions.
Retail became a separate entity in the late 1980s but it remained a secondary concern for the family until the 2000s, when Amin and Cherine joined the firm. Amin left his investment-banking gig in New York and started out managing a single shop in Cairo before eventually taking over the whole business in 2008. Cherine left London – where she was an interior architect and artist – to run one shop in Beirut before moving into communications and creative direction. Today Amin lives in Dubai and Cherine in Beirut.
The siblings are a study in contrasts. Cherine is fair with electric-blue eyes and a creative bent; Amin has dark features and a brain for numbers. “People ask us, ‘How do you work together, you’re so different,’” says Cherine. “But my brother and I complement each other.”
Together they are reworking Magrabi’s image – from medical to fashionable – to woo young shoppers and compete in key markets such as Dubai, where the world’s biggest brands jockey for mall space. They have rebranded (to a bold, sans-serif logo) and taken communications in-house, and are revamping their shops: swapping clinical white interiors for dynamic shopping experiences. The Dubai City Walk shop, for instance, with its pistachio-coloured walls and terrazzo floor, includes an engraving and repairs station, and various exclusive collaborations. “In the past few years we shifted to become more ‘lifestyle’,” says Cherine. “My brother and I are fairly young and we are trying to match millennials’ needs. Sixty per cent of our population is under 25; we need to answer to them. This puts us ahead of the game because a lot of retailers are still with the fathers – the next generation is not necessarily interested in optical retail.”
The siblings have lucked out: if you were going to run a luxury business in the Middle East you would want to be selling eyewear (or jewellery, shoes, bags or pens). In the conservative – but monied – Gulf States there are only so many items that people can flaunt in public. A Gucci ensemble would be lost under an abaya or thawb; Gucci sunglasses, however, will mark you as a woman or man of distinction. “When you don’t have a lot, you want the little you do have to be visible, to make a statement,” says Amin, adding that shoppers in countries with national dress codes spend a larger proportion of their disposable income on eyewear than customers elsewhere. “Wearing eyewear is an attempt to try and individualise.”
However, running a luxury empire in this region means never being comfortable. “Recently it’s nearly been a perfect storm of crises,” says Amin. “Whether it’s wars, revolutions or the drop in oil price [in Saudi Arabia and Qatar], the environment is challenging for anything luxury, anything discretionary.” During the 2011 Egyptian revolution, employees couldn’t leave home for weeks, so the company implemented a flexible, working-from-home policy. “We’ve had real-life issues, which are more important than ‘Are you making or losing money?’” says Amin.
The firm’s presence across the Middle East has been its saviour. When one market has plummeted, the company has looked to others. “If we were only in Egypt during the revolution we probably wouldn’t be here today,” says Cherine. “A lot of people went out of business when things were sour in Saudi Arabia [in about 2017].”
Magrabi’s challenge is ensuring that it caters to each country’s specific needs. “The most important thing about building brands is understanding the culture and how they want to be talked to,” says Amin. “The Lebanese like a certain style and class in communication. The Egyptians like humour: a party atmosphere, a song and dance. The Saudis are a little bit more serious, sober and formal.” When it comes to platforms, Egyptians prefer Facebook, while Saudis are YouTube junkies.
Magrabi must also tailor its product offerings. Its buying team – which attends trade fairs and visits individual brands in Europe – purchases smaller frames for Saudi customers, who have petite faces, and larger models for Egyptians. Saudis like big brands, Egyptians like a bargain and the Lebanese like things before anyone else has them. Ray-Ban is the bestseller across all nations and Bulgari, Cartier, Prada and Mykita are strong performers.
The great strength of this retailer is its familiarity with each of the distinct markets. “[Our family background] means we’re tolerant of the traditions of Saudi, Egyptian or Lebanese customers,” says Cherine. We have decamped to Amin’s villa in Jumeirah, an affluent residential neighbourhood, for lunch. As we sit around the table, the siblings build on one another’s points once more. “For us, being modern is being accepting of different cultures and stages of countries’ development. We should not always impose our perspective,” says Amin. That means doing whatever they can to encourage progress, especially at a grassroots level, such as running the “Empower Your Vision” campaign or hiring an equal number of female and male employees – without being openly critical.
It also means that, while they have global ambitions, they are quite happy staying in the Middle East for now. “One thing we’re very proud of is that we’re not West-obsessed,” says Cherine. “It would have been easy to franchise a business model from the West and bring it to this region. It was a much bigger challenge to do something homegrown. Maybe one day we will take it to the West but that’s not why we started it. We’re proud to have created this business from here.”
Facts & figures:
Biggest markets (in order): Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt
Bestselling brands: Ray-Ban, Cartier and Bulgari (when it comes to eyewear, jewellery brands sell especially well in the Gulf States)
Smallest frames: Saudi Arabia
Most fashion-forward market: Lebanon
Most price-sensitive market: Egypt
Most touristy market: Dubai
Coloured contact lenses – especially in lighter colours such as grey and hazel – are a key part of Magrabi Retail’s business. This makes sense given that, in the Middle East, coloured contacts comprise 50 per cent of the lens market. In Europe, by contrast, they make up just 5 to 15 per cent.