Back To Games owner Mark Azzam has been an avid gamer since he was 12 years old. Antonie Robertson / The National
Back To Games owner Mark Azzam has been an avid gamer since he was 12 years old. Antonie Robertson / The National

Discovering Dungeons and Dragons was a game-changer for imaginative Etihad pilot

ABU DHABI // Mark Azzam was 12 and living in Montreal when he first sat at a table on the ground floor of his building and organised an intense campaign into the heart of Arabia to help appease an angry caliph.

The man who has just opened Abu Dhabi's first tabletop gaming shop and six of his friends embarked on the journey traversing Arabian deserts, fending off nomads and trading fingers for scrolls of spells in a successful mission without ever leaving that table.

It was the first time he organised an adventurous three-month session immersed in the fantasy tabletop role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons.

The game required that they combine storytelling, adventure, strategy and dice-rolling in an Arabian-themed fantasy world called Al Qadim, a world that relentlessly challenged them but also brought them closer together.

“Those six guys, they’re still my best friends,” said the Etihad Airlines captain, “that’s the power of gaming.”

Flying to Bangladesh, Shanghai and Rome in the last week alone, somehow Mark has managed to find time to set up the store in Reem Island’s Boutik Mall, fix the broken water pipe found inside it and order new games.

“Basically, I don’t sleep,” he said. “Look, if I didn’t love both these things, both aviation and gaming, I wouldn’t be able to do it, I run purely on passion.”

Back To Games is a 54 square metre store that sells more than 400 tabletop games and is also believed to be the first in the UAE to focus specifically on board games.

Mark, having left the UAE at age seven to move to Canada, said that not only did playing games afford him a chance to make friends in a foreign place but that time gave his imagination a way to develop in a healthy way.

He said that as long as he remembers he’s played games and that his mother also sees the value in gaming’s ability to bring people together.

“I remember playing games, the traditional ones, snakes and ladders, with my mom; she’s a huge believer in connecting family through board games, so I think that’s where it started for me,” he said.

“I think gaming, for me, really comes out of imagination, the elements of fantasy, science fiction or whatever you like, I’ve always been into this, ever since four or five years old I’ve always been in another place but gaming made that place healthy,” he said.

Almost 30 years later, he has rediscovered the power of gaming through opening his store, and he believes it won’t only be a business success but will also help bring people together, as it did with him and his friends.

So involved is he in gaming that the Lebanese-Canadian downloads rule books of games and reads them to see whether they would be a hit in the community he is trying to build.

He said that people have a tendency of walking into his store with no prior knowledge of gaming outside their experiences of what he refers to as the traditional games — Monopoly, Scrabble or Risk, which he considers to be boring.

“I have a lot of respect for Risk, but I ask people what they like and I try to develop that. I see if they liked those experiences and, if they did, I can suggest to play games that are in that genre or feel, otherwise, I can introduce them to games that don’t rely so much on luck,” he said.

In his store, he has dozens of opened games where people can come and try them out for free. Some of the games, which can take hours to complete, require a lot of reading and experimenting. Mark’s encyclopaedic knowledge of not only the games themselves but of their specific rules helps.

He maintains that his dream for the store would be to have games running all the time, as he welcomes anyone to walk through the doors.

“I want people to find an escape here, I want to feel like they are entering another world and whatever you pick up be will be an experience, be it a time warp through space, or a trip back to ancient Rome; whatever it is, I want this to be a haven to let your imagination loose,” he said.

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Mercer, the investment consulting arm of US services company Marsh & McLennan, expects its wealth division to at least double its assets under management (AUM) in the Middle East as wealth in the region continues to grow despite economic headwinds, a company official said.

Mercer Wealth, which globally has $160 billion in AUM, plans to boost its AUM in the region to $2-$3bn in the next 2-3 years from the present $1bn, said Yasir AbuShaban, a Dubai-based principal with Mercer Wealth.

Within the next two to three years, we are looking at reaching $2 to $3 billion as a conservative estimate and we do see an opportunity to do so,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Mercer does not directly make investments, but allocates clients’ money they have discretion to, to professional asset managers. They also provide advice to clients.

“We have buying power. We can negotiate on their (client’s) behalf with asset managers to provide them lower fees than they otherwise would have to get on their own,” he added.

Mercer Wealth’s clients include sovereign wealth funds, family offices, and insurance companies among others.

From its office in Dubai, Mercer also looks after Africa, India and Turkey, where they also see opportunity for growth.

Wealth creation in Middle East and Africa (MEA) grew 8.5 per cent to $8.1 trillion last year from $7.5tn in 2015, higher than last year’s global average of 6 per cent and the second-highest growth in a region after Asia-Pacific which grew 9.9 per cent, according to consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG). In the region, where wealth grew just 1.9 per cent in 2015 compared with 2014, a pickup in oil prices has helped in wealth generation.

BCG is forecasting MEA wealth will rise to $12tn by 2021, growing at an annual average of 8 per cent.

Drivers of wealth generation in the region will be split evenly between new wealth creation and growth of performance of existing assets, according to BCG.

Another general trend in the region is clients’ looking for a comprehensive approach to investing, according to Mr AbuShaban.

“Institutional investors or some of the families are seeing a slowdown in the available capital they have to invest and in that sense they are looking at optimizing the way they manage their portfolios and making sure they are not investing haphazardly and different parts of their investment are working together,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Some clients also have a higher appetite for risk, given the low interest-rate environment that does not provide enough yield for some institutional investors. These clients are keen to invest in illiquid assets, such as private equity and infrastructure.

“What we have seen is a desire for higher returns in what has been a low-return environment specifically in various fixed income or bonds,” he said.

“In this environment, we have seen a de facto increase in the risk that clients are taking in things like illiquid investments, private equity investments, infrastructure and private debt, those kind of investments were higher illiquidity results in incrementally higher returns.”

The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, one of the largest sovereign wealth funds, said in its 2016 report that has gradually increased its exposure in direct private equity and private credit transactions, mainly in Asian markets and especially in China and India. The authority’s private equity department focused on structured equities owing to “their defensive characteristics.”

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