Casual Dining Group (CDG), the Café Rouge and Bella Italia operator, has signed a franchise deal in Saudi Arabia as a platform for expansion throughout the Middle East and Asia.

The Steve Richards-led company, which already operates a Café Rouge in Dubai and a Bella Italia in India under franchise, signed the new agreement with Riyadh-based retail and leisure conglomerate Fawaz Alhokair Group.

The group will open Bella Italia sites in the country as part of the deal, which is for an initial 18 sites, over the next four years, but hasn’t ruled out introducing its other brands, including Las Iguanas, to the region over time.

CDG believes this new deal, allied to its other activity in both the Middle East and Asia, is a statement of intent of its intentions to become a global player, with a move into China believed to be also on its radar. Alongside being approached by partners to launch in the region, the group recognises that there continues to be significant demand for UK and US brands in the Middle East and Asia.

To aid this goal the company recently established a Dubai office led by Paul Smith, who has extensive international leisure experience and was responsible for structuring the franchise deals that took Costa Coffee to China and then Dubai.

Smith, whose previous experience includes roles at Thailand-based The RMA Group across MENA, Russia & China and the Kuwait-based M.H. Alshaya and UK-based Marks & Spencer, reports into Mark Nelson, managing director of CDG’s international franchising and concessions arm.

Fawaz Alhokair, which is listed on the KSA stock exchange, is described as ‘one of the leading groups of companies in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia focusing on retail and real estate business sectors’. Founded in 1989 by three brothers, it invests in those sectors across six Middle East countries, North Africa, the USA, and Central Asia, representing more than 80 international brands.

The company already licences and operates a range of international retail and leisure brands such as M&S, Monsoon, GAP and Zara in the Middle East, and is understood to be opening an outlet-a-day in the region.

The agreement’s execution and initial operations of the new partnership will be led by Karim Hajjali, chief business development officer – under the leadership of Kamal Abusara, chief executive officer of Alhokar’s food and entertainment division.

Sultan Alhokair, group vice president, food and entertainment, Fawaz Alhokair, said: “We were impressed with Casual Dining Group’s portfolio of high-growth brands, operational support and their various offerings and are excited to begin a long-term relationship.”

CDG chief executive Steve Richards said: “We are pleased to announce this strategically-important agreement with such a significant and respected partner. As a business we are building real momentum overseas – in addition, we are in meaningful discussions over similar partnerships across the Middle East and Asia regions, with further agreements in train.”