It is 8 am in the VIP lounge of the Meliá Cohiba hotel and breakfast is served. Although this is Cuba, smoking is prohibited here, but soon the familiar aroma of lit cigars meets the nostrils of an American. It’s coming from the back, and the waiter doesn’t seem to care. His curiosity overwhelms him and he walks towards the smoke, finding the back room filled with people he doesn’t know, all with large cigars in their hands.
Who are these guys?
Turns out the morning smokers are from Phenicia Trading AA in Cyprus. And while the average American cigar aficionado has no idea who he is, these men are some of the biggest players in the Cuban cigar world. They smoke breakfast cigars, sell more Cuban cigars than most other companies (ranking in the top three worldwide among Cuban cigar distributors) and they are the men behind some of the most regional edition smokes. most wanted in the world.
“They’re huge in the cigar game,” says Ajay Patel, one of London’s top Cuban cigar retailers. “The collection they have is insane.”
The company is one of the largest Habanos distributors in the world, covering the Middle East, part of Europe (Greece, Malta, Cyprus and Ukraine) and most of Africa, 60 countries in all. Fernando Dominguez, President and CEO of the Tabacalera Group, calls Phenicia one of the largest distributors of Habanos in the world and one of its main business partners. “They were pioneers in developing the very first Casa del Habano cigar humidor in an airport around the world,” he says, “with events and activities that have become benchmarks for luxury goods like premium cigars. One of these events will be the Cohiba 55th Anniversary Celebration, which Phenicia is hosting in May as a combined virtual and in-person event, with the launch of the new limited-edition Cohiba 55 cigar.
Phenicia, named after ancient traders in the Mediterranean, is led by President Mohamed Zeidan, 74, and Managing Director Walid Saleh, 54. The two men frequent the Meliá Cohiba during their many trips to Cuba. Zeidan has been to Cuba too many times to count. “I come four times a year. Until 2005, I came to Cuba 125 times,” he says. “After that, I stopped counting.” His first visit dates back to 1979.
One of the company’s latest specialties, the Ramon Allones Phenicia 40, in its elaborate Elie Bleu humidor.
The company celebrated 40 years in business in 2019. To celebrate, it created the Ramon Allones Phenicio 40, a limited-edition smoke measuring 6 1/2 inches long by 54 rings packed in Elie Bleu humidors, each containing 40 cigars and selling for up to $24,000. Standard boxes followed.
Of course, few are visiting Cuba right now, as the world remains in the midst of a pandemic. As the virus has increased demand for cigars, it has stifled travel, cutting Phenicia’s business. “In normal years, we would sell 13 to 14 million sticks,” Saleh says, sitting in a conference room in Cyprus, where the company is headquartered. The company sold around 10 million cigars in 2021, as local sales increased while duty-free sales (which typically account for 70% of revenue) fell. Saleh expects things to normalize in the second half of 2022.
The jewel in Phenicia’s crown is its Beirut airport store, what it calls the world’s largest duty-free Casa del Habano. “About 430 square meters [4,600 square feet]says Saleh. “There’s a regular humidor, there’s a vintage humidor, and there’s a cigar lounge.” Members can access the lounge, drink, dine, smoke and kill some time before flights. “Some passengers come three hours before their flight, four hours before, just to sit there and have a cigar,” says Saleh. Some visitors enjoyed the experience so much that they missed their flights.
The duty-free is not the typical store. For one, you cannot buy a single cigar, only per box. A “normal” purchase can amount to $1,000, and it’s not uncommon for someone to spend $100,000 or more. “A lot of passengers come with their private jet, buy their cigars in Beirut and leave,” says Saleh.
Leaders of Phenicia Trading: Chairman Mohamed Zeidan (left) and CEO Walid Saleh (right).
Phenicia has also faced shortages of Cuban cigars as the pandemic has impacted Cuba’s ability to meet demand. Zeidan has long believed in keeping a massive inventory—the norm is one and a half cigars—to maintain the company’s supply. Inventory is smaller than normal as limited shipments have forced the company to dip into its reserves. “We are lucky to have a huge stock,” Saleh says. “Partagás Serie D No. 4, for example, which is one of the best-selling items, we usually have 300,000 sticks in stock. Today, even with the D4, I have maybe a month or two of stock.
Saleh has been in the business for 30 years, long enough to witness drastic changes in consumer buying habits. “Previously Churchills, Double Crowns were the best selling cigars. So now the demand in our territory is for big ring cigars. In addition to the ubiquitous Partagás Serie D No. 4 and the near-impossible-to-obtain Cohiba brand, Saleh points to demand for Romeo y Julieta Wide Churchills, Hoyo de Monterrey Le Hoyo de Río Secos, and other big cigars. « All 54 [ring gauge] and above is in high demand.
Besides having a preference for larger cigars, the people of Phenicia have an affinity for larger boxes. “The first regional edition for us was a cabinet of 50,” says Zeidan. “They age better, and it’s better for the cigar; that’s why I prefer to go to 50. If you cook at home, to make the food, if you make it in a big bowl for a family, it tastes better than one or two.
For all their treasures, for all the cigars they sell, there is one item that will be priceless. The company still has an original Behike humidifier, which was made for Cohiba’s 40th anniversary. “We have one left,” Saleh said. When asked if Phenicia would sell it, he simply smiled. “Nope.”