As Minister in the British government with responsibility with Saudi Arabia, I would like to extend my warmest congratulations to the Government and People of Saudi Arabia on the occasion of their national day.
Sadly, this year was marked by the passing away of King Fahd. As the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said at the time, King Fahd was a man of great vision and leadership who inspired his countrymen for a quarter of a century as King. He was also a good friend of the United Kingdom. Our two countries have benefited very greatly over the years from his wise advice. I am sure our friendship will continue to flourish under King Abdullah.
There can be no better demonstration of that friendship than the sympathy and support we received from Saudis- in and out of government- after the horrific terrorist attacks in London in July. We were enormously touched and grateful. it illustrated that, as King Abdullah and other Saudi religious and political leaders have said repeatedly, such terrorism and the terrorism suffered by Saudi Arabia has absolutely no connection with Islam. We in the United Kingdom, where Muslims play a full and valued part of our society, understand this very well. We are determined that terrorists will not divide us.
The co-operation between our security services in fighting the terrorists is close and developing. We applaud the success achieved by the security forces in Saudi Arabia, and offer our condolences for the sacrifices they have made. Combating terrorism is an international effort, and we welcome King Abdullah”s initiative in hosting a key conference on counter terrorism in February, attended by high level British Delegation.
We look forward to building on the important results of the conference.
The two kingdoms are working closely together to tackle the many other challenges that all countries face in a rapidly changing world. at a political level, our close dialogue has been taken forward over recent months by the prime Minister, By HRH the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York, and by my colleagues, the Foreign and Defense Secretaries. I myself hope very much to visit Saudi Arabia soon.
At the expert level, there were useful discussions during a conference in London in February, hosted by the two Foreign Ministers –"Two Kingdoms: Future Challenges"- which brought together more then 80 senior participants from the UK and Saudi Arabia. They discussed economic reform, the role of women, and qualifying youth for the workplace, as well at the important political and economic development in the Kingdom.
The commercial relationship is of course being helped by the booming Saudi economy (on course for 6-7 % growth this year) and an impressive programme of continued economic reform. Saudi Arabia presents enormous opportunities for the UK; it is already our largest market outside the OECD. I am delighted that bmi, the UK”s second largest airline, has recently launched a thrice-weekly direct service between Riyadh and London. we very much hope to see Saudi Arabia accede to the World Trade Organisation before the end of the year.
And I attach particular importance to developing links between individuals in both countries. We welcome the increasing numbers of Saudis who are coming to the UK to visit and study: our visa applications were up by 25 % this year and there are now some 3,500 Saudi students in the UK.
Based on these links, I am sure that our relationship will remain as strong in the future as it has been in the past.