Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- Abdul Rahman al-Rashid, chairman of both the board of the Saudi Council of Chambers (of Commerce and Industry) and the board of directors of the Chamber of Commerce in the Eastern Region, has asked Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa to find a quick solution concerning the implementation of the decision setting up the Arab Free Trade Area, which was supposed to come into effect in 2005. He also noted that Saudi Arabia does not object to opening customs outlets with Iraq, but the Iraqi side has not decided on this issue to date. Al-Rashid also reaffirmed that there are no laws banning women from assuming the presidency of the council of chambers in the future.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) for the first time, women have been elected as members of the chamber of commerce, will they be appointed as members of the council of Saudi chambers?
(Al-Rashid) First, membership in the council of Saudi chambers is restricted to the presidents of chambers and the representatives of each chamber to the council. However, if a businesswoman is the president of a chamber of commerce and she is chosen as the representative of the chamber, then what is wrong with that. The law of the council of chambers allows women to nominate themselves (for the presidency of the council) through the chamber, in which they are members.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) A Gulf-Yemeni business council will be established soon to support the economy and investments in Yemen. What is the work mechanism in the council itself and do you think Yemen is capable of absorbing Gulf investments?
(Al-Rashid) I do not know about the establishment of such a council. All I know is that a group of Saudi investors have discussed specific investment opportunities in the cement sector and they have recently agreed to set up a (cement) factory. Yemen is expected to witness a development boom in the near future, as experts predict, after discovering oil and increasing natural resources. If the Yemeni Government wants to absorb those investments, it should create a good investment climate through demonstrating flexibility in laws. For example, 20 years ago, it did not occur to investors in the United Arab Emirates that the city of Dubai would absorb all the liquidity and investment flows into it from every direction. Despite this, Dubai now continues to attract investments in view of the flexible laws of its government.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Businessmen have once again faced the problem of obtaining entry visas for the United States. Have you discussed a solution to these difficulties, taking into consideration that they have lost some business opportunities?
(Al-Rashid) We have not missed a single occasion, in the presence of the (US) ambassador or any US official, to raise the same problem. The council of chambers and the Saudi-US Business Council have even discussed the same topic. I personally, along with Abdul Rahman al-Juraysi, president of the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce; Abdulaziz al-Qurayshi, chairman of the Saudi-US Business Council; have met with the US secretary of commerce and raised this issue with him, since it obstructs investment activity between (Saudi) businessmen and their counterparts in the United States. He took notes and said that he will discuss it with officials in the United States and that we will receive the reply later. We are still waiting.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Is there a plan to enhance the standing and role of the Saudi members (of chambers of commerce) through appointing them to posts in the Arab and foreign (business) councils, taking into consideration that Saudi Arabia is the largest supporter of those councils?
(Al-Rashid) There are efforts toward this end. You should know that we are operating as part of a system. For example, I used to be the chairman of the Arab-Belgian chamber (Luxembourg), and Dr Salih al-Tayyar is the secretary of the Arab-French chamber. This means that there is an enhancement (of the standing of Saudi members). As you said, Saudi Arabia is a real supporter of those councils, in view of the large volume of its trade with foreign countries.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) There had been demands by Saudi and other Gulf businessmen to appoint them to the Gulf committees of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), but their request was rejected. Is this idea still valid?
(Al-Rashid) The request still exists. I do not blame government agencies for rejecting those demands, because I have not seen a program, in which the Gulf chambers have participated and which stipulates that businessmen have the right to join the GCC (trade committees).
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Is there coordination among the members of the Federation of Gulf Chambers?
(Al-Rashid) There is a lack of coordination and activation among them. Quick action should be taken. You can imagine that the decisions of the customs union and the common market have all been frozen to date. In addition, I have never seen the Federation of Gulf Chambers send a memorandum to the GCC, in which it outlines fundamental issues that should be discussed.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Who do you blame for this?
(Al-Rashid) I start with myself first. I am for the philosophy “clean your house first.” We want to work professionally in dealing with issues and decisions and to sense them before issuing any decision in order to avoid negative aspects. This is the way things are done in European countries and in the United States. Sensing comes before anything else.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) In this respect, what has been done concerning the Gulf economic citizenship, taking into consideration that some progress has been made in this plan, but there are clauses that obstruct this?
(Al-Rashid) I will speak about the same topic in general. Opening up the Gulf markets has not measured up to the ambitions of Saudi businessmen, because some (GCC) states continue to impose restrictions on commodities, services, and investments. We have a message for the leaders and decision-makers in the Gulf: The world has changed and we should open up markets and remove restrictions as soon as possible. First, why shouldn’t banking transactions be opened up between all the GCC markets? Who accepts the regrettable incidents that happened during the subscription (for shares) in Al-Rayyan Bank in Qatar and Danah Gas Company in the United Arab Emirates? The subscription process in Saudi Arabia could have been conducted in a respectable and civilized way, and not cramming them (subscribers for shares) into a soccer playfield in an unacceptable way and showing this on satellite channels, although this does not reflect the known image of the Saudi investor.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) In your view, what is the solution?
(Al-Rashid) There should be initiatives among the finance ministers (of the GCC member states) to stop those improper actions against the rights of Gulf citizens, although the participation of the Saudi investor in those investments is considered to be a necessary demand, in view of the financial liquidity he has. The Saudi Government should intervene and offer its shares in the leading companies (for public subscription), along with increasing the number of companies in the securities market and diversifying investment channels, like the step taken by the Saudi Research and Marketing Group (floating a part of its shares for public subscription).
(Asharq Al-Awsat) You used to reject the expression “migration of funds.” Is there any explanation for this?
(Al-Rashid) This is true. I am against the expression “migration of Saudi capital.” Funds do not migrate, given that those funds will go to find investment opportunities, which will yield profits for Saudi Arabia in the future. It is a source of pride to see those investments in every part of the world. The Saudi Government gave its sons the freedom (to invest their funds abroad) and did not tighten the noose on them. It opened all roads for them to choose opportunities, transfer funds, and other things.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Have Saudi investors filed cases against foreign countries through the council of chambers for dumping commodities on the Saudi market?
(Al-Rashid) We have not received any case to this effect. If we receive any case, it will be referred to the Trade Ministry to follow it up.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) In Europe and the advanced foreign countries, banks are in dire need of clients. In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, the opposite is true. Are you for allowing foreign banks to operate in Saudi Arabia to create opportunities for competition? Are 10 (Saudi) banks enough to meet the needs of citizens?
(Al-Rashid) I am for diversity in all investments and opening up markets because the individual is the first beneficiary from this competition. When the number of banks increases in an organized manner, this will provide clients with opportunities. Although the number of shareholders in Saudi banks does not exceed 200,000, they all work without exception to attract clients and they pay attention to them.