London Asharq Al-Awsat-The economic prosperity in Saudi Arabia and the huge opportunities it offers to British executives in all trade and industrial sectors were the theme of a conference that was held in London last week by the Middle East Association, which is concerned with promoting economic ties with the Arab region.
Baroness Elizabeth Symons, former British minister for foreign affairs, said that Saudi Arabia "is currently witnessing real prosperity." She emphasized the importance of the strong relations between the two countries "on the political and economic levels, and even on the religious level."
Sir Alan Munro, chairman of the conference, noted that one of the main goals of this forum is to give the opportunity to British businessmen, who have been working in Saudi Arabia for years, to speak about their experiences and explain "the facts, which are usually distorted through the media."
Baroness Symons, new chairperson of the Saudi-British Joint Business Council, said that "reforms have enhanced transparency" on the administrative and economic levels in the Kingdom. This helps make these "investment opportunities bigger than at any other time in the past." She noted that Saudi Arabia remains Britain”s largest economic partner outside the countries of the Western world. She said that during her years of work in the government as a minister of state, she made frequent visits to Saudi Arabia. She added, "Each time, I was accorded greater hospitality than the previous times."
Baroness Symons expressed her regret because Prince Turki Al Faisal is about to leave London to assume his new post as Saudi ambassador to Washington. She said that he was "like a strong foundation of the growing ties between the two countries." She expressed her confidence that relations will become stronger and that a great deal will be built on the foundation laid by Prince Turki.
Sir Alan (Munro) told Asharq al-Awsat that the timing of the conference was chosen to coincide with "the beginning of the trade year, if you like, in Britain and Saudi Arabia." He added, "We wanted to give a comprehensive picture of the interesting ways, in which the Saudi economy is developing, as well as the trade and investment opportunities in all fields of technology." He said that the organizers were careful to involve British businessmen who work in Saudi Arabia in order to "give an idea about their direct, continuing experiences in Saudi Arabia from purely commercial aspects, in addition to the issue of personal security."
Munro, a former British ambassador in Riyadh and currently vice chairman of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce, admitted that he was surprised at the large number of attendees at the conference. He said, "Today, we have around 200 businessmen who represent the various commercial and industrial sectors in this country. Last year, we had only around 100 people. This means that interest has increased and confidence (in the Saudi economy) has begun to return." He added, "We see that the Saudi authorities are achieving great success in controlling the security situation. It was very important for the attendees to hear the views of British businessmen, who currently live in the Kingdom, in this respect."
Munro said that the picture presented by the British media about Saudi Arabia is inaccurate. This picture prevents people from knowing the facts about security conditions "although the acts of terrorism witnessed by the Kingdom are similar to those we faced in Britain." He added that the presence of people, who have personal experiences, in the conference, has helped explain, "the situation in the Kingdom is calmer than what is rumored and is more secure. This would give the businessman enough confidence to go to Saudi Arabia to benefit from the great opportunities it provides."
Carma Elliot, British consul general in Jeddah and director of the British Investment Section in Saudi Arabia, expressed her optimism about the growth of the sector of businesswomen, including Saudi and British businesswomen, in the Kingdom. The Scotswoman, who assumed her post 10 months ago, told Asharq al-Awsat that she does not feel away from home, especially since there is a great similarity between the Arabs and Scottish people, represented in that, "each one of us is a very hospitable people." She said that she lived in the Kingdom "because my father used to work for a Saudi company there, but this was a long time ago." She noted that the department where she works is cooperating with the government and the chamber of commerce on setting up a large number of projects aimed at "developing the skills of Saudi women and helping them engage in the experience of trade and economic activities." She added, "I have separate contacts with many Saudi women, who are actively involved in the business field. Saudi women are showing increasing interest in this."
Elliot noted that reforms have played a key role in expanding the role of women in the trade and services sectors. She said, "there is now greater acceptance of people”s ambitions to engage in business." She added, "The banking and insurance sectors are currently attracting women the most." She said, "Although there are many social and religious restrictions, there are successful examples of the contribution that can be made by women, such as the women section at the Health Insurance Company (Buba), which is running a very successful training program." She pointed out that the female employees at this company are not all Saudi women, but include British women. She said "more British women are leaving for Saudi Arabia to work in some jobs."
Baroness Symons had opened the conference yesterday morning by delivering a short speech. She was followed by Ambassador Furayj al-Awadi, who delivered the Kingdom”s speech on behalf of Prince Turki Al Faisal, who had to travel to New York to attend the UN summit. In a speech entitled "A View From London," Al-Awadi stressed that the trade cooperation between the two countries is rising steadily. Addressing British businessmen, he said: "You are not invited to set up projects only jointly (with Saudi partners), but also separately, since a new law is currently being applied for the purpose of allowing international and regional investors to set up their projects without a Saudi partner."
Al-Awadi said that terrorism is "an evil that is directed against us as much as it is directed against any civilized person living in our dear country." He stressed that his country is determined to defeat terrorism. He highlighted the measures that have been taken recently in this respect. He was followed by Sherard Cowper-Coles, British ambassador to the Kingdom, who delivered a speech entitled "A View From Riyadh."
The first session concluded with a review presented by Dr Said al-Sheikh, chief economist at the National Commercial Bank, about the "Current State of the Economy and Future Prospects." The following session included presenting a paper by Azzam Shalabi, manager of New Business Evaluation at Saudi Aramco on "Opportunities in the Oil and Gas Sector." He was followed by Paul Dugan, who discussed "The Real Opportunities in Education and Training in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia." Colin Clarke then spoke about "Petrochemicals, Power, and Water." He was followed by Luke Bowen, who presented a detailed review of his rich 17-year experience in the construction sector in Saudi Arabia.
The afternoon session included a presentation on "Supplying the Oil Industry: Where British Companies Succeed and Fail." Then came the turn of agriculture, which was the theme of the next paper, before Elliot and her colleague, Mike Hurley, director of the British Trade Office in Al-Khubar, spoke about the services they offer to the British businessmen who want to enter the Saudi market.
At the end of the conference, one and a half hours were devoted to the attendees to meet separately with the British businessmen, who have experience in the Kingdom, in order to get answers to all the questions that may cross their minds.