Forget ‘stereotypes’ about Saudi Arabia, UK firms urged

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LONDON: The visit to the UK by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, this week will set the stage for a new trading relationship between the two countries, Dr. Afnan AlShuaiby, head of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce, predicted.
Sitting in her Mayfair office, AlShuaiby told Arab News that with Brexit on the horizon and the Kingdom seeking to diversify its economy, “the sky is the limit” when it comes to business and trade partnerships.
The crown prince arrives in London on Wednesday and will hold talks with the British prime minister, Theresa May, as well as senior business and intelligence figures.
AlShuaiby said she is optimistic the visit will encourage more UK companies to invest in Saudi Arabia. Britain’s decision to leave the EU made it even more important for British companies to focus on improving trade relations with partners outside Europe, she said.
“I would like to see more British interest in Saudi Arabia and more companies investing in Saudi Arabia, whether they are small and medium companies or even the bigger companies that haven’t explored or been in Saudi Arabia,” she said.
“(The crown prince’s visit) is going to be a very good opportunity for the two sides to finalize agreements together and a way to move forward,” she said. “I would like to see solid agreements come out of it.”
AlShuaiby urged people to look beyond preconceived ideas about Saudi Arabia and consider the benefits the visit could have on UK business and trade.
“When a guest comes, they should be welcomed. That’s a courtesy for any place,” she said
“People don’t know what’s happening in Saudi Arabia, specifically in the past two years. There’s a lot of positivity on all levels and a lot of reforms. I haven’t seen that in the UK media — there is no interest,” she said.
Changes that have made headlines in the UK include the decision last year to allow women to drive, as well as the crown prince’s anti-corruption drive that resulted in hundreds of businessmen and ministers being detained in the luxury Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh last November.
AlShuaiby has been at the forefront of efforts to strengthen business links between the UK and Saudi Arabia since she was appointed secretary general and chief executive of the chamber just over a decade ago. She is the first woman to be appointed to the role in the 40-year history of the organization, set up in the mid-1970s to encourage trade between the UK and other Arab League countries.
The Saudi national gained her first degree at the King Saud University in Riyadh, and went on to complete an MA in educational administration at the American University, followed by a Ph.D. in leadership administration at George Washington University, both in Washington.
In her role at the chamber, she has spearheaded conferences, research services, forums and other networking events to help make key introductions between UK companies and their Saudi Arabian and Arab League counterparts. “We are the matchmaker,” she said.
In 2016, UK exports to Saudi Arabia were worth $6.62 billion compared with $3 billion in 2006, according to World Bank data.
With Saudi Arabia pushing forward with plans to diversify the country’s economy and its reliance on oil, AlShuaiby said business opportunities for UK companies are only likely to grow. The Kingdom’s Vision 2030 strategy, launched in 2016, set out a timetable for economic diversification and social reform.
“The sky is the limit,” she said, noting health care, education, research and development, and cybersecurity as areas of mutual interest between the two countries. There is a “big move” toward renewables as well, she said.
The film and cinema industry is opening up to outside investment, following a decision in December to lift the 35-year ban on cinemas in the Kingdom. Last month, the UK-based cinema chain Vue International signed an agreement with a Saudi partner to open about 30 multiplexes in the Kingdom.
“I think the focus of the visit is going to be geared more toward business and Vision 2030. There is a tremendous move in Saudi Arabia, and things are moving very fast,” she said.
“It is very important that the UK embarks and becomes a strategic partner in this whole vision.
“I would like the government to encourage the private sector in the UK. People need to be reassured — and if the government reassures them, they are more comfortable and will have a better appetite for working with Saudi Arabia,” she said.
AlShuaiby explained that some UK businesses, particularly small-to-medium-sized firms, are reluctant to operate in the Kingdom due to “old stereotypes” about the country.
“British businesses are still a little bit cautious about doing business in Saudi Arabia,” she said, referring to concerns about the country’s business climate and the law surrounding commercial disputes. She insisted that “things have changed” with regard to the legal system.
“We need a different way of viewing things. Not the average stereotype of Saudi Arabia — the desert and camel. That is part of our history and our culture, and we are proud of it, but we have also built skyscrapers. It is a very modern country,” she said.
AlShuaiby called on larger UK firms already active in the Kingdom to “mentor” smaller companies.
AlShuaiby’s comments are backed up by a recent World Bank report, “Doing Business in 2018,” which found that the Kingdom had implemented six key reforms last year, the largest number in the Middle East and North Africa region.
The report, published in December, said it was now easier to start a business, register property, enforce contracts and trade across borders in the Kingdom. The bank’s country director for Saudi Arabia, Nadir Mohammed, said such efforts “send a strong signal to investors interested in investing in the Kingdom.”
Given these improvements, AlShuaiby warns that Saudi Arabia is no longer a place to fly in and out of to make a quick buck. Only “serious” UK investors are wanted, she said.
“This is the message I would like to send out — is we need a long-term sustainable partner. We want to be partners for a long time,” she said.
“We need a bigger British presence in Saudi Arabia. We want serious people who are willing to pay for their plane ticket and a couple of nights’ hotel (accommodation) and have organized meetings with an objective. That’s what we are looking for,” she said.
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