Almost two years since I returned to Saudi Arabia for the second time, having spent three and a half happy years there from 1995–1998.
Returning, I have had an opportunity to reflect on what has changed:–
- Traffic congestion has certainly increased.
- Riyadh had doubled in size.
- New high-rise buildings have sprung up.
- A more open and vibrant debate about the future was underway.
- Lots of talk about reform and change.
- More open criticism in the media of the failures of Government.
- Criticism of the excesses of the Religious Police or Mutawa is a new feature.
- Saudi Arabia has joined the WTO.
- 100% foreign owned enterprise now allowed.
- Laws have been streamlined to make it easier to do business.
There had also been a change in the UK⁄Saudi relationship, which had been for the most part based on defence and trade. Both remain important for both countries. For example Saudi Arabia will in the next few months take delivery of the first batch of Typhoon aircraft, which will continue the long-standing links between the RAF and the Royal Saudi Air Force. We have trained over 2500 Saudi pilots and created 10,000 related jobs.
Trade between our two countries continues to flourish, with UK exports to Saudi Arabia in 2008 up 20% over the previous year. The UK is the second largest foreign investor in the Kingdom.
But what is new is the growth in co–operation in other areas:–
- Take Education – with over 14,000 Saudi students in the UK, we are fast becoming the destination of choice for Saudi’s future generations. We welcome this and, in conjunction with the British Council, are working hard to sustain this level of growth. I recently put a proposal to the Ministry for Higher Education offering, on behalf of the British Council, a free placement and advisory service – a service for which the Saudis currently pay agents handsomely. The new points system for visas will ensure that Saudi students only attend bona fide institutions, which are registered with the Home Office. This will protect Saudis from institutions offering bogus qualifications and degrees. Such is the growth in this area that the Saudi Embassy has had to expand its education office in Chiswick. I think they have more staff than the rest of the Embassy put together now!
- But co—operation in education goes much further. With the expansion of the higher education sector in Saudi Arabia, there are increasing opportunities for collaboration, which are being embraced by British institutions. Sheffield⁄Leeds are collaborating with KSU on nanotechnology, Queen’s University Belfast has signed an MOU with King Abdulaziz University focusing on chemistry. KAUST has signed agreements with Cambridge, Imperial College and Oxford. Queen Margaret University from my home town Edinburgh are involved in a partnership with Al Riyada Nursing College in Jeddah. These a just a few examples of a growing trend.
This is all part of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious plan to develop a Knowledge–Based Economy and the UK is a willing and capable partner in this endeavour.
Yet another important new area of co–operation is Security
- Saudi Arabia discovered at the beginning of this decade that no country is immune from terrorist attack. The attacks between 2002 and 2005 came as a great shock to the Kingdom. What emerged from this was an even closer partnership in confronting extremism and terrorism.
- Security co-operation between our two countries is close and more productive than it has ever been. The exchange of information is invaluable to both sides. But so is the practical co–operation in areas such as DNA and forensic science, which are contributing to new and more successful methods of investigation.
- The development and progress of Saudi Arabia’s counter–terrorism forces has meant that Saudi Arabia has become a very difficult operating environment for Al Qaeda.
- This area of our co-operation remains for the most part below the radar for obvious reasons but it is no less important than the other more visible areas.
The third major development, which has affected the UK⁄Saudi relationship, has been the emergence of a more activist Saudi Arabia on both the regional and world stage. This has meant that the political dialogue between our two countries has become deeper and more intense. Next week, King Abdullah will attend the London Summit, as Saudi Arabia takes its rightful place amongst the world’s largest economies – seeking a co-ordinated and concerted solution to the current global economic crisis.
- The UK and Saudi Arabia have a shared vision on the need for better international financial regulation, on guarding against protectionist tendencies, maintaining support for developing countries, reforming international financial institutions and stabilising oil prices.
- Saudi Arabia’s leading role, not only in launching the Arab Peace Initiative calling for a two state solution in Palestine, but in seeking peace and stability in Lebanon and opposing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, has meant an intensification in the political dialogue between our two countries, with frequent meetings between the FS and Prince Saud and regular contact between our PM and King Abdullah. The level and intensity of the political contact is something new. In the past year the PM has visited Saudi Arabia twice. When King Abdullah visits it will be his second visit in 18 months. I have lost count of how many times Prince Saud and David Miliband have met.
We have also seen an intensification of the debate on reform. King Abdullah has a vision of a Saudi Arabia with an education system capable of producing generations of young Saudis with the necessary skills to succeed in a modern developed country, with a judicial system equipped to deal with the complexities of a modern society without compromising its cultural and religious traditions. Recent changes in Government are widely acknowledged to be a reflection of King Abdullah’s impatience at the current pace of reform. With a population that is likely to double over the next few decades, one can understand the need to get a move on.
There is also a healthy increasingly active debate on the role of women. We have seen greater participation of women in higher education and every week we some discussion in the media about Saudi women’s role in society. Women themselves are pushing to improve their legal status and for increased opportunities to work. There is growing realisation that Saudi Arabia can ill–afford not to utilise more these highly educated human resources. Change may be slow but there is a sense that the pace is picking up. The appointment of the first female Deputy Minister for Education was seen by most women as a very positive step.
But amidst all this, the most enduring impression of Saudi Arabia on return is one of continuity. It is no coincidence that Saudi Arabia has the longest serving Foreign, Defence and Interior Ministers. HRH Prince Saud often chides me for reminding him that he became Foreign Minister the same year I joined the Foreign Office 1975. When we celebrated his 25 years in office 9 British Foreign Secretaries signed a commemorative certificate. Well Prince Saud is still there and he has added a further 3 British Foreign Secretaries to his list of colleagues.
The system of government In Saudi Arabia reflects more continuity than change, despite some expansion in the role of the Majlis Ash Shura and the election of local municipal councils.
Saudi remains a conservative and traditional society. They make no apologies for this. Change when it comes is gradual and at a pace with which the majority are comfortable. With the guardianship of the Two Holy Mosques comes responsibility in the Islamic World. Saudi Arabia may not have a Parliament or direct elections, but whatever change does take place is usually after long periods of discussion and consultation in the many informal, but nevertheless extremely important majalis or consultative networks.
This process can infuriate and frustrate those who long for a more rapid process, but it is also one of the strengths of the Saudi system. Change, when it happens, is more solidly based.
It is sometimes easy to forget the journey that Saudi Arabia has already made in less than one century – from an essentially tribal-based society, to an urbanised modern economy. They have achieved this whilst holding on to their culture and traditions. No mean feat.
There is much speculation, both inside and outside Saudi Arabia as to what will happen when the present generation of leaders passes away. We hope and pray that King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan still have a long life ahead of them. But when I am asked, I also say with honesty that, when the time comes, the transition will be smooth and peaceful. When change does occur, it is often comforting to know that you have the experience of continuity to help you cope.
For me Saudi Arabia remains a country of charm, hospitality and friendship. It can be infuriating at times but if you maintain a sense of perspective and humour the Saudis will respond warmly. Saudi Arabia has not always been good at explaining itself to the outside world. This often results in a two dimensional image which takes no account of the richness and depth of Saudi society. Most people who come to Saudi Arabia for the first time say the same thing to me. “It very different from what I imagined”. My advice to Saudi Arabia is to make it easier for people to get visas and they will find out for themselves what a fascinating country Saudi Arabia is and how friendly are its people.