Patrick Forbes, Head of External Relations at the A–BCC, spent 10 days touring the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as part of an exchange scheme aimed at familiarising young men from Britain and Saudi Arabia with the two Kingdoms. Under the patronage of the Saudi General Presidency for Sports and Youth Welfare, and part of an inter–governmental Memorandum of Understanding, the exchange takes place on an annual basis.
At each leg of the tour the group was housed in ‘Beit Shabab’, or government youth hostels, where the provision of simple but clean lodgings and the opportunity to mix with local members using the sports facilities made for a happy stay. In addition to the sporting activities – mostly football, and mostly won by smaller, sprightly Saudis whose athletic prowess did not seem to have been blunted by their voracious appetite for fast food – time as set aside for informal discussions at which views on cultural and political issues were exchanged.
The delegation, made up of 8 young men coming media, academic, sports industry and military backgrounds, arrived in the port city of Jeddah on the 23rd September and spent three days visiting established sights such as Naseef House, Safeya Binzagr Gallery and Art Academy, Abdul Raouf Khalil Museum, as well as recent tourism developments. Perhaps the most impressive of these was the Mersal Village complex, situated on the outskirts of Jeddah, which is just one example of many projects in the Kingdom that has struck a balance between Western funfair amusements and the conservation of traditional Saudi architecture and practices of hospitality.
One of the evenings in Jeddah was spent touring the Durrah Beach Resort, a massive development in the shape of five ‘fingers’ fashioned out of coast that consists of over a thousand villas or apartments, serviced by restaurants, coffee shops, hotels, sports and marine facilities as well as a large marina. With restrictions on obtaining a visa to Saudi being loosened, the tourism sector will doubtless become a growth area for the Saudi economy in the coming years.
The next city to be visited was Dammam, where the delegation based itself while making excursions to King Fahd Coastal City, King Fahad Causeway, the Saudi Aramco Headquarters and Jubail Industrial City with its Royal Commission. Jubail Industrial city can boast the achievement of being the World’s most expensive non–military project, and the city is still undergoing expansion as it remains the country’s most important centre for the production of petrochemicals. With first class facilities, appealing tax incentives and access to a large and reliable source of gas and oil, many foreign companies have established production plants in Jubail, with the Financial Times recently voting it the ‘city with the best economic potential in the Middle East’.
Riyadh played host for the final days of the tour, and the highlight of the trip was an audience with HRH Prince Sultan Bin Fahad Bin Abdul Aziz, the President of the Saudi Olympic Committee and Head of the Presidency for Youth Wellfare. Before preparing this report I went online to check the spelling of HRH’s full name, and was shocked to find that one of the most prominent entries that I came across, in a well known East Coast American newspaper, stated that Prince Sultan was in charge of a Government agency (the General Presidency for Sport and Youth Welfare) that was set up specifically to ‘get the badly behaving kids of Saudi royals out of trouble’. This statement was made in reference to an aeroplane, allegedly chartered by Prince Sultan, that flew several prominent Saudis out of the US on the 12th September 2000.
In reality, I am happy to report; Prince Sultan’s agency is the umbrella organisation that is responsible for the Saudi Olympic Committee, all sports facilities, and all youth centres and hostels in the country. This is either a very impressive cover–up, or an example of very lazy journalism. HRH Prince Sultan was generous with his time, and a lively conversation took in important issues such as Saudi-British relations, current affairs and the region’s politics, and England’s chances at World Cup qualification (Saudi Arabia had already qualified). HRH also admitted to being a loyal supporter of Liverpool Football Club, and his allegiance was not too had to spot as (with many other Saudis) he wore their colours on his head (and not sleeve).
It is fair to say that the group came away with a positive impression of Saudi, having departed Britain not really knowing what to expect. We were all touched by the warmth of the hospitality afforded to us, and several of us have remained in contact with Saudi friends whom we met out there. There is certainly an unfair distortion of Saudi in the Western media, and this is probably largely down to many journalists having not visited the country. Changes are taking place, but can only go as fast as the pace set by the average Saudi, and not the elite who have been educated and often work in the West. By spending the majority of our time with working and middle class Saudi youths, we were very lucky to have a window into the lives of those who one would not meet in London. I would like to thank the Saudi–British Society for putting me forward as their candidate for this scheme, and also Bernard Warden who acted as tour leader and made a great effort to ensure that everyone got the most out of this superb opportunity.