An American trade delegation, including some of the top names in the energy industry, is currently visiting the Kingdom exploring business opportunities. The mission is being led by the Bilateral US-Arab Chamber of Commerce.US Consul General Timothy Pounds, Consul for Commercial Affairs Nasir Abbasi, and the American Business Association of the Eastern Province gave the high-powered delegation a warm reception on Saturday evening at the US Consulate in Dhahran. In attendance were Saudi businessmen and executives who had a good opportunity to network with the visiting delegates.Heading the delegation is veteran diplomat Robert W. Jordan. As US ambassador to Saudi Arabia during some of the most difficult times in the Saudi-American relationship (from October 2001 to October 2003), he played a key role in keeping the relationship on track.Talking to Arab News on the sidelines of the reception, Jordan described Saudi Arabia as his second home. He is living in Dubai these days and is in-charge of his law firm Baker Botts' regional practice."It is extremely important to have American trade delegations come to Saudi Arabia," Jordan said. "We have such a long history of business relationships, and this is where our two countries have the most in common."He added: "There are so many opportunities now for businesses to come in, to invest, to help create jobs in Saudi Arabia. It is important for Saudi Arabia to foster those investment opportunities."As for the American companies, he said: "First of all, they have to be able and willing to come to the region. Now we have much easier policies for visas in terms of Saudis coming to the US and Americans coming to Saudi Arabia."He underlined the need for the United States to continue providing educational opportunities for young Saudis. "We have been so good at it over the years," he said, "but after 9/11 we missed an entire generation of Saudi students who could come to the United States, study in our universities, understand our culture, and make friends with Americans, and continue the dialogue."Jordan observed: "We are picking that back up again, and as I understand it we now have more Saudis than ever before studying in American schools and universities. That is very important."The former ambassador feels that Americans need to understand and recognize the business opportunities that exist in Saudi Arabia. "This is a big region and there are all sorts of opportunities for American businesses," he said. "Americans simply have to educate themselves and understand the opportunities that are here and get to know the Saudis, who are wonderful people to work with."Jordan praised the tremendous progress that Saudi Arabia has made in easing procedures for doing business."I was at SAGIA (the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority) earlier in the day," he said, "and the story they tell is a very compelling one, of how easy it has become to do business in Saudi Arabia."Yet more remains to be done. "For example," he said, "entrance at the airports needs to be facilitated. You need a fast track and electronic gates so that business people can come into the country easily."It needs to be easier for business visitors to maneuver inside the Kingdom. "Taxi service, transport, hotels, the entire infrastructure of accommodating business travelers still has some ways to go," Jordan said."But I think back to the years when I first started coming to this country.... There has been a sea-change.... Things have improved dramatically," he said. He pointed out that when he first landed in Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom was ranked about 130 in the world in terms of the ease of doing business. "Now it is at No. 11."Aida Araissi, president and managing director of the Bilateral US-Arab Chamber of Commerce, was excited about the delegation's visit and the warm reception it is getting in Saudi Arabia.The US-Arab chamber was founded in 1997 with the help of Aramco and ExxonMobil in Houston. "It has expanded since then to cover not just the business interests of Houston-based companies but of companies throughout Texas and beyond Texas, and now throughout the United States," Araissi said.The organization's first visit to Saudi Arabia was in 2002 - "right after the very stressful time between the two countries." Since then, it has led 16 delegations throughout the GCC. This is the fourth delegation to Saudi Arabia."Traditionally, we have always gone to our founder member Saudi Aramco," Araissi said. "We brought companies directly to Saudi Aramco, familiarized them with the investments that Aramco is making and the technology that is in place here, among other things," she said.But we realized that we really needed to do more than just that," she said. "Because we have so many companies that have diversified beyond energy - there are companies into renewables, health care, management, training - and they were asking us, 'How do we approach the Saudi market? How do you do business in the Kingdom? What are the first steps?' And that is why we have branched out to new partners."
Araissi said all of Saudi Arabia's regions are still not well known to the American market.
"Despite all the press announcements about huge developments and opportunities in Saudi Arabia, creation of economic cities, very few Americans know about them," she said. "They have no inkling about the business boom in Saudi Arabia. They keep hearing only about Dubai, and now Qatar. They don't understand that Saudi Arabia is the single biggest market."
Asked why newer companies are not visiting the Kingdom, she said: "Recruiting new companies is a very tall order. It is a big challenge."
The US-Arab chamber encourages the involvement of big companies, such as Honeywell, Baker Hughes, SAIC, etc., to serve as magnets to draw the small and medium enterprises (SMEs), she said. "They think if Baker Hughes is already there, and it is successful, maybe they too can join them and learn about other opportunities," she added.
Saud Al-Ammari, president of the Dammam Municipal Council, addressed the delegates and thanked all American diplomats to Saudi Arabia, past and present, for playing their part and investing in the Saudi-US relationship.
"I want to thank them all for keeping the relationship in a steady shape," he said and gave a detailed account of the Saudi-US Business Opportunities Forum in Atlanta, Georgia which he had recently attended.