Mission to Saudi Arabia

Apr 1, 2008

Just returned from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia where I accompanied Chamber President Tom Donohue on an intensive 3-day business mission. 

Saudi Arabia is:

  • the largest economy in the Middle East ($300 billion GDP, 27 million consumers)
  • the world’s largest oil exporter,
  • and the place where 25% of the world’s proven petroleum reserves are located.

    But not every conversation we had was dominated by oil. Saudi Arabia joined the WTO in 2005 and since then, the country has been reforming, opening, and diversifying its economy. They are in the process of building six new state-of-the art cities that will be home to 4.5 million people and be centers of education, technology, health care and tourism.

    The government and business leaders we met, including U.S. businesspeople already working in the country, were emphatic – America is missing the boat. We are not there in the numbers we should be to capitalize on the economic growth and transformation now underway. Let’s not overlook the fact that the Saudis actually have the cash to pull all this off – thanks to "reliable" oil customers such as the United States!

    Based on what we learned on this trip, the Chamber is going to expand its efforts to put small, medium, and large U.S. businesses together with their Saudi counterparts to expand the kind of trade and commerce that will create more jobs here at home.

    The highlight of our trip was a personal meeting with King Abdullah. He and Tom engaged in a spirited discussion on many topics, including U.S.-Saudi relations, factors driving the high price of oil and other commodities, and efforts to bridge the divide between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds.

    Entering the palace was an unforgettable experience. The halls leading up to the King’s meeting area were probably 40 feet wide. More than a hundred members of the court lined the halls to watch us walk into our meeting. They were there to watch us walk out as well!  The Saudi media were out in force and we were told later that coverage of the meeting was broadcast repeatedly on TV.

    A couple of other observations. The people we met with, including small business owners and younger entrepreneurs as well as top officials and executives, were all extremely well-educated, articulate, and friendly. They spoke perfect English, and were expert in global and political affairs. Almost all expressed great affection for the United States. Indeed, almost all had lived here or been educated at our colleges and universities. Almost all were men, but we did interact with several Saudi businesswomen who were every bit as knowledgeable about issues and developments as the men. Still, by any definition we Americans would apply, women play a small role, at least outside the home.

    And, it’s a dry country – in more ways than one. It hardly ever rains in Riyadh and there is not a drop of alcohol officially available; not even wine in the upscale Western restaurants. It was a great trip anyway!

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