Monday, March 5, 2012

Day 4

Day Four: Our final day in Riyadh before leaving for Dammam proved to be a productive day filled with interesting and thought-provoking meetings. A late Sunday night and early Monday morning wake-up left many of us bleary-eyed and a bit groggy, but it was nothing that the coffee and delicious breakfast of the Ritz Carlton Riyadh couldn’t fix. One thing is for sure -- none of us can complain about lack of tasty food here in Saudi Arabia!

The fourteen of us piled into our now familiar minibus and traveled to the brand new King Abdulaziz Public Library, which has been open for a mere two months. Mr. Hussain Ahmad Al-Yami, Head of the Foreign Collections Department, toured us through a display of various still photographs of the King with heads of state, children, and other Saudi royalty. Through our tour of the library space, we learned that the library is home to millions of Arabic language books and thousands of volumes in other languages like English, French, Italian, and German. The new library was quite impressive with many new computers and work stations. We learned that there are not a lot of public libraries in Saudi (most of them are contained within universities) and thus this library is proud that they “strive to make books available to everyone.” They are working towards digitizing their collection too. Mr. Al-Yami entertained a number of questions from our group on everything from banned books to the availability of bookstores in Saudi to the accessibility of the library to Saudis outside of Riyadh. The gender segregation that permeates Saudi society is also present in the public library system; there is a separate library for women.

At our next meeting at SABIC (Saudi Basic Industries Corporation), we were greeted with the Saudi hospitality that we have come to appreciate so much. A delicious spread of sandwiches, juices, cookies, and vegetables reinvigorated us for the meeting. SABIC is the largest and most profitable non-oil company in the Middle East. It is also one of the world’s five largest petrochemicals manufacturers and the number one steel manufacturer in the Middle East. The Saudi government owns 70% of the company’s shares and private investors including other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council holdthe other 30%. Mr. Samir A. Al-Abdrabbuh, VP of Corporate Communications, and his team showed a presentation on the new SABIC brand that focuses on making chemicals that matter to the world through ‘trust, ambition, and growth.’ We were surprised to hear how young the company is – only 35 years old – and how it boasts over 33,000 employees. To continually invest in their workforce, SABIC utilizes a training and education academy on the Riyadh campus. Mr. Al-Abdrabbuh shared that the secret to retaining top talent in the company (he has been with SABIC for 27 years) is to“keep people challenged” in their daily work.

SABIC emphasized their role as a global company with facilities around the world and millions of joint ventures. We also discussed issues of sustainability, corporate social responsibility, labor, and low cost materials. Because our time at SABIC shortened due to scheduling constraints, we left with a sense of wanting to know more and dig continue to dig beyond the sleek public relations language. Overall, we greatly appreciated the opportunity to interact with such a significant Saudi company.

At our final stop of the day, our group found a refreshing sight at the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) – women workers! We learned that half of the executive team of SAGIA is female and 25% of the overall workforce there is female. SAGIA’s Assistant Deputy for Research, Analysis, & Councils, Mr. Omar Hamad A. Ali Mahdhi, gave us an overview of SAGIA and its strategies. The agency’s goal is to “attract sufficient investment to achieve rapid and sustainable economic growth in Saudi Arabia, capitalizing on the Kingdom’s competitive strengths as the global capital of energy and a major hub between East and West.” Having worked for a similar agency in the US, I found this visit particularly fascinating. SAGIA focuses on three major initiatives to meet their economic growth objectives: a National Competitiveness Center, Economic Cities (zones witheased regulations and government services), and promotion of energy, transport, and knowledge-based sectors.

SAGIA is proud of its progress on the World Bank Doing Business rankings (moved from #93 of 145 in 2004 to #11 of 181 in 201) and also UNCTAD’s Global FDI ranking (from #27 in 2006 to #8 in 2010). We were all intrigued by the tax incentives that SAGIA uses to attract FDI and ensure that companies have the skilled workforce needed to be successful. SAGIA is also focused on promoting entrepreneurship and recognized that entrepreneurs are an “awkward breed” in the country due to a stigma associated with the risk of going into a potentially unstable and risky career. I was also excited to hear them mention the efforts of the office that I currently intern with at the State Department –the Global Entrepreneurship Program. It’s been very enlightening to realize the various synergies that SAGIA’s work has with both my past and present work experiences.

Another interesting discussion percolated regarding Saudi’s relationship with China (another theme running throughout this trip). Chinese FDI is a significant source of investment in the Kingdom. They perceive their economic relationship with China as an act of balancing and the development of an important relationship during the of the “rise of the East.” As Mr. Madhiput it, “The rise of China is definitely happening in Saudi Arabia.”

The meetings today raised many questions for us. How does Saudi Arabia expect to reconcile the desire to be a global economic power but still resist social and cultural liberalization? Do they need to reconcile these two objectives that seem to be at odds to us as foreigners? At many of our meetings, Saudis mention continual gradual change and reform, but we wonder if there will be a breaking point between those who want Saudi to be a major global economic player and those who outright reject any Western influence or liberalization as a perceived threat to Islam and Saudi culture. We have seen many things that we as Americans appreciate – public libraries, the press, universities, and educated working women. And while we see many things that we perceive as ‘good,’ there are still fundamental cultural differences that we continue to grapple with.

We were sad to leave our beautiful abode in Riyadh, but are excited to see another area of Saudi. Our luggage piled to the ceiling in the back of our minibus was quite the sight to see as we made the journey from the airport in Dammam to our new hotel. Our guides from the Ministry of Higher Education are constantly working to assure that we are enjoying ourselves – and we truly are. We’re looking forward to the next several days in Dammam.

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