Now an energetic advocate of less government, Al-Zamil was for two decades a senior civil servant, most prominently deputy minister of commerce. In this post he dealt with regulations governing the private sector.

In an interview with MEED in September, Al-Zamil ranged widely over a variety of topics including the need for the government to do more to promote export industries, how Riyadh should respond to calls for it to provide financial assistance to Iraq, elections and the implications of joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

On the rise of Saudi Arabia’s non-oil exports:

‘Because Saudi Arabia started its move into industry based on an open market policy, it forced Saudi manufacturers to produce quality products to cope with competition. That has in turn given them a competitive advantage to go beyond their own market. Saudi Arabia has discovered by accident its ability to export.

Now, all investors take export opportunities seriously into account in their feasibility studies. The Saudi Industrial Development Fund (SIDF) is almost making it a condition for loans that new projects should be outward-looking and must be export-oriented.’

On what the Saudi government should do to help Saudi exporters:

‘The Saudi government has been a great help so far. We have asked for an export finance system and this is in place. This is helping us reach markets that commercial banks won’t touch, like Sudan. What is needed now and is under study is an export authority. This will be like SAGIA [the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority] and the tourism authority. It will be an independent organisation, which mixes government and the private sector, but is 90 per cent financed by the government.

The third thing is for the government to insist that when it provides aid this should be in the form of Saudi products. The government is already doing this, but it needs to be a law. The private sector needs to be part of these deals.’

On fears of an oil price fall in 2004:

‘Saudi Arabia can adapt itself easily. When the oil price goes down, our spending goes down. When the oil price goes up, our spending goes up. The important thing is that the contribution of the private sector to GDP [gross domestic product] is increasing. This is because of the strength and financial liquidity of the Saudi private sector. I am therefore confident about 2004 and beyond.’

On calls for Saudi Arabia to provide aid to Iraq:

‘As a person that reflects the views of quite a few private sector people, I believe that Saudi Arabia needs every penny. The US is asking us for money. I say let us keep our money at home. If we want to help the Iraqis, we can do this after it is liberated from British and US occupation. But to go now and get involved in a non-secure market where we don’t know the priorities will mean the money will be wasted. This is what the Saudi private sector is thinking.’

On the role and future of the Majlis al-Shoura:

‘The majlis is an instrument for processing laws and by-laws and it is becoming an instrument for reform. About 95 per cent of our resolutions and decisions have been implemented. In many cases, what we have suggested has been introduced. The Council of Ministers has never taken a decision not supported by the majlis. We are concentrating on development issues. The strength of our society reflects the strength of our economy, not military strength. So that is our priority.’

On elections in the kingdom:

‘Because of the size of Saudi Arabia and because of the diversity of its society, we should start with the election of the regional Majlis al-Shouras. Out of these regional bodies we can then establish a national Majlis al-Shoura comprising two-thirds appointed from the regions and one-third appointed by the government in the existing way. Then, maybe in a second phase, you can have direct elections. Direct elections to the majlis could take place after two more full terms (eight years from the end of the present majlis, which was appointed in 2001). I am encouraged by the Omani experience, which is a fantastic success. They started with this in 1990.’

On the implications of Saudi membership of the WTO:

‘Saudi Arabia has been ready to join the WTO for longer than practically any other country. If Egypt and China are eligible for the WTO, then Saudi Arabia certainly has been for many years. We have an extremely open market.

I don’t see what benefit we will get from the WTO except to counter dumping. I am not very excited about it. They said it would encourage investment. I have never seen an investment declined by a foreign partner because we were not members. I negotiated with all the giants. None of them said ‘Oh-oh, you are not members of the WTO.’ More often, foreign investors want more protection. They have told us: ‘Why should we invest in your country if I don’t have advantages against importers of competitive goods.’ If we had gone along with the free market philosophy we would have been a zero exporter today.’