The role of business in improving Saudi Arabia's international relations

13 November 2007

Speaking at the end of the state visit to the UK by King Abdullah, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said he was “happy and pleased with the discussions and agreements” that took place. But despite his soothing words, the visit was far from a diplomatic success.

It got off to a bad start when King Abdullah criticised London for ignoring Saudi intelligence, which he said could have prevented the London bombings in 2005. The UK retorted that the intelligence bore no relation to the actual attacks.

Things did not run completely smoothly after that. UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband pulled out of the joint conference at the last minute on the first day of the visit. And throughout the visit, many Saudis in the delegation were angered at the level of criticism from the UK press over their country’s human rights record.

Characteristically, Prince Saud handled the issue diplomatically, saying the press were free to print what they liked and that it did not affect the success of the visit.

But the reality is that these issues exposed a significant lack of cultural understanding on both sides.

As a serial victim of terrorist attacks, Saudi Arabia has taken steps to reform its education system and clamp down on extremist organisations. Much of this is ignored by theUKmedia. However, Saudi Arabia could also do more to remove the negative stereotypes that exist in the West.

One important group that could do more to improve links is the business community. Here the visit produced real gains, with a tax accord and a proposal to set up a joint investment company. The absence of any greater achievements was due to the timidity of the UK business community as much as anything.

Trade between the two countries is growing and such links can have a wider significance. They can provide a platform to improve understanding between the two countries. That is vital if they are to have more agreements.

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