Forget ‘stereotypes’ about Saudi Arabia, UK firms urged

— Afnan AlShuaiby Head of the Arab-BritishChamber of Commerce
Updated 07 March 2018
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Forget ‘stereotypes’ about Saudi Arabia, UK firms urged

LONDON: The visit to the UK by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, this week will set the stage for a new trading relationship between the two countries, Dr. Afnan AlShuaiby, head of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce, predicted.
Sitting in her Mayfair office, AlShuaiby told Arab News that with Brexit on the horizon and the Kingdom seeking to diversify its economy, “the sky is the limit” when it comes to business and trade partnerships.
The crown prince arrives in London on Wednesday and will hold talks with the British prime minister, Theresa May, as well as senior business and intelligence figures.
AlShuaiby said she is optimistic the visit will encourage more UK companies to invest in Saudi Arabia. Britain’s decision to leave the EU made it even more important for British companies to focus on improving trade relations with partners outside Europe, she said.
“I would like to see more British interest in Saudi Arabia and more companies investing in Saudi Arabia, whether they are small and medium companies or even the bigger companies that haven’t explored or been in Saudi Arabia,” she said.
“(The crown prince’s visit) is going to be a very good opportunity for the two sides to finalize agreements together and a way to move forward,” she said. “I would like to see solid agreements come out of it.”
AlShuaiby urged people to look beyond preconceived ideas about Saudi Arabia and consider the benefits the visit could have on UK business and trade.
“When a guest comes, they should be welcomed. That’s a courtesy for any place,” she said
“People don’t know what’s happening in Saudi Arabia, specifically in the past two years. There’s a lot of positivity on all levels and a lot of reforms. I haven’t seen that in the UK media — there is no interest,” she said.
Changes that have made headlines in the UK include the decision last year to allow women to drive, as well as the crown prince’s anti-corruption drive that resulted in hundreds of businessmen and ministers being detained in the luxury Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh last November.
AlShuaiby has been at the forefront of efforts to strengthen business links between the UK and Saudi Arabia since she was appointed secretary general and chief executive of the chamber just over a decade ago. She is the first woman to be appointed to the role in the 40-year history of the organization, set up in the mid-1970s to encourage trade between the UK and other Arab League countries.
The Saudi national gained her first degree at the King Saud University in Riyadh, and went on to complete an MA in educational administration at the American University, followed by a Ph.D. in leadership administration at George Washington University, both in Washington.
In her role at the chamber, she has spearheaded conferences, research services, forums and other networking events to help make key introductions between UK companies and their Saudi Arabian and Arab League counterparts. “We are the matchmaker,” she said.
In 2016, UK exports to Saudi Arabia were worth $6.62 billion compared with $3 billion in 2006, according to World Bank data.
With Saudi Arabia pushing forward with plans to diversify the country’s economy and its reliance on oil, AlShuaiby said business opportunities for UK companies are only likely to grow. The Kingdom’s Vision 2030 strategy, launched in 2016, set out a timetable for economic diversification and social reform.
“The sky is the limit,” she said, noting health care, education, research and development, and cybersecurity as areas of mutual interest between the two countries. There is a “big move” toward renewables as well, she said.
The film and cinema industry is opening up to outside investment, following a decision in December to lift the 35-year ban on cinemas in the Kingdom. Last month, the UK-based cinema chain Vue International signed an agreement with a Saudi partner to open about 30 multiplexes in the Kingdom.
“I think the focus of the visit is going to be geared more toward business and Vision 2030. There is a tremendous move in Saudi Arabia, and things are moving very fast,” she said.
“It is very important that the UK embarks and becomes a strategic partner in this whole vision.
“I would like the government to encourage the private sector in the UK. People need to be reassured — and if the government reassures them, they are more comfortable and will have a better appetite for working with Saudi Arabia,” she said.
AlShuaiby explained that some UK businesses, particularly small-to-medium-sized firms, are reluctant to operate in the Kingdom due to “old stereotypes” about the country.
“British businesses are still a little bit cautious about doing business in Saudi Arabia,” she said, referring to concerns about the country’s business climate and the law surrounding commercial disputes. She insisted that “things have changed” with regard to the legal system.
“We need a different way of viewing things. Not the average stereotype of Saudi Arabia — the desert and camel. That is part of our history and our culture, and we are proud of it, but we have also built skyscrapers. It is a very modern country,” she said.
AlShuaiby called on larger UK firms already active in the Kingdom to “mentor” smaller companies.
AlShuaiby’s comments are backed up by a recent World Bank report, “Doing Business in 2018,” which found that the Kingdom had implemented six key reforms last year, the largest number in the Middle East and North Africa region.
The report, published in December, said it was now easier to start a business, register property, enforce contracts and trade across borders in the Kingdom. The bank’s country director for Saudi Arabia, Nadir Mohammed, said such efforts “send a strong signal to investors interested in investing in the Kingdom.”
Given these improvements, AlShuaiby warns that Saudi Arabia is no longer a place to fly in and out of to make a quick buck. Only “serious” UK investors are wanted, she said.
“This is the message I would like to send out — is we need a long-term sustainable partner. We want to be partners for a long time,” she said.
“We need a bigger British presence in Saudi Arabia. We want serious people who are willing to pay for their plane ticket and a couple of nights’ hotel (accommodation) and have organized meetings with an objective. That’s what we are looking for,” she said.


Called to the barre: Saudi ballet gets its groove on

Ballet’s popularity is growing among different age groups. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)
Updated 15 December 2018
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Called to the barre: Saudi ballet gets its groove on

  • Widad Al-Kibsi, a Saudi ballet instructor at the studio, said that people in Jeddah were now familiar with ballet
  • A 13-year-old student at the studio, Oroub Al-Shareef, said that she began ballet when she was 4 years old

JEDDAH: Ballet, one of the world’s most demanding art forms, is enjoying soaring popularity in Saudi Arabia as a new generation discovers its physical, mental and social benefits, and a Jeddah-based studio is at the forefront of the dance’s development in the Kingdom.
Sera McKnass, founder of iBallerina, said that the studio is shaping future ballerinas to be effective members of society.
“The goal is not only to pass on the art of ballet but also to raise up participants into healthy, classy and confident, caring individuals,” the 30-year-old Turkish-Lebanese master teacher said.
Ballet’s popularity is growing among different age groups.
“Mothers sign up their daughters to be trained as ballerinas, but now young adults have dreams of learning how to pirouette, chasse and jete,” McKnass told Arab News. “They come to iBallerina to start the journey and transform their souls and bodies, becoming stronger and more graceful women.”
Widad Al-Kibsi, a Saudi ballet instructor at the studio, said that people in Jeddah were now familiar with ballet. “It's now in most of the main gyms, and private or international schools in the city.”
The 20-year-old advises aspiring ballerinas to start at a young age. “It’s important to start early because improved strength and flexibility are easily acquired at a younger age.”
Ballet offers myriad physical benefits, she said. “It improves muscle tone and definition, elongates arms, and aligns the posture properly.”
Al-Kibsi said that while many Saudis saw ballet as an activity for children, “not a lot of them are aware that adults can also perform. They assume that you should be thin or flexible from the get-go. They don’t understand that with dedication and discipline, ballet strengthens and increases flexibility.”
Dana Garii, a 23-year-old Saudi writer, has been practicing ballet at the studio since February.
“I’ve been wanting to do it since I was young, but I couldn’t find the opportunity. When I found they have classes here, I just went for it. People asked me, ‘aren’t you too old?’ But that’s a myth. People think you can’t do ballet after a certain age, but you can start any time,” she told Arab News.
“Ballet is important to me. It’s more than just the physical aspects — it has taught me how to be modest, and that nothing hard ever comes easy.
“It has also taught me patience and how to take on difficult situations because it’s not only difficult physically but also psychologically. It has taught me how to overcome my fears,” Garii said.
A 13-year-old student at the studio, Oroub Al-Shareef, said that she began ballet when she was 4 years old.
“There was a TV show for kids about the mouse that did ballet (‘Angelina Ballerina’) and it inspired me. I’ve always wanted to be a ballerina,” she said.
“Ballet is very important to me. Dance is one of the ways I express myself and I feel at one with myself when I’m practicing.
“It’s a very hard thing to do, but it brings me so much joy.”
Saudi graphic designer Sara Al-Sabaan, 22, has also been practicing ballet since she was a young child.
“I started dancing in a ballet school in Guadalajara, in Mexico. Then I continued at the Kinetico dance school in Riyadh,” she said.
Al-Sabaan’s mother inspired her to take up the art form. “I’m following in her footsteps. She was a ballet dancer herself.”
The young dancer has watched ballet’s growth in popularity. “Dance classes were available when I was a child, but they have been most popular in the past decade.”
Practicing ballet is a form of self-expression, she said.
“I have danced modern, contemporary and classical ballet, and it affects me immensely. Not only is it a great physical activity, it’s also an outlet for self-expression through movement.”