Saudi Vision 2030 presents growth opportunities for US business

Ed Burton, president of the US-Saudi Arabia Business Council.
Updated 20 March 2018

Saudi Vision 2030 presents growth opportunities for US business

DUBAI: Ed Burton is the president and chief executive officer of the US-Saudi Arabia Business Council, based in Washington DC, whose job is to promote and facilitate business and trade between the two countries. As he and his fellow executives prepare for the royal visit to the US, he tells Arab News how he sees the challenges and opportunities of a growing business relationship.

Q: How do you assess the current state of US-Saudi business relations?
The US and Saudi Arabia enjoy a strong economic relationship, as the US is the Kingdom’s largest trading partner, and Saudi Arabia is one of the largest US export markets in the Middle East. At the Riyadh summit last May, more than $200 billion of commercial agreements were announced between Saudi and American companies.

Q: How does Saudi Arabia’s position in the world affect business relations?
Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical role in the region and globally has grown proportionately to the challenges and crises that both neighbor the Kingdom and that it has been forced to deal with given its own security concerns and its responsibilities to protect those within its borders. The US, under the leadership of President Trump, has recognized the importance of Saudi Arabia as an important strategic partner in addressing these challenges and crises. I firmly believe those bonds will continue to grow in a healthy way and reach new levels over the next 10 years.
As private sectors in the two countries seek new alliances and collaborative relationships, the rapid development of new industries in Saudi Arabia, enhanced integration of its local workforce and expanded localization of Saudi enterprise in serving the needs of the Kingdom will continue to create opportunities for American and Saudi companies.

Q: What kinds of US companies are doing business in Saudi Arabia now?
In the early years, the American presence in the Kingdom was largely limited to major companies involved in defense and energy. However, as this relationship has evolved over the past several decades, we have seen a shift toward companies of all sizes and industries entering the market, whether that is via direct export, establishing sales offices or distributors, or creating partnerships with Saudi firms. Medium-sized companies are discovering partners that are actively searching for US firms with technical expertise and quality products for a customer base that increasingly enjoys the “Made in USA” label. Meanwhile, large corporations are realizing that the Saudi government is encouraging investment and technology transfer with highly competitive loan programs, industrial utility rates, and very favorable tax regimes.

Q: What helps them succeed?
Our best success stories come from companies with defined goals and a willingness to take the time to understand and invest in the market. For some companies, that means having the patience and financial resources to explore partners, comply with regulations and establish a steady stream of receivables and payments. It is each company’s unique situation and demands that allow us to tailor a solution that ultimately benefits them and their Saudi partners. Keep in mind that for every American company we are successful in facilitating into the Saudi market, there is a Saudi company or government entity that will gain a new partner, investor or supplier.

Q: What industry sectors in the Kingdom are being prioritized for inward investment?
With Vision 2030 and the National Transformation Program, Saudi Arabia’s private sector is undergoing unprecedented growth resulting from the government’s economic diversification and liberalization drive. Almost every economic sector in the Kingdom is being overhauled to reduce layers of bureaucracy and stimulate private initiative. These include not only the commonly thought of sectors such as energy, petrochemicals, construction and power generation, but also health care, education, automotive and telecommunications, among others.

Q: How can the US participate in applying Vision 2030 in Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has already created billions of dollars’ worth of trade and investment opportunities for US companies across a wide array of industries. Business activities within the Saudi private sector are growing. And within the council, we have recorded a large uptick in the number of American companies contacting us for assistance in market entry or expansion within the Kingdom. The bottom line deliverable of the business council is building partnerships between US and Saudi companies, as well as access to information and to senior decision-makers in both the government and private sector.

How ‘Absher’ app liberates Saudis from government bureaucracy

The Absher website also provides information on how to report wanted persons, or administrative or financial corruption. (Supplied)
Updated 17 February 2019

How ‘Absher’ app liberates Saudis from government bureaucracy

  • Western media mistaken in portraying app as a tool of repression, leading female journalist says

JEDDAH: Absher, the “one-click” e-services app launched by the Interior Ministry in 2015, is now regarded as the leading government platform for Saudi citizens, freeing them from bureaucratic inefficiency and endless queuing for everyday services.
However, in a recent New York Times article, the app was criticized as a “tool of repression” following claims by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and women’s rights groups.
Apple and Google were urged to remove the application from their devices over claims that it “enables abhorrent surveillance and control of women.”
In an official statement, the ministry rejected the allegations and said the Absher platform centralized more than 160 different services for all members of society, including women, the elderly and people with special needs.
The app makes electronic government services available for beneficiaries to access directly at any time and from any place in the Kingdom, the ministry said.
Absher allows residents of the Kingdom to make appointments, renew IDs, passports, driver’s licenses, car registration and other services with one click.
Many Saudis still recall having to queue at government agencies, such as passport control offices and civil affairs departments, for a variety of official procedures. Appointments could take weeks to arrange, with people relying on their green files, or “malaf allagi” — the 1980s and 1990s paper form of Absher that was known as the citizen’s “lifeline,” both figuratively and literally.
Hours would be spent as government departments ferried files back and forth, and if a form was lost, the whole transaction process would have to start again. As complicated as it was for men, women suffered more.
Muna Abu Sulayman, an award-winning strategy adviser and media personality, told Arab News the introduction of Absher had helped strengthen women’s rights.
Sulayman said she was disappointed at comments on the e-services platform being made abroad. “There are consequences that people don’t understand. It’s a very idealistic and naive way of understanding what is going on,” she said.
“The discussion on the guardianship law is internal and ongoing — it is something that has to be decided by our society and not as a result of outside pressure. We’re making strides toward equality and Absher is a step in the right direction,” she said.
“In a Twitter survey, I asked how many women have access to their guardian’s Absher. Most answered that they control their own fate. Men who don’t believe in controlling women gave them access to their Absher and that shows an increase in the participation of women in their own decision-making.”
Absher also provides services such as e-forms, dealing with Hajj eligibility, passport control, civil affairs, public services, traffic control, and medical appointments at government hospitals.
The platform is available to all men and women, and removes much of the bureaucracy and time wasting associated with nonautomated administrative systems.
On the issue of granting women travel permits, the law requires a male guardian to grant it through the portal, as well as for men under the age of 21.
Retired King Abdullah University professor Dr. Zainab M. Zain told Arab News: “I always had issues with my passport renewal as well as my children’s as they are both non-Saudi. For years it was risky not to follow up properly at passport control — you never knew what could happen, but now I can renew their permits by paying their fees online through Absher from the comfort of my home in Abu Dhabi.”
Ehsanul Haque, a Pakistani engineer who has lived in the Kingdom for more than 30 years, said: “Absher has helped tremendously with requests, such as exit and entry visas for my family and myself. I can receive approval within an hour whereas once it would’ve taken me days,” he said.
“The platform has eased many of my troubles.”
The Absher website also provides information on how to report wanted persons, or administrative or financial corruption.
In April, 2018, the ministry launched “Absher Business,” a technical initiative to transfer its business services to an interactive digital system.
With an annual fee of SR2,000 ($533), business owners such as Marwan Bukhary, owner of Gold Sushi Club Restaurant in Jeddah, used the portal to help manage his workers’ needs in his expanding business.
“There are many features in Absher that helps both individual and establishment owners,” he said. “I took advantage of the great features it provided, and it saved me a lot of time and trouble and also my restaurant workers. It’s a dramatic change. When Absher Business was launched last year, it organized how I needed to manage my workers’ work permits.
“Through the system, I could see the status of all my employees, renew their permits, grant their exit and entry visas, and have their permits delivered to my house or my business through the post after paying the fees. It saved business owners a lot of time and energy.
“I used to have to do everything manually myself or have my courier help. I believe it’s the government’s most advanced system yet with more features being added every now and then,” Bukhary said.
“Absher has eased our burden, unlike the old days when we needed to visit government offices and it would take four weeks just to get an appointment. One click is all it takes now.”