‘For Germany, Saudi Arabia is a strategic partner’

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Updated 05 February 2013
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‘For Germany, Saudi Arabia is a strategic partner’

The German government has announced plans to set up a language center in Riyadh to teach German to Saudis in order to familiarize them with the European economic and cultural giant. German Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Dieter W. Haller, made the announcement during an exclusive interview with Siraj Wahab and Saeed Al-Asmari of Arab News in Dammam this past weekend. The center is expected to open around the middle of this year.
Following are excerpts from the interview:
You have just inaugurated the German visa center in Alkhobar. What is its significance? How important is this step?
The ties between our two countries are expanding. There is huge interest among the peoples of both countries in each other. The business and tourist traffic between the two countries has risen sharply in recent years. Eastern Province is the industrial and economic powerhouse of the Kingdom. Previously all those intending to visit Germany from here had to visit Riyadh to apply for a visa at our embassy. Now they have this service right here. We have started this center with the help of VFS Global to make things easy for those who want to connect with Germany.

When you say there is increased interest, can you please provide us some concrete figures?
Our embassy in Riyadh processed more than 43,000 visas in 2012. This figure is significantly higher than the one in 2011. In 2011, we had 24,000 visa applicants.

How many German nationals are there in the Eastern Province?
We have between 500 and 600 German nationals in this region. I know this is a small number but most of them are highly educated and hold high positions. They are either representing German companies or are working in Saudi companies.

So those applying for a German visa will get a Schengen visa through this center, right?
Right. But I am sure you are aware of the fact that a person who is applying for a Schengen visa will have to apply for it at the consulate or embassy of the country which is the main destination of the visit. The main destination is understood to be the destination where the applicant intends to spend the longest time or where the main purpose of the intended journey is carried out. If a main destination cannot be identified, it is the country of first entry into the Schengen zone.

What is being done from your side to enhance interaction between the two sides?
We have considerably increased the number of multi-entry visas. When I took over at the German Embassy in Riyadh in mid-2011, we issued only 5 percent multiple-entry visas. Now it is 67 percent. We are issuing multiple-entry visas for Saudi businessmen and medical tourists. The visa validity is between 1 and 5 years. We think this is an enormous contribution to facilitate the growing interaction. This has been done because we know that Saudi businessmen travel at very short notice for meetings and trade fairs in Germany. We have made it easier for them by issuing multiple-entry visas. We would like to encourage all applicants to hand in their papers as early as possible, especially for the peak holiday season.

What is the state of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Germany?
For us, the Kingdom is a strategic partner. With no other country in the Arab world do we have such a multifaceted and broad-based relationship. This is reflected in many areas. Trade is one of them. Last year, we saw an enormous increase in the two-way trade. The trade volume has now reached a threshold of 10 billion euros. This is more than SR 50 billion. Saudi exports to Germany have increased more than 100 percent, however, from a low level. The trade balance is in our favor.

Can you tell us about the German companies in the Kingdom and if they engaged in technology transfer as well?
Yes, our German companies are not only interested in exporting their products to the Kingdom but they have also decided to invest in the production facilities here. Last year, we had three major strategic decisions. First was about Siemens investing $ 380 million in the establishment of a gas turbine plant in Dammam. That is very, very important because Siemens will be creating 2,000 jobs. Apart from the production plans, Siemens will establish a center of excellence that aims at transferring know-how to the Kingdom. The second strategic investment decision was by the Linde group. They want to establish a network for the supply of natural gas to Saudi Aramco, Sadara and other petrochemical companies. This is also a very, very big investment because Linde is part of our industrial landscape. The third strategic decision was made by the German construction company called Hochtief. It is partnering with a Saudi firm to execute the housing program in the Eastern Province initiated by the Ministry of Housing. In the first phase, they intend to build thousands of housing units, including villas and apartments. The German giant will be using the latest technology, and these villas and apartments will be highly energy efficient. All these major decisions concern the Eastern Province. This should give you an idea as to why we are here in Alkhobar.

How is the scene on the Saudi side? Has getting visas for German businessmen become easier?
The Saudi authorities are doing everything possible to facilitate the interaction. I have been informed that the Saudi government has now decided to officially involve VFS in the visa application process. I am told VFS will soon open a similar center in Berlin, in our capital. That should make things pretty easy.

You talked about trade, but what about cultural and educational interaction? How many Saudi students are studying in German institutes and universities?
We have about 1,000 Saudi students in Germany. A lot needs to be done on that front. We see big room for improvement. The basic hurdle is the language. We are a highly advanced and wonderful country, but language can sometimes be a barrier. Ours is not an easy language but one can learn it. This is the reason that our government has, in close consultation with the Saudi government, decided to set up a full-fledged language center in Riyadh. By doing so, we hope to be more attractive to Saudi students. The language center will be supervised by the embassy. We are currently organizing language courses with the help of professors from King Saud University. We have around 350 language students. We want to professionalize these courses and that is why we are going to open the new language center, hopefully, by the middle of this year.

Final comments?
We encourage all Saudi citizens to explore Germany. Not just for doing business. We still remain a very strong economy — in fact, the strongest in Europe. We are a country of rich culture and full of touristic and historic sites. We don’t want to compete with the French as far as food is concerned, but we have a lot to offer. We are a country of diversity from the north to the south to the Bavarian mountains. Come and see for yourself.


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
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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.”