The island’s Ambassador Mohamed Hussein Mohammed, who was the former mayor of Colombo, hoped the new reign under President Sirisena will give a fresh impetus to the people and their government for the progress and prosperity of the nation.
The envoy said that he feels that he is blessed to serve his countrymen from this holy land, which not only serves the Muslims but also it provides a pleasant home to people of many faiths from several countries around the globe.
Hussein Mohammed was talking to Arab News on the eve of his country’s 67th anniversary of the independence day.
Spelling out the bilateral relations between the Sri Lanka and the Kingdom, the envoy said it is deeply rooted with a perpetual commitment to take the ties between the island and the Kingdom to greater heights .
“Ever since we established diplomatic relations with the Kingdom in July 1974, the two countries have been maintaining excellent relations in social, cultural, political and economic fields,” the diplomat said, adding that the relationship with Saudi Arabia is significant not only because it is home to nearly 550,000 Sri Lankans but also it is a holy land for the Muslims, who make up around seven percent of the country’s 24 million population.
A large number of Sri Lankan Muslims regularly come for the annual Haj and for Umrah throughout the year.
“We are ever thankful to the Saudi leadership for the special care given to the Muslims from all parts of the world including Sri Lanka,” he said.
“We sincerely trust and hope, with the new leadership of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosque King Salman and President Sirisena back home, the relations between the two countries could forge ahead,” the envoy noted.
Several government and non-governmental organizations in the Kingdom have been cooperating with their counterparts in Sri Lanka to develop various infrastructure and socio-economic projects in the island, he said, pointing out the contributions made by organizations such as the Islamic Development Bank,(IDB) Muslim World League, (MWL) World Assembly of Muslim Youth (Wamy), Saudi Fund For Development (SFD) and the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC).
The Saudi Fund for Development (SFD) has been instrumental in financing several projects in the island. It has helped the island to build a National Trauma Center and an Epilepsy Hospital in Colombo.
With SFD’s assistance, Sri Lanka built a bridge which links the Eastern town of Trincomalee with Kinniya, a Muslim village whose 100,000 population was facing a huge transport problem to cross the lagoon between the two points. Earlier, they were using ferry as their mode of transport to come to Trincomalee, the north-eastern capital of the island. The Trincomalee- Batticaloa highway was also widened with the same funds allocated under the agreement .
In the early 1980s, the Kingdom gave financial assistance to Sri Lanka for various projects.
In 1981, SR99.9 million in credit was extended by the Kingdom for the second stage of the water supply and sewage project and another SR48.1 million for the Mahaweli Ganga Development project system B. In 1984 the Kingdom provided SR85 million for the Mahaweli Ganga Development Project system B left bank.
The IDB has been giving scholarships for outstanding Sri Lankan students, who are selected for universities to follow courses in engineering, medicine and information technology.
Recently, it donated $200 million for an extension project to Zahira College Colombo.A polyclinic is to be set up in the heart of Colombo to help the less fortunates to get their medical treatment funded by IDB.
With 22 percent stake from the IDB, Amanah Bank,the first Islamic bank in the island, was set up two years ago.
The Sri Lankan Embassy in the Kingdom was established in Jeddah in late 1981, which was reciprocated by the Kingdom with a Saudi mission in Colombo 1994 with Ali Al-Zahrani as its charge d’ affaires. Subsequently, the Saudi mission was elevated to ambassadorial status with the appointment of Mohamed Mahmud Al-Ali as its first ambassador in 2001.
This year, he said Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia will sign an agreement on “domestic worker recruitment” to streamline the process of recruitment and to protect the rights of both the employer and the domestic workers.
It is designed to enhance cooperation on domestic worker recruitment in a manner that realizes the strategic interests of both countries. Recruitment will be done through mega recruiting companies in the Kingdom, he said.
“The signing of the General Agreement on Economic, Trade, Investment, Scientific, Technical, Cultural, Youth and Sports Cooperation between the two countries was a landmark event in the bilateral relations between the two countries,” the envoy said, adding that it paved the way for new areas of cooperation in various fields.
As a result, he said Saudi investors have begun to show more interests in the island since it safeguards the interests of investors from both countries.
Sri Lankan exports to the Kingdom are tea, garments, coir, fiber, fruits and vegetables, cut-flowers, leather goods and porcelain products.
The two countries also enjoy a contract to incorporate the rights and privileges of employees as well as the employers.
“It has cut down several labor problems and has increased the number of Sri Lankans coming into the Kingdom,” the ambassador said pointing out that it has also eliminated the corruption of the middlemen in the recruitment process.
To open new trading opportunities for businessmen in all parts of the globe, including Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka has also opened an online trading platform.
Sri Lanka’s Export Development Board (EDB) which is at the forefront of developing the island’s products and services has a website, srilankabusiness.com is the portal for leveraging the Internet for showcasing the country’s products and services in the world market. It has drawn up a five year plan from 2015 to 2020 to promote the country’s products in other parts of the world.
The Board of Investment (BOI) headquartered in Colombo offers a wide range of incentives for foreign investors.
He said plans are underway to set up the Saudi-Lanka joint Business Council which would open up new areas of cooperation between the two countries.
From the earliest times, the isle, dubbed as pearl of the Indian Ocean, has been a land of endless attractions for visitors from all parts of the world. UNESCO has designated five sites in Sri Lanka as World Heritage Sites.
“The tourists traffic from the Kingdom to Colombo has considerably increased and most of the Saudis are going either on business or leisure with their families.
“I am happy to note that the increased number of direct flights connecting Colombo and Riyadh, Dammam and Jeddah is also promoting trade, tourism, and people-to-people contact. Last year, over 76,000 Saudis visited Sri Lanka. Since tourism is the primary area facilitating people to people contact, this Embassy has streamlined its procedure of issuing visas through the ETA system.
Two community schools in Riyadh and Jeddah cater to the educational needs of Sri Lankans staying in the Kingdom .
Describing his country as an ideal tourist destination for a family holiday, he pointed out that the Saudi tourists are heavy spenders and they look for South Asian destinations for their holidays.
“We have many attractions to offer for Saudi tourists and we are making every effort to attract tourists from this part of the world,” he added.
He said that Saudi families who had visited Sri Lanka had always opted to repeat the visit because of the island’s natural scenic beauty and unique hospitality of its people.
“Muslim visitors will feel home in the city of Colombo since they could see mosques in the vicinity of every shopping center,” he said. In fact, he added that women in Hijab is a common sight in the city. ” A good number of Saudis are currently visiting Sri Lanka for their leisure and honeymoon.”
The island has some 20,000 quality rooms and it is studded with quality hotels such as Cinnamon Group of hotels such as Cinnamon Grand, Lake, Bay and Red, Taj Exotica, Light House, and Heritance Hotels, Kingsbury and Galadari for the comfort of luxury tourists.
Sri Lanka is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, several Buddhist andHindu temples, and other ancient monuments that serve as attractions for travelers. Adam’s Peak, a mountain in the Central Province with the shape of a footprint on its peak, is considered sacred in a number of religions.
The eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka include the central highlands area comprising of the Hortons Plains National Park and Knuckles Conservation Forest, the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, the Dutch Fort in Galle, the Golden Temple of Dambulla, the Temple of Tooth in Kandy, and the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, and Sigiriya.